Law School: What You’re Really Paying For

Not an Elle Columns, law school, Lawyer, Not an Elle 2 Comments

As my law school career draws to a close, and I realize so many of my friends without degrees are making more money now than I will when I graduate and (if I find a job) start working, I’ve increasingly thought about the actual costs of law school. What exactly am I paying for here? There are the obvious answers, like overhead and faculty and staff and administrator salaries. There are the clichéd answers as well, like getting a legal education and a J.D. and becoming a lawyer. And while all of those things are true, they don’t quite seem to cut it. So after doing some thinking, I came up with a list of 6 things I’m paying for, by way of my law school tuition.

  1. Continuing college. No undergrad ever believes the law school horror stories about reading and homework and workload. It’s not so much denial as an inflated sense of confidence about what you can handle. The justifications, “I didn’t know what else to do,” or “it seemed like a good idea,” or “I hoped the economy would get better while I was still in school,” are pretty common for law students. Plus, putting off the real world for 3 more years is pretty appealing, especially if you’ve got the grades for law school and lack a strong sense of direction. The real world does not offer a week off in November and March for no reason, and they expect you to work all year long. That’s a lot. By the time you realize that law school is not even a little like undergrad, it’s usually a little too late.
  2. A new way of thinking. Law school, theoretically, should teach you about the law, and about how to think like a lawyer. And it does, to a point. The more time you spend in law school, the less you notice the changes in your thinking. It’s most obvious during 1L, typically when you’re home on break talking with people that were smart enough not to go to law school. It’s not always in profound ways, but about the time you’re cringing when someone says “reasonable,” you realize things have changed inside your brain. Law school doesn’t really give you a skill, it doesn’t prepare you for the bar exam (if it did, you wouldn’t take a bar prep class), and it doesn’t prepare you for actual practice. But it does open your mind to new ideas, and at the very least, new ways of thinking, and that’s kind of neat.
  3. Exposure to other law students. I don’t mean getting sick or STIs or wardrobe malfunctions at Barrister’s Ball. If you’re in law school, you’re spending almost all of your time with a group of some of the best educated people in the country. Of course, some of those best educated people are incredibly immature and/or real douche bags, but learning to deal with them is definitely a life skill. So is managing to avoid getting sick when the entire classroom sounds like a pertussis vaccine advertisement.
  4. Learning how to deal with people at their worst. In the same vein as #3, you have the opportunity to work in clinics or internships and gain legal experience. Often that experience means interacting with the non-legal public who are in need of legal services. Witnesses, defendants, inmates, clients, people in desperate need of help, usually not having their finest hours, are coming to you. And you get to learn how you’re going to deal with that without any real consequences for messing up (so long as you’re not a complete asshat and your supervisor is paying close enough attention).
  5. Learning how to function at your worst. If you learn nothing else in law school, you’ll learn how to function in situations you didn’t think you could survive. You’ll figure out how to run on an hour of sleep before a four hour final, how to spend all day working or in class when you didn’t sleep at all the night before, and how to suppress all bodily functions until the moment the timer goes off at the end of an exam. You’ll force yourself through personal life crises or family emergencies solely because you have to; you don’t have time for a break down. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, and they aren’t experiences you’ll ever want to repeat. But when it hits the fan later in life, you’ll know what you’re capable of and what to do.
  6. Taking the bar exam. And of course, the bar exam. Some states let you sit for the bar if you do an apprenticeship (New York being one of them, but the apprenticeship is longer than law school, and we don’t recommend it). A handful of other states don’t require you to take the bar exam if you go to school in that state and graduate. But the vast majority of states want to see you graduate from an ABA accredited law school and pass their state’s bar exam, and the only way you can do that is by first going to law school.

So enjoy these extra “activities” while you can (if you can). They certainly won’t show up on your next bursar bill, but you’re paying for them every single day, in one way or another.


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  • thenambypamby

    You forgot that you are paying to put off real life.

  • SuperTimeBuffet

    I approve of using “best educated” in no. 3 rather than “most intelligent”.