Letter to a Law Student

Dear Prospective Law School Student:

So you want to go to law school?

In making your decision, I encourage you to closely examine your reasons for wanting to embark on this path and make sure you have considered the pros and cons of doing so. Law school is now quite expensive and involves 4 years of your life (3 years of law school plus typically 1 year of articling). As such, you should not make the decision lightly.

Many of the 10 tips that follow may give the impression that I am against you entering law school. That is not the case. However, I think you should be aware of some of the negative aspects of pursuing this option so that you are not surprised or disappointed later on in your career.

1) Examine your reasons:

Why do you want to go to law school? You need to examine your reasons and read as much as possible about law school and the legal profession.

If you are going to law school because you are not otherwise certain of what other educational or career path to take, this is not a good reason.

Likewise, if you are going to law school because you think you will make money, this is also not a good reason.

And even if your motives are noble and you want to work in a public law sphere helping underprivileged people, realize there are possible forces at play that may result in you not achieving this dream. In “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice” (2007) 1 DePaul Journal for Social Justice 7 at 9, for example, law professor William Quigley of Loyola University notes that, despite the best intentions of students to go to law school engage in social justice issues, there are a number of factors that result in students instead pursuing corporate careers:

Many come to law school because they want in some way to help the elderly, children, people with disabilities, undernourished people around the world, victims of genocide, or victims of racism, economic injustice, religious persecution or gender discrimination.

Unfortunately, the experience of law school and the legal profession often dilute the commitment to social justice lawyering.

The repeated emphasis in law school on the subtleties of substantive law and many layers of procedure, usually discussed in the context of examples from business and traditional litigation, can grind down the idealism with which students first arrived. In fact, research shows that two-thirds of the students who enter law school with intentions of seeking a government or public interest job do not end up employed in that work.

To this, I would also add the potential distorting influence of expensive law school tuition causing some law students to pursue seemingly more lucrative corporate careers in order to pay off their student debt (and I say “seemingly” more lucrative corporate career because law is not necessarily a high-paying career since only a select few earn the “big bucks” – see section 3 below for more on lawyer salaries).

In many situations, I think it is ideal if you are able to combine your undergraduate experience or other life passions with a law-related job on graduation from law school. For example, if your background is in science or engineering, it might make sense to pursue a legal career in patent law, if that is something that seems interesting. Alternatively, if your background is in criminology or government relations, perhaps a career in a legal aid clinic or working for the government might make sense. For me, it took me awhile to realize that what I enjoyed most about the law was the research and technology side of things, which led to me further graduate degrees in law and information studies, resulting in my work as a law librarian and knowledge manager.

The point here is to examine your motives for wanting to go to law school and speak to as many people as possible who work in the field to get a better sense of whether your motives are realizable.

2) See what lawyers do:

Don’t go to law school based on some misapprehension of what you think lawyers do based on what you have seen on TV or in the movies.

Instead, if you have the chance, job-shadow lawyers in different work environments to see what they do on a daily basis. Visit a courthouse and sit in on trials. If possible, offer to volunteer as a legal aid clinic or international NGO. Likewise, although perhaps frowned upon by law school administrators, most law professors will not notice you are not a registered student if you sit in on a law school class to see what law school teaching is like.

In addition, once in law school, it is useful to try to work in the summer months after 1st and 2nd year law in one or more law-related organizations to get a sense of what lawyers do, The practice of law is generally quite different than law school and seeing what the practice of law is like while still in law school might help you decide what sort of legal career you will pursue on graduation.

And although the vast majority of lawyers are hard-working, admirable people who help others, realize that you would be joining a profession where lawyer jokes run rampant and the cover of Maclean’s magazine proclaims that lawyers are rats.

3) Don’t do it for the money:

It is a myth the lawyers are rich. While it may be that some lawyers earn a lot of money, the vast majority of lawyers do not. And although it is not fair to compare lawyers to doctors (for a variety of reasons), realize that lawyers in private practice on their own have no guarantee that they will be paid (unlike doctors who bill the government for their services and are generally paid automatically by the government).

