Conventional wisdom about law school used to be “You can do anything with a law degree!” Post-Great Recession in what has been, until the Trump Bump, a bear market for legal education, the strength of this logic may have weakened but the idea pervades.
I believed it. I was a smart guy who was encouraged to pursue higher education. Law school with its exclusivity and air of prestige seemed like the perfect thing to do. Besides “you can do anything with a law degree. Right?”
A legal education provides some key benefits but it’s not perfect training for “anything.” In fact, it falls short in many important ways. It’s time we start being honest about what legal training is and is not and what those who pursue it to do “anything” need to understand in order to use their degrees beyond the traditional legal options.
Let’s start with the benefits law school does provide. First, it provides measure of instant credibility that other roles don’t enjoy. Despite the ballooning number of lawyers people still believe that lawyers somehow know or see something more than other people do. Being a lawyer also improves communication skills. Lawyers learn to advocate both orally and in writing very effectively. I’ve never really understood or put much stock in “thinking like a lawyer” but lawyers pick problems apart very effectively. Finally, as my father (a lawyer himself) always said, “A law degree helps you see the framework behind society.” Understanding things like how a corporate board applies the business judgment rule to make decisions, the nature of limited liability, or risks of negligence is powerful knowledge.
But there are gaps in what law school provides, at least as far as the “you can do anything with a law degree” adage. First, because lawyers see the situations in law school and in their professional lives in which everything went wrong, they may try to control for an unfortunate but highly unlikely outcome in new situations they face. This faulty logic is referred to as the availability heuristic. Next, remember that instant public credibility that most lawyers get? It can also be a professional liability. Lawyers who seek jobs beyond legal will frequently face questions about over-qualification or simple confusion “Why would you want this job when you could just go be a lawyer?” This is because many employers who are not lawyers don’t know that “you can do anything with a law degree” (perhaps because the adage is not entirely true). They think that people go to law school to become lawyers. What’s more, if any of them have worked with lawyers before, particularly in business, they worry that the lawyers will bring a too lawyerly (i.e. highly skeptical, low on sociability, and their general resistance to being managed) approach to every encounter.
A couple additional thoughts: law school does little to prepare lawyers to run their own firms let alone strike out on their own into uncharted career waters. This is problematic because, even more than other professions, every lawyer needs to think of themselves as an entrepreneur. Skills such as building and understanding how to serve an audience, pricing ones services, hiring and managing, delegation, and marketing, get short shrift.
Finally, lawyers and law students have often made light of and, perhaps, even celebrated the absence of math in law schools and law students’ and lawyers’ aversion to it. Some members of the Supreme Court have even derided mathematical and statistical concepts as “sociological gobbledygook.” As data and math continue to permeate our world lawyers must have a comfort and fluency with mathematical concepts and how they can be effectively applied to solve problems in law.
Sure, you can do anything with a law degree. But you can also do anything with an engineering degree, or a humanities degree, or a high school diploma. A law degree might open some additional doors, provide credibility to or garner interest from a prospective employer who might not otherwise have taken a second look, but if the lawyer actually can’t do the the thing that’s required for a given job, they’ll learn really quickly that you can’t do anything with a law degree.
Instead of platitudes like “you can do anything with a law degree” we’d serve lawyers and law students much better by being honest about the limitations of the degree and doubling down on skills that we demonstrably know – skills like entrepreneurship, better understanding data and math, management, delegation and marketing – will enable lawyers to expand their career options.
Did you think you could or do you want to do “anything with a law degree?” Me too. And I think it’s possible. Or, at least, I’m trying to figure it out. I’m growing a community of ambitious legal professionals who want to do amazing, unconventional things. Are you one of them? If so, join us here. We’ve got a legal career design jam in progress and more awesomeness on the way.