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First, Make a Case: Is Law School for You?

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page K01

As law school acceptance and rejections start rolling in this time of year, many young workers find themselves at a crossroads.

Should they go to the best private school they got into, despite the price tag? Or would the state school do the job at a fraction of the cost? Part time or full time?

The most important question -- but the one they are likely to forget to ask at all -- is whether they should be going to law school in the first place.

"Should You Really Be a Lawyer?" by Deborah Schneider and Gary Belsky (Niche Press, $21.95) aims to help would-be law students answer this question by sorting through the most common mistakes in the decision-making process. (Schneider and Belsky's book also addresses whether current law students and even practicing lawyers should stick with the field.)

Borrowing a framework from behavioral economics, the authors walk prospective students through a series of assessments designed to tease out people's real motivations for going to law school. Quotes from practicing and non-practicing lawyers add perspective.

The book is a valuable guide for anyone considering going to law school, but especially for those bright liberal arts majors who find themselves in a panic about what they'll do after graduation, and coming up blank, march off like little 1L lemmings.

Have any of the following assumptions been part of your reason for applying to law school?

• A law degree is a valuable credential even if you don't intend to practice law.

• A law degree opens doors and teaches you how to think.

• You can do anything with a law degree.

If so, you've fallen into the "Rules of Thumb" trap. As the authors point out, these kinds of shortcuts are essential to getting through the day. However, they are not a reliable way to make such an expensive, life-changing decision as whether to attend law school.

Another unreliable way to decide: Listening only to people who confirm your decision to attend. Family members are especially adept in bringing on this sort of pressure. "I went to law school because my mother said I was a good diplomat and would make a good lawyer," said one of the former lawyers interviewed by Schneider and Belsky. "I wish she had told me I was diplomatic and would make a good diplomat."

If mom and dad are so gung-ho about law school, hand them the applications. It's not like there's an age cap on taking the LSAT.

Schneider and Belsky encourage would-be law students to really consider the cost of attending law school. The debts you take on, and the opportunity costs of spending three years of your life pursuing this degree will have an impact on the rest of your life. Once you're in school, it's hard to fight the momentum that will keep you there, and then sweep you into a career you may not be suited for.

And yet, law school applicants rarely perform even basic number-crunching before signing up for the LSAT, Schneider and Belsky contend. As a result, while half of all law students come in saying they want to do public interest work, less than 4 percent wind up in such fields -- mainly because of their debt loads, which can easily reach six-figures.

They've fallen for another common trap, "Ignoring the Base Rate." That trap is commonly coupled with a third one, "Overconfidence," Schneider and Belsky say, and together they present serious obstacles to gathering the information you need to make a good decision.

Even those who set their sights on the big firms, and the fat paychecks they bring, are often deluding themselves about what life as a lawyer is really like. Instead of fantasizing about jaguars and Italian suits, they ought to be calling up a few young associates and asking for the real scoop on "billable hours." (How much fun is it to own a snazzy car when you don't drive it home from the office until 10 p.m.?)

There is no right or wrong answer about whether to attend law school, Schneider and Belsky write, "but the right way to decide is to identify your career goals, talk to a lot of practicing and non-practicing lawyers, and to expose yourself to legal and non-legal work."

In other words, "I just always knew I would be a lawyer" doesn't cut it.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter and guest Deborah Schneider at 2 p.m. May 6 for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/liveonline/jobs/careertrack. E-mail Slayter at slayterme@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company