When you think ‘lawyer’, there are probably a number of images and adjectives that cross your mind, some less pleasant than others.
These may include: power-hungry, greedy, shady, handsome, ruthless, good sense of humor (because someone has to laugh at the stereotypes), self-indulgent… the list goes on, but let’s just say we know our kind get a bad rap—which is probably due in large part to the overwhelmingly poor depictions of attorneys seen on TV—and yet, people continue to apply to law school.
Why is that? In this job market it certainly isn’t for the money, so we’d like to think that it’s because the Jack McCoys (Law & Order) of the legal world (or future legal world) greatly outnumber the Tom Hagens (The Godfather). In other words, students are being driven by intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators. However, as we all know, a strong belief in something isn’t enough to win a case, so we’ve found compelling evidence to support our claim that the most aspiring lawyers truly are in it because they feel strongly about something other than money.
Exhibit A: A recent Kaplan study found that 71% of law school applicants listed passion as their primary motivating factor for attending law school. Only 5% of respondents listed salary expectations as their driving force. And sure, “passion” covers a lot of territory, but the point here is that being and becoming a lawyer usually requires much more than an overwhelming thirst for prestige or financial wealth.
With that said, almost 50% of law school applicants don’t actually intend to practice law at all. Many of these students are committed to pursuing a career that requires a deep understanding of the law, like advocacy, public policy, politics, or business. And with current job prospects for practicing attorneys at an all-time low, alternative legal careers may become increasingly popular reasons for attending law school.
But what about the remaining 24% who didn’t pick passion or money? Of course, there are a variety of other extrinsic reasons why people go to law school: parental pressure, lack of alternative career prospects, an aptitude for/love of debate, Law & Order, etc. However, while any numbers of reasons may be responsible for getting a person’s foot in the law school door, they do not guarantee being a good lawyer, or being a lawyer at all.
So is applying for law school for you? It’s hard to boil down a specific recipe for any life pursuit, including that of being a successful law school applicant, but if you want to turn applicant into applican, there are a few traits that will not only help you get in, but may help you find and fuel the passion you’ve been looking for (if you haven’t already found it).
The first of these traits is intellectual curiosity. You have a thirst for knowledge, an intellectual fear of missing out (iFOMO), which enables you to stretch your mind and explore any given subject from every possible angle. The next is ethics. Ironically, many people view lawyers as ethically/morally shallow. As the saying goes, “the better you know the law, the better you can break it,” however, the best candidates for law school have a deep respect for the law and more importantly, a respect for their clients. They are willing to go the extra mile to achieve the best results. And that segues perfectly into the last two characteristics: tenacity and leadership. For starters, you’ve pursued (or should start pursuing) some sort of experience in the profession prior to applying. You can’t understand it until you’ve walked a mile in a pair of brand new loafers up and down the rows of files in a law office, right? And because of that, you know that law students and lawyers, alike, spend countless hours reading briefs, looking at evidence, sifting through the details, and trying to find precedent. If you don’t have the drive, commitment, and confidence to dedicate your life to finding solutions by combing through minutiae, then the law probably isn’t for you.
If you want to practice law, or even if you intend to apply your law degree to another field, just make sure you’re in it for the right reasons. If you can find passion, everything else will fall into place.