Read the Canadian Lawyer magazine annual salary survey for more information on lawyer salaries (realizing the limitations of such surveys).

In the United States, there have been some interesting developments relating to the return on investment in legal education, the difficulty that US law grads having in landing jobs, and allegations that some law schools are misrepresenting their job placement statistics.

4) Law School Admission Test (LSAT) prep:

Entrance into Canadian or American law schools is generally based on applicants who have: (i) strong undergraduate grades (sometimes augmented by otherwise interesting prior life experience or “personal statements”), and (ii) strong LSAT scores.

I leave it up to individuals to decide whether to take formal LSAT prep courses or to do self-study. From my hazy recollection, I remember it being all about the ability to read and synthesis passages of text to answer questions about the text and to otherwise solve Dell Logic Problem type questions.

The LSAT is not without controversy since some argue that it is not necessarily a reliable indicator of whether the test-taker would do well at law school or as a practicing lawyer. In fact, there have been recent suggestions that the ABA may in fact drop the LSAT as an entrance requirement into North American law schools.

5) Financing:

The cost of Canadian law school education has risen dramatically in the last few years, with the University of Toronto Faculty of Law charging in the range of $25,000 per year tuition. When you multiple this by 3 years and add in living costs, the overall cost is significant.

Many if not most law school applicants will therefore either require student loans or financing from family or friends.

When considering applying to law school, make sure you can afford the financial commitment and that you have a reasonable plan to pay off any debt you incur.

6) Which law school?

In Canada, there are currently 22 law schools, plus the addition of new law schools in Kamloops, BC, at Thompson Rivers University and in Northern Ontario at Lakehead University.

In my opinion, you should not get hung up on the reputation of a particular law school since all of the Canadian law schools offer excellent programs and opportunities. For some, the Maclean’s magazine ranking of top Canadian law schools is controversial due to the criteria used to judge schools.

Some law schools may have strengths in particular areas of law, and if you are interested in a particular type of law, investigate which law school would be best for that area of law. Tuition fees may unfortunately be a factor for some, given the recent sharp increase in law school tuition in Canada.

Some law schools are taking the initiative to adapt their curriculum to changing needs, such as recent innovations by Osgoode Hall Law School at York University to improve the scope and quality of legal education.

Also note the trend among many Canadian law schools to now award their graduates a J.D. or Juris Doctor degree (the name of the law school degree offered by U.S. law schools) instead of the traditional LL.B. degree that “real” Canadian lawyers get (a Canadian LL.B. degree is functionally equivalent to the U.S. J.D. degree – it simply means that the person has graduated from a 3-year law school program, post-undergraduate; by way of contrast, in the U.K., Australia and commonwealth-related African countries, an LL.B. usually means the person has graduated from a 4-year undergraduate program). Blame this on the University of Toronto, who – based on what I think was misguided infatuation of all things American at the time – seemed to feel that it had to become American in order to compete (and otherwise perhaps justify its tuition increases). As was hinted at earlier on SLAW, many of us with the Canadian LL.B. degree are relatively content and I don’t think there was any confusion in the North American legal industry over the Canadian LL.B. degree.

7) 1st year:

In section 10 below I list out a number of “law school survival books” which include sections on specifically surviving first-year law.

In most law schools, first year law typically includes mandatory, year-long courses on core, substantive areas of law, including criminal law, tort law, property law, constitutional law and contract law.

Although first-year law for some can be a terrifying experience due to the large volume of hard-to-read 19th century old English cases one must read, it can also be an exciting time with lots of intellectual and social policy discussions among classmates and professors. Most law schools have also now veered away from 100% final exams for first-year law school courses to instead allow some “paper” assignments, which helps to take off some of the pressure of 100% final exams.

Some first-year students are not necessarily told about the “game” that many law professors play (see The Paper Chase for an entertaining view of first-year law at Harvard; I include this movie as one of my Top 10 movies on my Law-Related Movies website). This game can entail the professor providing students with a “casebook” of old English cases, many of which are contradictory or come to different conclusions on similar facts, and then peppering students with Socratic-like questions to probe why a judge may have decided the way he or she did.

