Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Dean's Lament: I Wish I Had Never Gone to Law School

Jim Chen (Dean, Louisville), Just a Perfect Reflection:

As economic fortunes fall anew and fear runs rampant, legal education is experiencing another season of regret. Recent graduates and even some students have come to regret their decision to attend law school. They're hardly alone [except below].

Regret is nothing more than fermented wisdom, and I am a very wise man. There are moments when I fervently wish I could take my own academic advice, dispensed at greatest length in The Death of the Regulatory Compact: Sunk costs are just that, sunk. Time moves in one direction. So should we.

Bill Beane Hates the Mets, and So Do I:

Why do I hate credentials so much? I do hold a nice clutch of them -- a fancy law school degree, an exalted law review position, and a very gaudy (if ideologically crippling) pair of federal clerkships. I learned a great deal from Judge Luttig and Justice Thomas, not least my instinctive distrust of theory and ideology and my corresponding preference for pragmatism. Yes, I did well in my youth, and I have a nice little academic perch for my trouble. But I now know that I went to law school for the wrong reasons and wish I had done almost anything else.

Let me explain by recalling one of my sports heroes, Billy Beane. Michael Lewis's Moneyball recounts how Beane allowed the prospect of being a high pick, perhaps even the first overall pick, in baseball's amateur draft to steer him away from playing collegiate baseball for Stanford. Beane went on to win the 270-foot dash at the combine and sign as the fifth overall pick with the New York Mets. His career as a baseball player, to put it mildly, stank. He came to regard signing with the Mets as the biggest mistake of his professional life.

When I took the LSAT in 1986, during the summer before my senior year in college, I wanted more desperately than anything else to have a credential, any credential, that would give me a little more credibility with the academic elite. Two degrees from Emory University and a good taste of engineering from Georgia Tech, so I imagined, would not stand the social test of the national academic elite. Law school appealed to me because it required no real prerequisites, because I was told I had a good shot at a top school, and because law had a realistically attainable elite track running through, well, law review and a judicial clerkship. An actual love of law — well, that was optional. How do I feel two decades later? Let's just say that my feeling toward the law today is comparable to the typical Edith Wharton character's view of marriage.

Yes, I aced the credential quest, version 2.0, and thereby buried what I considered a disappointing run through version 1.0. And acing law school has enabled me essentially to make a healthy living as a full-time intellectual dilettante and a part-time managerial maverick. It's materially comfortable to be a member of the sinecured secular priesthood called academia. But like my hero Billy Beane, I know deep down that I should never have enrolled at Harvard Law School, which will forever live in my heart as the educational equivalent of the New York Mets — not intrinsically evil by any stretch, but a constant reminder of making lifelong commitments for all the wrong reasons. And like Billy, my only realistic option going forward is to try my hardest to succeed on somewhat contrarian terms in a line of work I wish I'd never embraced as my own.

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I just graduated law school this past spring. I graduated cum laude from a tier one school and fortunately had a couple options - but my wife also gave birth last winter. It changed everything.

I realized that I did not want to work for somebody else who viewed me as adequate, but replaceable while being rewarded with a decent salary, but long hours away from family. I also had the opportunity to go JAG, but did not want to deploy and leave my family for wars I do not agree with.

So, I decided to start my own business with a friend. Money is tight right now and I'm still living off loans, but it is really starting to pick up and I love every minute of it. We are starting to turn a profit and I get to see my wife and kid anytime I want.

I really enjoyed some of the comments here that encourage people to do not be afraid of changing course. So, if you are stuck in an office this Saturday while your college team is playing a big game remember - it's never too late to try something new. Go for it.

Posted by: Casey | Sep 15, 2011 11:10:04 AM

What if Beane had bypassed the draft only to find out he couldn't make it as a ballplayer Stanford and went into academia himself? What if Chen had forsaken academia for his own "field of dreams"? Ultimately, my only real regret is that I don't have 100 lives to do 100 different things. But at least there is always reality tv.

Posted by: Matt | Aug 24, 2011 10:13:03 AM

I worked fourteen years as a research chemist, retrained as a programmer, worked thirty years at that profession, and retired at 75. shortly thereafter, I started writing and am having the time of my life at 80.

Posted by: Lee Holum | Aug 24, 2011 9:53:01 AM

I went to law school somewhat reluctantly, leaving a career I liked but which (in my young eyes) lead nowhere. Ironically, I was well-suited to law, had a successful 15 year career and was able to retire early after putting my husband through professional school. Law was good to me; despite the current job market, I might still recommend law school to someone with the gifts, diligence, patience and perseverance to practice law productively and well as a service to others. But that kind of person would probably succeed in whatever path they determine to pursue.

