« on: May 16, 2011, 04:43:40 AM »
Dear Mom -
As with many aspects of law school and the practice of law, there are elements of truth and large quantities of untruths, misconceptions, and general uncertainty, not least in blind grading, a strict grade curve, and the law of averages.
If your son is cut out for big law (and this is a serious "if," as biglaw is not just about alma mater . . . or even, shocking as it is to most students, grades), then clearly there is an element of truth, although it's not so much that only the big 6 count. As a rule of thumb, it's the top quarter of the top tier, or approximately 14 schools that are considered national schools, with sufficiently broad reach as to place their graduates nationwide without too much fuss. On average. (Actually, there are more than 14 schools in the "top 14," but that's another story.) It is true that the averages fall (in this economy, steeply) the further down you go. But there are students graduating from School #14 (and a few from school #34 and even a tiny few from #54) who are in biglaw.
There is also a misconception about what "biglaw" is. If it's the equivalent of Gordon Gekko-style life, well, as with Grisham's protagonists, that's mostly fantasy. There is clearly a different lifestyle in a top firm. Point one is that it's a lifestyle that not everyone likes. Point two is that it's a lifestyle that relatively few can keep up with. Point three is that, again, grades are just part of this. Point four is that pedigree is important, but not in quite the same way that everyone assumes. In a different market a Yalie with Asperger's might have gotten the interview; in this market, probably not. Okay, they might well get the interview...but much less likely, the job.
[Sidebar: Yale's grads will clearly have their pick, but not for the reasons most assume. Yale grads are assumed to be more "eggheady" than even Harvard's, and thus more likely to go to clerkships and thence to teaching, policy, or like big-picture work. Note what's missing? Anything biglaw is going to need and demand. Not always, of course, and a Yale grad will clearly be given serious consideration . . . IF they have the personality traits needed in biglaw. Given Columbia's and NYU's location, their grads are more likely headed to biglaw--yet there are constant jostles between them. And on it goes.]
Part II of "biglaw" is that, in any of the hundreds of cities below the largest, it's not the national firms that are where the action is at, but the top regional firms. Within their markets, it is the regional--not national--firms that have the fun work. And the pay isn't all that bad. (By the hour, it can be higher than in a national firm.) In those markets the national firms might have a smallish office with a token staff to satisfy the needs of a handful of clients (or even just one). The large regional firm will be *the* firm representing all the juicy cases in, oh, Denver or Portland (your choice of coasts) or Austin. And . . . personal opinion here . . . any of those four cities beat any of the majors, hands down. Yes, NYC can be quite lively. But it's also rather expensive, and a biglaw associate (or even partner) won't have a whole lot of time to enjoy all those museums anyway. (And nightlife? Where's our junior associate? Up on the 40th floor. Back to work, young man!) An associate at a top regional firm can probably buy an estate, or close to it (not that they should), while the New York associate will be living in a cramped and outrageously expensive apartment, likely rented for at least a fair chunk of the associateship. (If they last that long.) Just saying.
A real question for your son: Forget what he wants. What is he good at? Is he super-humanly organized, motivated, mature? Was he elected President of his high school class? Did he teach English in Bangladesh? Does he proofread every email? Twice? I'm not being entirely facetious, actually, as this is, especially now, the type of applicant top schools (and thus biglaw) are looking for. Not that they care about his high school years, but they do care about the qualities that carry forward.
More importantly, what does he want? What does he really want? Is it to work 80-100 hour weeks for ten years? Lots of money? Lots of bosses? Does that sound not overly stressful, and not "fun," but just "who he is"? If so, biglaw is a good bet, if he gets in.
If there's a doubt, that's when the money put into law school becomes important. One of the worst things is to be qualified for and get into a position one realizes is wrong, but to be trapped because of those massive loans.
Depending upon how well it's played, taking the LSAT three times can be a plus, showing at least a little bit of each of the above.
A few resources for him, in addition to [* * * self-interest alert! * * *] my own. There's a new book, Law School Undercover, which gives a much better view than the above of the biglaw competition--in particular how it applies to law school. It's not yet out in print, but it is available on Kindle. There's Planet Law School, and if that doesn't scare him that's an excellent sign for biglaw. There's Law School Fast Track, a useful, short guide that's a good balance to PLS. And there are the three books (the first two for your son before/during law school) in Morten Lund's series Jagged Rocks of Wisdom. Also, John Delaney has some excellent books out. And one that you might find funny as a recommendation, but useful in its own way and to keep a good perspective about all of this. It's Slacker's Guide to Law School.
For all who are not yet in law school and considering the same types of questions, in this market in particular, scratch out "son" and "mom" and fit your own name in. These are rather serious questions, especially now, and I'll not be one to be unrealistically idealistic about it: I and most others graduating some years ago had options (mostly by much lower levels of debt) that are not nearly as realistic as they are today. So, while one needn't necessarily be fixated on top, top, top, these are important considerations. Some of the happiest people I've known are lawyers (and a number of judges) who would flat out not be interested in biglaw, nor, in most cases, biglaw in them. Not good or bad, but good to know going in.
Best of luck,