One way of seeing the forest from the trees in all of this is to occassionally check legal treatises on the subject of your class to get a broader overview on a particular point. Alternatively, for many of the famous cases discussed in first-year law, there will often be case comments written in law journals that help explain the cases.

8) Upper years:

By way of contrast to first-year law, the second- and third-year of law school is comprised mainly of elective courses, many of which can be smaller, seminar-type courses, with opportunities to present on course-related topics or write papers. Many law schools will also require students in upper years to complete a “moot trial” and to also write a “major” paper in at least one of their courses.

My advice to students is to pick elective courses based on one of two criteria: (i) because the topic seems interesting, or (ii) because the professor is a good lecturer.

Students who have the benefit of doing a law-related summer job after first- or second-year law will often be able to more easily identify courses of interest when they return to school based on what they have discovered during their summer job. For example, every summer student who I have recommended take an advanced legal research course in upper years has, to a person, later thanked me for the recommendation since such courses can be life-savers during articling, a topic discussed in the next seciton.

9) Articling:

Articling is the term used in Canada to describe the apprenticeship process through which law school graduates must pass in order to be licensed to practice law.

Articling is typically heavily regulated by each provincial Law Society.

Although is it possible to graduate law school after three years and live a fruitful life without having articled and been called to the Bar, my advice is for graduates to article, even if they are uncertain whether they want to practice law. Having spent 3 challenging years in law school, it is worth it to article and be called to the Bar.

On graduation from law school, for those students wanting to practice law in Canada, you will need to article or “apprentice” in the province in which you want to practice law (there is no national or federal bar admission process). The articling process is typically 1-year long and includes a combination of work experience and writing and passing the bar examinations for the particular province. The work experience component usually involves work at a law firm or other approved law-related institution (including government departments, in-house corporate legal departments, and legal clinics). At some point during this year of work the articling student takes bar examination courses and writes the bar examinations at the end of the training. Successful completion of the work component and passing of the examinations then entitles the student to be “called to the Bar.”

In the old days, it was harder to “transfer” to a different province to practice law, a process that often required either re-articling in the new jurisdiction or at least passing the bar examinations in the new jurisdiction. However, the Federation of the Law Societies of Canada has introduced a number of national regulatory initiatives to breakdown barriers between practicing law in different provinces.

A recent challenge, due in part to there being so many law school graduates combined with a limited number of articling positions (at least at the big “Bay Street” law firms), it is becoming harder for law school graduates to find articling positions. The Law Society of Upper Canada has in fact established a task force to study the issue.

10) Additional reading:

I encourage all prospective law students in Canada to read the following books, which provide more detailed information and other advice:

Otherwise, if interested, click here for a listing of books on Amazon on the topic of legal education (realizing that most of these books are from an American point of view).

Let me know your thoughts or if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. I would add to one of the points under item #1 that the barrier between legal training and social justice work goes both ways. That is, not only does legal training sometimes steer people away from pursuing social justice, but in fact legal training can actually impair the ability to achieve social justice.

    When I went to law school, I was passionate about liberty and equality for gays & lesbians. I still am. But after a decade of post-law-school activism, I have realized that law school training me to treat everything like a legal problem, and to overlook real problems where there was not a legal solution. (The old adage is that when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) As a result, lawyers who get involved in social justice movements risk really mucking things up by “legalizing” issues that demand different sort of approaches.

    Two examples. I think it is vitally important to address hate speech. But I think it’s tragic that lawyers have transformed hate speech into the basis for a human rights complaint. Activists who haven’t been trained to look for a legal remedy for every wrong know that there are much better ways of dealing with hate speech.

    I think the same thing when it comes to bullying. With all the attention now to homophobic bullying and cyber-bullying, I hear the same kind of lawyer-y rhetoric applied. I think we’ll make a mess of kids’ lives if we start trying to introduce legal remedies to the issue of bullying. The real solution will be to empower kids and give them strategies to cope with bullying on the ground when it happens; that’s not something lawyers are particularly well-positioned to do.

    Anyway, my two cents based on the experience of being both a lawyer and an activist in the field of social justice.

  2. Thanks Kevin. These are great comments and I agree with you. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.