"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
April 18, 2013
Should I Go to Law School?
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


I am getting divorced, and will need to get a job. In college, I had always considered law school — it seems interesting and like something I would be good at. Also, I don’t think my degree in history qualifies me for any jobs I would actually want. A law degree would at least qualify me for lots of jobs, and there is a well-regarded regional law school close to my home.

But I’m concerned about my ability to go back to school and work after all these years, especially with four young children at home.

What do you think?


Well, do you have four years and $200,000? It’s going to take that long when you include the LSAT and application process. And it’s going to cost about that much, even at a lower-cost school.

Are you prepared to graduate with a job that pays $60,000 a year but still requires ten- or twelve-hour days? Will you be able to make your loan payments on that salary?

Remember college? Are you ready to do that again, but with a more rigorous curriculum, more competitive classmates, higher stakes, and four children?

Will your custody agreement give you the flexibility to move to another city or out of state for a job?

What percentage of the graduates from this law school you are considering have full-time, J.D.-requiring jobs within six months of graduation? What are the salaries of those jobs?

Do you want to be a lawyer? Do you know what lawyers actually do all day long?

Do you like stress? How about pressure? How about people being constantly upset with you?

Are you ready to hire a nanny and housekeeper and trust them to do a large part of the job you’ve been doing for your children? How will you pay for their services while you are in school?

If this sounds discouraging, it’s meant to be! Following a dream to law school is a very bad idea unless you have a clear and realistic plan for what you are going to do with the degree and how you are going to pay for it.

First, don’t even consider law school unless you actually want to practice law.

The point of law school is to become a lawyer. You’ll hear from lots of people that it’s a good all-purpose degree that qualifies you for lots of jobs, but I don’t think that’s true. Law schools love to say that they teach their students how to think like lawyers, but I don’t think that’s true, either.

In my experience, law school prepares you to be a lawyer, and being a lawyer teaches you to think like a lawyer. I can’t think of any non-law job in which the information you learned in law school actually qualifies you to make legal conclusions absent further training.

And if you are not going to practice law, why on earth would you spend three years of your life and over a hundred thousand dollars for a law degree? Especially when, as in your case, that degree is not going to be from a big-name, national law school that causes employers to say, “Wow!” and imply all sorts of other flattering things about you.

Also, a law degree may make you appear over qualified for many non-law jobs.

(Perhaps you need a terminal degree, which a J.D. is, for some specific reason. It might be worth it then. Maybe.)

Second, consider the hours you will have to work.

Law school is time consuming. You have to attend class and study and maybe write a paper.

But the actual practice of law is much more demanding. An entry-level job that pays well (and many that don’t pay well) will require you to work ten to twelve hours every day.

You will be expected to come in early and stay until the work is done. There will be deadlines and emergencies that must be handled no matter how much you want or need to go home. And you will be expected to act excited about the opportunity to prove yourself by working extra hard on everything.

Further, if you choose to work in a firm, there will be very little flexibility for the first three to five years. If you want to advance your career, you can’t be leaving early (even if you came in early) or asking to work from home or turning down projects because of family responsibilities.

And if you don’t actively try to advance your career, you will likely be shown the door after a few years. I don’t know any part-time attorneys who did not make partner before they went part time. And I only know one part-time attorney.

What this means for you is a lot of time away from your children. Are you willing to spend only an hour a day with them? Are you willing to not see them some days? You will need to hire a full-time nanny or have the world’s most flexible babysitter. Someone will need to drive the kids everywhere they need to go, make and serve dinner (you won’t be home by 6), supervise homework, clean the house, walk the dog, and do the laundry.

You don’t have to work at a firm, of course, but jobs with easier hours usually pay significantly less.

Which brings us to the third point: money.

Law school, even with grants and scholarships (if you can get one) and loan forgiveness (if you can get that), is extremely expensive. Student loans stay with you forever — they don’t even go away in bankruptcy. And the interest racks up even while you are still in school and even if your loans are in deferment.

You must be realistic about the job prospects presented by the school you intend to attend. Don’t assume you’ll be the top of your class, the one person who gets the one job out there that pays well and has reasonable hours. Assume you’ll be in the middle of your class. When you look at the school’s employment statistics, see what kinds of jobs those students get and what they earn.

Then run the numbers: What will your education cost? Include tuition, fees, books, a computer, lost wages, transportation, child care, living expenses, professional clothing — everything you will have to pay for while you are in school. How will you pay for it?

How much are you likely to make after you graduate? Will that be enough to cover your loan payments after taxes and tithing and the mortgage and child care?

How much will you have left over to live on? Are you willing to work long hours for that standard of living? How long it will take you to repay your loans?

Make sure you will not be saddling yourself with an insurmountable mountain of debt that will limit your ability to move, change careers, or remarry, all for the privilege of being an attorney and working ten to twelve hours a day.

This calculus applies to anyone considering law school, not just you.

Finally, whatever you do, do not think of this decision in terms of, “Do I have what it takes?” This is not about your commitment or willpower or intelligence or ability to work hard. This is about looking at your responsibilities and your resources and making a wise decision.

Being an attorney is fantastic, but it is not the only profession that is interesting and intellectually stimulating.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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