First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am an academic paid by way of student tuition dollars. I make a good living doing what I do, but I teach because I love the challenge and the students and faculty I work with. If I wished, I could leave my current position and make more money in private practice if I went that route. It might take me a couple years to get up and running, but I have worked in sales on commission very successfully in the past and I know how to produce income were that my only goal in life.
I entered law school when I was 38 years old after 6 years in the Air Force and 6 years as a Regional Sales Manager for a Japanese tractor manufacturer. My 6-year stint in the Air Force was over when my commitment ended at the end of the Viet Nam war as an officer, and my position in sales ended when the company pulled their line of equipment out of the U.S. That left me with a decision about what I would do next? What career path offered me the greatest the income and flexibility I sought?
I liked sales but didn’t like the travel and time away from my family. I had a very good income and explored career opportunities that would give me the greatest freedom, an opportunity to make a living wage for as long as possible and a career that would be challenging and fulfilling. Although most of the lawyers and my mentor told me it was a bad idea, I choose to go to law school despite their advice. They were wrong. I was right.
Here is where I depart from many individuals telling students that law school is a bad idea because of significant student debt, the lack of opportunities, the changing nature of the legal services environment and the difficulty of passing the Bar.
Their statistics. I know, they give you a picture of averages and that is good to know. But the statistic you need to be concerned with is not the median income range, the top pay or lowest paid positions or the average of those in a particular class. The statistic that matters to you is 100%. That is your outcome. Your outcome is not dependent on the person sitting next to you in the Bar exam. You either pass or fail. The examiners don’t average everyone’s score to determine yours. Your outcome is always dependent on you, no one else. So, don’t be disillusioned by other’s failures. By the same token, don’t assume other’s successes will be yours. You are a class of one!
Income. You will be the one individual who produces income. This is unrelated to what others make in the field. Your income is independent of what the low mark or high mark might be. It is 100% about you. When commentators say that your income depends on graduating from a “top-tier law school”, they are wrong on two counts. First, where you graduate from does not cap your income. Graduates from all law schools earn variable incomes upon graduation. The acid test they apply is “upon graduation”. What about 5 years after graduation? Has anybody done a study to measure income levels at the 5-year point? I would venture a very strong guess that at the 5-year mark, you will find it is the great equalizer. That the average earnings curve is a bell-shaped curve with little correlation to which tier law school you hailed from. If you go solo your income is not capped, and your employer doesn’t care about the status of your law school.
Student debt – most commentators focus on the total debt at graduation and fail to underscore that law school debt is an investment in their earning potential right after graduation until they quit practicing law. For most attorneys, that period of productivity lasts well into their later years. One reason I went back to law school was the time that I could earn a living with that degree versus a profession that would depend on my physical stamina or other limiting factors. As an attorney, I could be blind, deaf, restricted to my bed and still be productive (in theory). There are many attorneys in their 70’s who continue to practice law. When you amortize the cost to obtain that education over time that career is practiced, it becomes much less onerous. But there are things one can do to minimize debt. One is to attend law school part-time and continue working to pay as you go. The law school tuition advertised doesn’t factor in the number of students eligible for scholarships and the actual tuition paid. I graduated from law school with virtually no debt because I worked while attending law school and many of the “lower tier” law schools offer very flexible schedules, including weekend programs like the one my law school offers allowing students to continue to work and not have to relocate to attend law school.
The changing nature of legal services. There are many changes afoot in this arena, but it is not the end of lawyers I foresee. It is the end of lawyering practiced as we have known it to be. But that is not a bad thing. Using technology gives laypersons greater access to information and the ability to draft documents and represent themselves in court. Two states have authorized non-lawyers to engage in limited legal services and the internet is rife with websites that offer non-lawyers various tools to “do it yourself”. But there is another side to this coin. If offers greater flexibility and more tools for new lawyers just starting practice. Now, you can start a practice with a laptop, smartphone, and a virtual office. You need no hard-copy law library with supplements and required subscriptions. You need no brick and mortar office to start with and you are not alone anymore with the numerous listservs that abound. You can operate in a paperless environment in the cloud and conduct business on Miami Beach for clients in another state if you wish. You couldn’t do that effectively 20-25 years ago. It allows you to focus and narrow your practice areas and to reach them using social media at no cost eliminating the need to pay for yellow pages and other forms of paid advertising.
Where I see lawyer failures are where they fail to see the opportunities in front of them, or they see them but fail to take advantage of them. I coach students in preparing business plans before graduation under a very systematic program called Solo by Design and those students go out with their eyes wide open to the possibilities. The lawyers who fail are those that fail to plan and take clients as they come through the door without a clear strategy.
There are more opportunities than ever in the practice of law these days. Fewer students are graduating from law school and more attorneys are aging out than ever before. Mark my word, I predict a shortage of legal professionals in the next ten years. Your chances for success are more a function of your work ethic than blinding a judge with your brilliance. Pass the Bar and the doors will open. It is up to you, you are the 100% statistic and that is all that matters.
WMU-Cooley Professor Gary Bauer, an ABA Solo and Small Firm Trainer award winner, teaches Estate Planning to third-year law students and a directed study class he created called Solo By Design. His blog, sololawyerbydesign.com, provides law students, recent solo practitioners, and seasoned professionals who wish to go solo, with information and resources to be successful in the legal business. This blog is reprinted with permission of the author and was originally posted August 17, 2018.