Posted by: K Gray | Aug 24, 2011 7:29:10 AM

Most recent grads, indeed, most grads, who regret going to law school, do so for reasons much removed from those of Dean Chen. They regret it because they will be impoverished by that decision for what remains of their youth, if not for the rest of their lives (easily-obtained government loans being non-dischargable in bankruptcy, so that the government has you by the sensitive parts of your body forever).

So, no, I have no sympathy for Mr. Chen. But those who are ridiculing him on this thread seem to be missing his point. He wasn't asking for your sympathy. He was warning prospective new lawyers that they may regret the decison to go to law school even if they experience financial or professional success.
Bottom line: the odds are against you, and even if you beat them, you still may regret it.

Posted by: Jim O'Sullivan | Aug 24, 2011 6:48:02 AM

" As this fall semester kicks off, I am sitting with three math courses and three other math courses in the engineering department. As hard as this is, I can't describe how much more *fun* this is compared to writing point papers and thinking 'complex' political thoughts."
Posted by: BSC

Six Math courses! I am envious! Let me whole-heartedly agree with you. You are inspiring me to quit my job and go back to college.

Seriously, I love math! I don't love being a librarian.

Posted by: Trinian | Aug 24, 2011 6:40:30 AM

I was an associate prof of history @ a major SE public university...until I worked on a successful gubenatorial campaign in the mid 1990's...having been spotted exiting the campaign HQ of said candidate just prior to the general election...and being accosted afterward for 'working for the enemy.' My contract in a tenure track position, came up for renewal the following month. Needless to say, it was not renewed.

Casting about for what to do, I decided to follow my dreams of becoming a cabinetmaker, and have been so since 1998. It's not been easy, my own shop bit the dust in Dec 2008, but it's been the most rewarding thing intellectually, I've ever done. At the end of the day, I can point to something concrete, and have a sense of accomplishment that I never had in a classroom. Don't get me wrong, I loved teaching and was pretty good at it, but I genuinely love building things. Financially, it's been a rocky road, since employment is tied closely with the fortunes of the construction industry...but I'd not do anything else.

Rich Vail
Pikesville, Maryland
The Vail Spot dot Blogspot dot Com

Posted by: Rich Vail | Aug 24, 2011 2:46:55 AM

Paul, the title is misleading. Jim's "Billy Beane" piece was written BEFORE he became a dean. He regretted going to law school then. It's not clear he still feels the same way.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Aug 24, 2011 1:46:40 AM

I graduated from university in 1975 with a degree in philosophy. My only marketable skill at the time was the fact that I could type really well. So, with a young family to support and few career prospects, I considered law school.

So, I wrote the LSATs. Did pretty well, considering I'd had no time to study for them: with my college grades, good enough to get into a high middle-tier law school. I wrote away for the applications; filled them out; got my transcripts together; packaged up the submission forms ... and on the way to the mailbox, I threw them away. I just could not bring myself to do it: that little voice in my head that I ignore at my peril was shouting that this was a bad move, and I just couldn't ignore it.

Two years later, my job prospects no better, I went through the same exercise: LSATs, applications, transcripts, etc. And once again, on the way to the mailbox, I threw them away. I had no idea what I would do ... but I knew for certain that that path was wrong.

Shortly thereafter, I got a job in the fledgling personal-computer industry as a technical writer. On the job, I learned on the job how to program. That led to a career that's been both enjoyable and lucrative.

In hindsight, perhaps the smartest thing I ever did, besides marrying my wife (we had our 32nd anniversary recently), was not going to law school.

Posted by: Brown Line | Aug 24, 2011 1:24:01 AM

Some of the most interesting people I know are, like me, recovering lawyers. One day at a time and all.

It is quite possible to learn a great deal of interesting stuff at a good law school. At least in second and third year, and, hey, first year will mean you will never have trouble reading a contract.

The credential, even tucked away after not practicing for 20 years, is handy and adds a bit of value to whatever more interesting matters of business are discussed. Having read the several thousand pages of cases typically required for the degree, ten page business plans and four hours of research on a particular point are a dawdle. (Time spent before a Superior Court Judge makes virtually any presentation/pitch/plea a relative pleasure.)

I should not have gone to law school either; but, all in all, I am glad I did.

Posted by: JC | Aug 23, 2011 10:49:42 PM

I think history is replete with people who caused enormous misery because they felt driven to a higher calling. I'm very, very suspicious of such people.

