Should I Go To Law School? Start Here.


A little about myself

My name is Irene and I’m in the final year of my JD at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I’m also pursuing a Master’s in Social Policy at the School of Social Policy & Practice here at Penn.

I’m a first generation law student and a child of Korean immigrants. I grew up in Los Angeles Area, moved to San Francisco Bay Area during high school, and have been based in Philadelphia since college. In college (also Penn…sensing a bit of a trend here) I majored in Political Science with a concentration in American Politics. I worked and interned throughout undergrad and went “straight through” to law school, which means I didn’t take time off to work full-time between college and law school. My legal interests primarily lie in corporate/M&A and international tax, but I’ve found myself gravitating towards many fields of interest, including affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and international women’s human rights, just to name a few.

And an (actually very important) disclaimer!

This series of law school-related posts will be most relevant to the Penn Law experience and more broadly to T-14 schools. T-14 refers to the top 14 law schools in the nation as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Penn Law is #7 according to the 2018 rankings. That being said, like any other ranking system, take these law school rankings with a grain of salt.

This series also assumes an interest in private sector / “big law” firm employment as the immediate goal after graduation. However, rest assured there are a variety of career paths that you can pursue after law school, including:

Clerking for a judge (“law clerks” or “judicial clerks” provide direct assistance and counsel to a judge in making legal determinations and in writing opinions by researching issues before the court)

Becoming a prosecutor (such as by joining the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, which presents cases in criminal trials against people accused of breaking the law)

Becoming a public defender (such as by joining the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a non-profit corporation that defends people in court who are unable to afford legal counsel on their own)

Joining the in-house legal team at a company (such as by joining the Corporate/M&A team at Apple or Facebook)

Working for a non-profit organization (such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Southern Poverty Law Center, Community Legal Services, or Asian Americans Advancing Justice to name a few)

Starting your own business, and more!

Keep your eyes peeled for a future post detailing career paths that you can pursue (and how you can do it!) with your law degree.

At the end of the day, each person as a unique experience in law school, and I can really only speak to my perspective. That being said, here are a few of the most common questions I’ve received from friends and strangers alike about deciding whether to go to law school.

How do I know whether law school is (or is not) for me? What are the right motivations for someone to go through it?

Great question! It’s always surprising to me how few people take the time to seriously think about the reasons why they are going to law school, and instead jump right to questions about admissions.

To answer this critical question, you need to first think about a deeper, not-directly-law-school-related question. What do you like to do, and how will getting a law degree help you do more of what you like to do? For example, do you like research and writing? Do you like interacting with people one-on-one? Does the idea of arguing in court excite you, or are you more excited by helping businesses achieve their goals? Do you want to represent the people who sue, the people getting sued, or both? How comfortable are you with ambiguity?

After thinking through these questions, the necessary follow-up question is: After weighing the costs against the benefits, financial or otherwise, is law school still worth it?

I view law school as a means to an end. This is separate from the fact that I genuinely enjoy law school and have had some of my most formative experiences here. I see law school as the means to do more of what I love to do, which involves learning new things, reading and writing, building long-term relationships, and making other people’s lives easier by helping navigate the complexities of flawed legal and administrative systems. For me, these things translate into being a lawyer, and law school is a necessary step towards that goal. I know that my law degree will enable me to accept more opportunities to do these things that I love to do. I want to build my career in the intersection of law, public policy, business, and technology, and for me, law school can help make that happen.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that you should go to law school if you know how it will help you do what you love (both professionally and personally). The other side of the coin, which I hope more people would seriously consider, is that you should not go to law school if you’re not 100% sure how law school will make this happen for you. I’m no expert in law school (or life for that matter), but I do hope you have motivations to attend law school that are not just “hey, what else can I do with my liberal arts degree?” or “I like to argue” or “my parents want me to make money” (spoiler alert: it’s not as simple or easy as it may seem to land that lucrative big law job).

Speaking of money, it’s no surprise law school is a significant investment. How do I know if law school is financially worth it for me?

I may sound like a broken record, but this is important enough that it bears repeating: Everyone’s situation is unique and there is no one but you who can decide whether law school is worth it for your individual situation.

That being said, there’s quite a few moving pieces to the financial aspects of law school that I’ve detailed in another post. Click here to read my post on the top 8 things you should know before investing in law school.

What if the reason I’m pursuing law school is to practice in such a way that isn’t necessarily extremely lucrative? Are there alternative paths for people who want to work on social justice / public interest law?

First off, I want to emphasize that my perspective on the public vs. private sector debate rests on the belief that both sectors need to push in the same direction in order for any long-term, sustainable social progress to be made. I also believe that the line between public and private is not so clear-cut and that magic can happen when public and private collaborate and work together towards a single goal (but that’s a post for another day). Ultimately, as a practical matter, I believe that developing a private sector-oriented perspective will greatly enhance our understanding of how the public sector can approach similar problems, and vice versa.

That being said, if you are interested in pursuing a career in public interest law, there’s a critical question of timing. We have long careers ahead of us, and there’s no reason to pigeonhole the rest of our lives to the first job we get out of law school.

So, I encourage you to think about whether you want to go into public interest law immediately after graduation, or whether you are OK with working at a law firm for a few years and later pivoting out into the public sector. How will either path help you do more of what you love, and what is the price (financial, personal, or otherwise) that you’re willing to pay to go down that path? This necessarily requires you to define what a career in “social justice” and “public interest” means to you, as the line between public and private sectors are much blurrier in practice.

I also encourage you to read my post on the top 8 financial aspects of law school you should know before taking the plunge.

Should I go “straight through” from undergrad to law school, or should I take time off or work for a few years before starting law school? Will I be “behind” if I wait?

Unless you or your family/relatives are able to pay for your law school education debt-free, there are a few critical components to consider when thinking about the financials of law school. After seriously thinking about the threshold question of whether law school theoretically is good for you, now you need to consider whether it’s practically a good move at this point in time.

Before I talk about the pros and cons of going “straight through” (graduating from undergrad in the spring and immediately going to law school that fall), I want to reassure you that the only timeline that matters is your own!

According to a Law School Admission Council (LSAC) report of ABA law school applicants by age group, each year 22-year-olds constituted the largest group, and about half of all applicants were between 22 and 24 years old. Around 30% of applicants were between 25 and 29, and close to 20% were over 30. For each year, the median age was 24, and the mean was between 26 and 27.

For Penn Law’s entering class of 2020, the age range is 20-35 with an average age of 24. That roughly means that the average first-year student had two years span between graduating from undergrad and starting law school. (I was on the extreme end of things. I was 19 when accepted to Penn Law, 20 when I matriculated, and I’ll be 22 when I graduate. Crazy stuff!)

Long story short, you won’t be “behind” if you take off a few years before going to law school. In fact, I would argue there are pros and cons to both options (going straight through vs. taking time off).

Should I Go To Law School- Start Here. (1)

So when people ask me for advice and say “I’m on the fence about law school and I’m not completely sure whether this is the right move for me,” I generally tell them to wait (and this is coming from someone who went straight through from undergrad to law school).

Law school will always be there, and there’s very little reason to rush in investing $250,000+ and three years of your life in something you’re not sure how it fits into your larger life goals. The last thing you want is to dig yourself into a massive hole of debt (and insane 6-7% federal student loan interest rates) only to realize that getting a law degree won’t help you become the best person you can be.

So, feel free to wait before jumping into law school (or not). There’s nothing wrong with waiting another cycle, retaking the LSAT, kicking butt at your current job, and ultimately positioning yourself to get better results from an admissions and financial aid standpoint. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to get a head start on your career and get your schooling out of the way sooner rather than later!