Article written by
Adam Pascarella,
Graduate of UPenn Law ’14

The Pros and Cons of Law School

In 2018, law school continues to be an attractive option for intelligent and ambitious individuals. Each individual has his or her reasons for considering law school, whether it’s to pursue their dreams of becoming a certain type of lawyer or to provide some sort of security if they aren’t sure where to take their career.

Ultimately, the law school question is a personal one. It’s a question that shouldn’t be answered lightly. That said, there are many resources to guide you as you think through this decision.

But putting aside the question of whether you should go to law school, what about law school itself? What are the good and bad parts of attending law school?

While not comprehensive, we’ve gathered some of the most significant pros and cons of law school.

First, let’s start with the positive attributes.

1. Credibility:

While this isn’t solely a reason why people should attend law school, society still looks up to people who have law degrees. True, they may not express it directly to your face (cue the lawyer jokes). Lawyers, however, are seen by society as intelligent, hard-working individuals who clearly have the dedication and drive to grind through three years of law school. The law degree itself is a credential that you can carry with you throughout your life, and while some laypeople may naturally dislike lawyers, the positive attributes of the law degree outweigh the negative attributes.

2. The Potential to Make Money:

Some law students go to law school in order to supercharge their income. While there are some flaws in that thinking—especially considering that much of a lawyer’s high salary is used to pay off law school loans—some law students will make six figures upon graduation. The most lucrative jobs at so-called “Big Law” firms go to those law students with the best grades from the most “prestigious” law schools. These law school grads can make $180,000 in their first year of practice. These opportunities are rare and there is no guarantee that you will obtain one of these positions after graduation. However, these starting salaries are available to some law school grads. Whether you are able to win this lottery is a separate question.

3. The Opportunity to Learn Lifelong Skills:

Law school isn’t a picnic. As described in the “con” section below, you’re in a pressure cooker environment that is highly stressful and highly competitive. The stakes are high in your 1L year, since your 1L grades will significantly influence whether you’re able to find your dream job after graduation. That said, law school itself teaches you lifelong skills, including critical thinking skills, the ability to think and work under pressure, oral advocacy skills, and countless others. Leaving law school, you will not remember every statute or case that you studied, yet you will become an intellectual ninja who can apply these soft skills to legal practice and beyond. While you shouldn’t necessarily go to law school if you don’t want to be a lawyer, the skills you learn in law school can be useful should you decide to forego legal practice and enter a different industry.

4. The Camaraderie With Your Classmates:

As you’ll discover, law school isn’t like college. Every single one of your classmates is intelligent and they will put in the work to succeed on exams. While this makes your life difficult—as most courses are graded on a curve—the benefit is that you will develop relationships with extremely intelligent and impressive individuals. The stress of law school naturally tends to create close relationships between you and your colleagues. These relationships will not only make law school more tolerable and more fun, but those relationships can lead to career opportunities down the road.

5. The Unique Opportunities:

Law school is unique in that law students have the chance to work on disputes and other matters that they may not necessarily encounter in their post-law school practice. For instance, some law schools have Supreme Court clinics, where you and your colleagues are able to work on litigation that is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Those opportunities are exceedingly rare to practicing attorneys, no matter how many years they are removed from law school. Ultimately, law students are able to learn about the practice of law through unique, interesting opportunities that they often would not encounter in the “real world.”

With all of that said, law school isn’t all positive. Here are some of the negative aspects of attending law school.

1. High Costs:

Undoubtedly, one of the largest cons of attending law school is the financial cost. If you aren’t able to obtain scholarship money, you will likely be spending six figures to attend law school. Many law students take out loans to afford law school and, subsequently, are on the hook for those loans after they graduate. The burden of outstanding loans is why some law students seek the highest-paying jobs at so-called “Big Law” firms, even if they don’t necessarily want to work there. Beyond the financial costs, however, you must also acknowledge the opportunity costs of your decision. You will be spending three years of your life attending law school, and you could spend those three years doing something else, whether that’s gaining work experience in your current field or experience in an area where you’re passionate. While the financial costs of attending are typically at the top of mind, you must acknowledge the opportunity costs of attending law school. They can be greater than you think.

2. Intense Stress:

For many people, law school is stressful. It is an intellectual boot camp with demanding professors, competitive classmates, and little margin for error. Essentially, you are learning an entirely different language containing Latin terms and subtle distinctions between varying concepts. You’ll also feel stress in your courses, as professors will randomly call on you to answer questions as part of the Socratic Method. Your course grades are determined by one exam and exams are graded on a curve, meaning that there are a certain number of “As” that you and your colleagues will be pursuing. And beyond all of the coursework, there is the stress of finding a job after graduation. This task may be more or less difficult depending on your 1L grades, the reputation of your law school, and where you would like to work after graduation.

3. Mental Health Risks:

Tied with the point above, the stress of law school can manifest itself in harsh ways. Compared to the general population, law students experience higher levels of mental health issues, whether it’s general anxiety or depression. Substance abuse is also common. In a 2014 survey administered by the American Bar Association, 43 percent of law students reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks and 22 percent reported binge drinking two or more times in the prior two weeks. Unfortunately, law students keep these issues under wraps since they believe that seeking treatment will require them to disclose mental issues in the character and fitness portions of bar admission applications. In sum, law students are prone to suffer through anxiety or other mental health issues in law school which is why it is so important to find balance and a positive outlet to counter stress, like exercise or meditation.

4. Boredom:

One untold secret among law students is that law school itself can be quite boring. Reading case law can be quite monotonous and difficult, especially if you are reading case law from the nineteenth century. Along with this, while you may be passionate about one area of law (say, human rights), you are required to take courses that may not necessarily interest you. You will quickly discover that some courses may bore you to tears, yet you need to simply grind through your reading in order to succeed on exams.

5. The Vast Amount of Reading:

Even if you consider yourself a voracious reader, you will quickly discover that your law school courses will inundate you with heavy reading assignments in dense casebooks. Often, you have to complete hundreds of pages of reading per night. Further, the reading itself is extremely dense and requires intense concentration. Everyone struggles with the amount of reading, yet you may struggle more or less than others.

The Law School Gauntlet

Law school may or may not be for you. You need to seriously contemplate why you want to go to law school, your financial circumstances, and how you plan on using your law degree.

That said, law school itself is a mixed bag. It has its pros and cons. Understanding those positive and negative attributes—along with doing your own research—will make you less surprised during your 1L year, and thus, will increase the chances that you succeed in that critical first year. Good luck!