Posted by: Tblakely | Aug 23, 2011 9:38:55 PM

After graduating with a B.S. in Chemistry (in 1970) and knowing I didn't want to be a chemist (or a researcher or professor or a forward observer [ROTC Field Artillery 2nd Lt 1970]) I went to law school (Santa Clara U). I enjoyed the mental challenge. I clerked at a small firm in San Jose for a year and joined it as an associate after I passed the bar (1973) and finished my Field Artillery Officers Basic Course. I enjoyed working on actual cases and helping people with legal problems. Unfortunately, the economy in 1975 was poor, so I moved from the San Jose area to Los Angeles and took a job with the LA County Counsel, where the pay was steady and I got great experience. That led to a position with the South Coast Air Quality Management District where I eventually was appointed Chief Counsel. When I left the SCAQMD in 1990 to go into private practice I learned that large firms like attorneys from top tier law schools (i.e., Stanford rather than Santa Clara). However, I joined a medium sized LA firm was eventually recruited away to a large, national practice, California firm. I learned that big firm life was not for me. In 1994 I set up a solo practice concentrating in environmental law and air quality regulation and have never looked back. I continue to enjoy helping clients resolve their legal problems.

If you go into law expecting to put up with a ton of B.S. in order to make money you will not have a happy life. If you go in with the idea that you can help people with their problems and make a decent living you can have a very rewarding career. My middle son is just starting law school and I have tried to pass this lesson on to him (along with not amassing a load of debt from loans - he has worked since graduating from college and hopes to continue working part time while he attend law school in the evening). In many respects, law is a calling, but since it pays much better than the priesthood, it also attracts many people who would be better suited doing something else.

Posted by: Curt | Aug 23, 2011 9:09:23 PM

DB, re: "This thread typifies something I have thought - and felt - for the last 20 years. And that is this, that we do a disservice to our young, by taking them out of the protected state of high school and sending them into the semi-protected state of college, and saying to them 'Now choose what you want to do for the rest of your life." DB, that is a wise observation, and an important one I hope you'll share with young people starting off in life. For many "students," college is in effect a way of prolonging adolescence, one which discloses little about who and what you are best-fitted to do. In my case, being a "good" son, I went to college - partly because it was my parent's dream for me, partly because I didn't have anything better to do. Years later, bachelors and masters degrees in hand, I emerged somewhat smarter in a narrow sense, but not a whole lot wiser or more mature, and had to start figuring out the real business of life at age 28. I got married (thankfully, to the right woman) and before I knew it, I was approaching forty. By this time, I'd figured out what my calling was - to be in the military - but it was too late. Certain opportunities in life are tied directly to age, the military and certain other physically-demanding occupations for example, and you can't do them after a certain point. They are closed to you because of hard age cutoffs. On the other hand, going to college can be done anytime in life, and there is considerable evidence that working or joining the military for a few years after high school, and only then going to college, produces better outcomes. It should go without saying that since the young and naive tend to be more leftist in their political views, and vote accordingly - the Democrats have a vested interest in the status quo. Nothing causes one to question the received wisdom of college so much as paying taxes and working for a living.

Posted by: Georgiaboy61 | Aug 23, 2011 9:02:44 PM

Steve said it perfect:
"If you don't like what you're doing, then get out. Find something that inspires you and motivates you to jump out of bed every morning. And then do it. You have far more choices available to you than Billy Beane ever did."

PS-Don't want to take away from discussion, but out of curiosity Steve, who is your rock star cousin?

Posted by: Eweez | Aug 23, 2011 8:57:24 PM

I loved reading this article and the comments. Thank you :)

Posted by: Morgan | Aug 23, 2011 8:27:24 PM

This thread typifies something I have thought - and felt - for the last 20 years. And that is this, that we do a disservice to our young, by taking them out of the protected state of high school and sending them into the semi-protected state of college, and saying to them 'Now choose what you want to do for the rest of your life.'

Now imagine the same person with degrees that credent him to do something he does not enjoy, with $120,000.00 debt behind it.

Perhaps a better way to work this would be to tell our children 'No you can't go to college - yet. Get a job, and look me up when you're 30 and you know who you are."

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 23, 2011 8:13:14 PM

Reaching the top rung is apparently useless if your ladder is leaning on the wrong wall.

Posted by: db | Aug 23, 2011 7:30:42 PM

Daniel wrote:
"There is a lot of injustice out there and it is not in a law school."

Daniel, I'm afraid that you're exactly wrong. Not about the injustice part -- there's always plenty of that. But in saying that it's not found in law school.

I believe that that is the very SOURCE of much of it.

Posted by: Samsapeel | Aug 23, 2011 7:12:57 PM

Harlon Sanders was a failed restauranteur. At 65, he took 105 dollars from his social security and started visiting potential franchisees. The chain that grew from is is known as KFC.

