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Why Go to Law School
By Benjamin Shute

Nobody has the answers you’re looking for. No matter how many times you type, “Should I go to law school?” into a Google search bar, you are bound to get little more than a homogenous collection of common sense advice. You may find a few thoughtful observations hidden within the clickbait, but most of it will tell you what you should already know.

A legal education is wildly expensive. Interest rates on loans are openly predatory, and it could take 30 years to pay off your debt. Law school is incredibly challenging as well. Plenty of bright students work long hours just to land in the center of the grade curve. A law degree is no longer a one-way ticket to the upper-middle class either. Since 2008 law firms have reevaluated traditional fee structures, and while the legal market has seen an uptick here and there, the sectoral trend shows new-attorney hiring resting comfortably at a plateau.

To be sure, these points are worthy of consideration. A law degree is an investment that involves undeniable risks. It would be disingenuous to ignore them. Still, of the bitter blog posts and Buzzfeed quizzes you will find, each tends to overlook the deeper, existential questions that lie at the heart of that Google search. When asking whether you should go to law school, you aren’t really looking for basic facts about interest rates or the minimum GPA you need to get into Harvard. Nobody really bases their life choices on banal trivia. What you’re really asking is, What do I want out of my life? Will law school help give it to me? And why should I commit to the practice of law?

Don’t do it for the money. You can certainly make a comfortable living as an attorney. Law firms pay generous salaries for talented young lawyers, and while a career in public service pays considerably less, it is entirely sufficient to live a life in financial security. If money is what you’re after, however, get an MBA. A business degree will undoubtedly provide a larger return on your investment over time. Your earning potential is significantly higher as well. The ceiling in finance or venture capital extends far beyond what you’ll find at your average law firm. If money is your motive, a law degree is a poor choice.

Don’t do it for the image. Many undergraduates grew up watching Law and Order or Suits, picturing themselves as one of these powerful characters. Over time pop culture has woven these narratives together in a way that creates an alluring image for us to emulate. These are powerful myths, but ones that are altogether synthetic. To be sure, it may be hard to find someone who openly cites Harvey Specter as their inspiration for taking the LSAT, but these archetypes inform our cultural reverence for the legal profession. They draw us into a mirage. Many undergraduate students think they want to be a lawyer, but few have first-hand knowledge of what that means. They fall in love with the idea of the law, rather than the practice of it.

Don’t do it for an out. Plenty of students think of law school as a solution to a humanities degree. The humanities don’t often provide a direct path to gainful employment, and these students tend to have less professional work experience than others. Deloitte doesn’t exactly have an intern program for English majors. Moreover, students of humanities often see law school as the natural successor to their undergraduate program. A philosophy degree is a solid foundation for the study of law, if nothing else. These aren’t good enough reasons to invest three years of your life and a hundred thousand dollars. A law degree is simply too costly to just be a port in a storm.

Good reasons are hard to find. When I first applied to law school I didn’t have a firm answer either. I had done my research. I tried rationalizing the decision carefully as I poured over every blog post and NALP spreadsheet in existence. I calculated the cost of student loans. I spoke with attorneys to give me some perspective, and even tried to stop watching Jack McCoy. I took a hard look at my philosophy degree and what other options I had. This thoughtful deliberation was helpful, but it didn’t give me what I was looking for.

I eventually found my answer in Ms. Marie Sesay.1 During my senior year of college, I interned with a pro-bono immigration clinic in Washington D.C. I had no legal skills, and had never even held an office job before. To say that I had no idea what I was doing is a wild understatement.

In walked Marie. She was from Sierra Leone. In her sixties; she had grey hair, soft eyes, and a timid smile that was carefully designed to put you at ease. When she spoke she always looked down at the ground, as if she assumed she was speaking out of turn. The attorney asked me to review Marie’s affidavit with her for accuracy. She was applying for a green card through the VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) program. I didn’t know what VAWA—just one of the many confusing acronyms thrown around that day—meant, so I had no idea that she was a survivor of domestic abuse.

Marie and I sat down in a grey cubicle in the back corner. Our two chairs were awkwardly nestled around the small desk, her entire story lying dormant in her affidavit. Line by line, Marie told me about her life. When she was a young girl she was married off to a man in her village in Sierra Leone. Her husband was verbally, physically, and sexually abusive. He would rape her and beat her daily. She submitted to this life for decades. Marie explained that when she was much older she finally managed to run away. Through a friend in the United States, she found a one-way ticket to America. Well into her fifties at that time, she came here to grab hold of whatever life she had left.

When she landed in Dulles she thought she had made it. She found a job, an apartment, and even started a relationship with a new man. But he too was abusive. He would beat and rape her regularly. He kept her house keys, took her phone, and wouldn’t even let her turn on the lights without his permission. But he was a U.S. citizen. He held her path to lawful citizenship in his hands and constantly threatened to have her deported. Another decade of abuse passed, and Marie finally found her way to safety once again. She was living in a shelter now, but was still afraid her boyfriend would come take her away. Marie quietly choked through tears as she relived each traumatic memory. When it was over she thanked the attorney, and left. To her, it was just another step in her path to citizenship, and to safety. For me, it was the first time I ever had the opportunity to make even the smallest impact in someone else’s life.

This is where I found my answer. Sitting there with Marie, I knew absolutely nothing about being an attorney. I had never read a statute, never tried a case, and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about immigration law. I had no idea what kind of law I wanted to practice, where I wanted to work, or if I would even make it through law school. I still had a skewed perception of the legal field, and it would take time to really understand what I was getting into. But none of that mattered. At that moment I realized that even without any sense of direction, even without a compass pointing me to true north, a law degree was an incredible opportunity to do a world of good.

Ultimately, nobody has the answers you’re looking for; except you. You won’t decide to attend law school based on the calculated costs and benefits. Something else will take you there. You may not know where you want to go, what you want to study, or exactly what you want in life. The value of a law degree isn’t that it gives you the answers to those important questions. A law degree is what you make of it, and no matter what path you choose to take, a career in the law is a tremendous opportunity to work hard at work worth doing.

Benjamin Shute is an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Gloucester County, where he is responsible for prosecuting felony and misdemeanor offenses. He currently serves as the Young Lawyer’s Conference 6th District Representative. An Arlington County native, he was admitted to the Bar in October of 2016.


1The name of this client has been changed to respect her privacy and confidentiality.