Turn from your sins, play to your strengths, and have some courage.

Posted by: DonM | Aug 23, 2011 7:07:34 PM

I got a lot of grief for getting music degrees back at the time - not practical, yadda, yadda, yadda; blah, blah, blah - but now that I'm in my 50's and quite good at what I do, a lot of my friends who did all the practical stuff are suddenly envious of me. Go figure.

You only get one shot at life. Pursue what you love at all costs.

Posted by: Hucbald | Aug 23, 2011 6:57:21 PM

Not so unexpectedly, there are many 'kinds' of people. The thread, up to this point, demonstrates that very well. Some people are motivated by a need to earn the daily bread: a job is a job and it's whole function is to earn the money it takes to feed and raise the family, have a place to live in, and fund some entertainment- the things that put a little fun into life. Others are motivated by what might inaccurately be called higher goals. To teach others, to contribute something valuable to society, to achieve a higher understanding of life- these are a few of the ways we might describe the pursuits of another 'kind' of people. And there will more kinds of people whose attitude toward work will be different than that enumerated above. There is no fit system that can organize these views into a worst-best taxonomy. They are the same. They are of equal importance in the long run. The race of man absolutely requires this mix and as long as we procreate by the "natural method", are opposed by indifferent and unpredictable Nature, and maintain our human-ness, this mix will continue. It's a good thing. Celebrate it.

Posted by: Allan Ripley | Aug 23, 2011 6:52:17 PM

Find something you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life. I very much enjoyed today's blog subject and the comments.

Posted by: jgreene | Aug 23, 2011 6:41:38 PM

As an Ivy League cum laude in History, I purposefully chose education over mere credentialed training. Properly approached, history is the study of Human Nature in context and perspective. Every generation renews the enterprise, and thereby learns something new.

So, what happened after Old Nassau? Well, as a Regular Ossifer in US Air Force Intelligence, I learned the strategic and tactical advantages of breaking ciphers-- historically of interest from the Masurian Lakes to Germany's "Enigma" and Japan's celebrated "Purple Code." WWII allies broke both the latter, not just by Alan Turing's genius but by capturing a German submarine and profiling 4F Japanese code clerks [cf: Battle of Midway].

Epiphany! Actively averse to an academic or so-called public-service career (sic), it occurred to me that cryptography and history were ideal backgrounds for a technical-analytical career on Wall Street. From June 1962 - August 1982, U.S. domestic markets never broke through 25-year resistance levels; then from 1982 - March 2000, aside from 1987's interim circuit-breaker everything moved only one way: Higher.

Absent any formal math/statistical credentials or formal preparation to this day, I delighted in discerning underlying patterns, trends, without recourse to abstruse economic jargon or typically conflicted earnings reports. As info-tech advanced, I transcended so-called "technical analysis" to design "quant model" hedge funds, treating market aggregates as math/statistical entities in themselves-- economic risk, market risk, selection risk, all fell away, leaving only timing of up- or downside (Long or Short) reversals.

Having accordingly designed and tested a mechanically simple but conceptually subtle timing tool, I discovered its rudimentary Signals applied to any normally-distributed time-series in any context, regardless of conventional macro- or micro-economic circumstances. Voila! As Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in AD 1453, provoking Gutenberg, Luther, Copernicus and all his Scientific Revolution kin, so we possess a golden key akin to... what? The Coca Cola formula, Google's original search algorithm leveraged to a $100 billion enterprise?

Anyone who specializes four years on business administration, law, communications/marketing et al. essentially remains uneducated whatever blinkered credentialism may proclaim. "To be a philosopher is not to think subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates with dignity, simplicity, magnanimity, and trust" (Thoreau); and pace Yeats, "What (you) undertook to do, / "(You) brought to pass; / "All things hang like a drop of dew / "Upon a blade of grass."

Go to it, kids!

Posted by: John Blake | Aug 23, 2011 6:39:20 PM

36 years ago, i ended up graduating in the top 1 percent of a second tier law school and went on to work at one of los angeles' premier law firms. when your life has consisted, up to that point, of putting yourself through school working at jobs paying barely above minimum wage, it is nearly impossible to resist the pull of that first year associate's salary. (note: you could actually pay tuition working at a minimum wage job before the government made it easier for students to borrow.) in this respect, practising law, in many respects, is a little like being a single mom working in a strip club. the money is just sooooooo darn good. it took me about seven years to get out of the law. my advice: if you are a DRIVEN personality, skip law school and aim for a productive career instead.

Posted by: moose | Aug 23, 2011 6:31:29 PM

When people make good things into ultimate things in their life, they experience confusion and an absence of fulfillment.

Posted by: Marshall Locke | Aug 23, 2011 6:29:19 PM


Posted by: looking closely | Aug 23, 2011 6:28:56 PM

It strikes me that this person would be unhappy no matter what he did. He is just unable to be happy. I was going to say, he is just unable to make himself happy. Sometimes this comes from a resentfulness at the way one was raised. Sometimes its just part of the person's constitution, perhaps with genetics playing a role. These people can dream of being happy doing something else, but they can't be happy doing what they're doing. I know people like that. I find it tiresome.

Posted by: Franko | Aug 23, 2011 6:19:22 PM

Remembering my own (regretful) time in law school, I even then realized the place was full of people who were there for all the wrong reasons, most prominently that they didn't know what else to do after their B.A. degree in whatever.

Posted by: Skip | Aug 23, 2011 6:18:43 PM

My father, now 82, decided to create a line of skin-care products when he was 57 years old even though he had no prior experience in product development and marketing. Twelve years later, he sold his firm to a multi-national drug company and is now happily retired.

My mother, 81, is a well-known sculptress who did not pick up a chisel until she was 52. She didn't sell her first piece until she was old enough to collect Social Security. Now, her work is in galleries and museums.

My cousin, 42, decided to become a rock star at the age of 38 (and 4 children). Her most recent music video, in which she performs with Snoop Dogg, is #2 on the UK dance charts.

Forgive me, Mr. Chen, if I can't summon up much sympathy for you.


You seem to be a smart, successful guy. Presumably you've saved a few bucks. Is staying at your current position more important than achieving your true aspirations?

If you don't like what you're doing, then get out. Find something that inspires you and motivates you to jump out of bed every morning. And then do it. You have far more choices available to you than Billy Beane ever did.

Posted by: Steve | Aug 23, 2011 6:18:25 PM

! Don't ever breed. You have nothing to contribute.
2. Voluntary Euthanasia. You have nothing to lose.

Posted by: Asscheeks of Saturn | Aug 23, 2011 6:09:46 PM

Which raises the question: How does one determine one's future course of study, when one's preferences become evident only after university?
A more rigorous and flexible system of determining this is required.

Posted by: PacRim Jim | Aug 23, 2011 5:41:06 PM

Bah, he makes a comfortable living and then complains about not being happy enough. Rarely does a persons choice of career make them happy whether it's my own father who ran a hugely successful business but was largely unhappy or my good friend who sells computers and cell phones at Wal-Mart for chump change but seems to quite enjoy life fully despite making $10 an hour in his 30's.

When I was about 23 and working full time and trying to get a degree at night I was completely miserable when I saw a guy driving a forklift filled with pottery waste past my window whistling and singing to himself enjoying his ride on a beautiful summer day. It was a turning point for me when I realized professional success isn't what was going to make me happy. Getting off at work at 5 and doing a bit of fishing with my son instead of "trying to makes something of myself" was going to give me far more enjoyment in life.

Posted by: lord ben | Aug 23, 2011 5:38:16 PM

Sheesh, Does this guy have a life? Seriously it sounds like his whole identity is tied to his profession. Look, I'm not a lawyer (nor do I plan to be one). I'm actually a male Registered Nurse. I get teased, work crazy hours, and my job is not by any stretch very prestigious. I do enjoy it sometimes, but what defines me is my family, friends, and my ability to be a productive member of society. It would be no different if I was working at McDonalds or cleaning out HoneyBuckets.
Pardon me Mr. Chen but in the words of Jack Sparrow "you need to find yourself a girl, mate".

Posted by: Eweez | Aug 23, 2011 5:31:59 PM

Maybe if he actually stood up for something, he might get his mojo back. There is a lot of injustice out there and it is not in a law school.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 23, 2011 5:21:04 PM

I can sympathize -- I am currently re-enrolled for a bachelor's in electrical engineering after spending a decade working for the defense department after getting a degree in political science and then a master's in international relations. After a couple deployments to Iraq, I realized (consciously, finally) that I hated politics. Loathed it and the people who practiced it.

I was at a point where I could re-orient my life and try again (what luck, you know?). As this fall semester kicks off, I am sitting with three math courses and three other math courses in the engineering department. As hard as this is, I can't describe how much more *fun* this is compared to writing point papers and thinking 'complex' political thoughts.

There are few things worse than doing the wrong thing simply for the pay or the alleged prestige it offers. Fewer things are better than doing what it is one's nature to do. In the early 20's, i didn't understand or appreciate this. What a difference ten years make.

Posted by: BSC | Aug 23, 2011 5:20:22 PM