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If Only I had Known Then . . .

By: Elaine M. Bourne, Director of Career Services at Boston University School of Law
(This article originally appeared in NAPLA Notes, Vol. XXI (3):41-44, Spring 2000, and appears with the author's kind approval.)

1. Explore your motivations for attending law school before you arrive for the first semester of classes.

Students decide to attend law school for a myriad of reasons. Yet each year many students resign from school during the first semester for “personal” reasons. Many more endure three years of an academic program for which they are not well suited. I believe that this is a result of students not fully comprehending their own motivations.

I would encourage you, in consultation with your pre-law advisor to develop an understanding of why you are making the decision to attend law school. Verbalize or write down your stated reasons and your unstated reasons for thinking about law school. For example, do you say it is for the educational experience, but really mean that it is your default choice because you do not know what else to do at this point? Have you always wanted to be a lawyer, but when you get beneath the surface it is because being a lawyer is “what one does” in your family? Explore your assumptions regarding lawyers and how you see yourself being a lawyer—Are you seeking intellectual challenge? Looking to make a difference in the world? Are you uncertain whether to pursue an MBA, other graduate program or law school? Are you looking for prestige? status? or a way to satisfy parental/family pressures and/or traditions? Do you believe that going to law school is what an individual with high academics should do? Think about your answers to these questions. Do not be surprised or scared that some reasons may be incongruent with each other. Learn about yourself from your answers. This analysis can help you determine whether law school really is appropriate for you. You may decide the answer is no, and that is okay. Or, you may decide yes, and that is okay too. Your goal is to make the decision that is best for you and not for anyone else.

2. Learn what lawyers do

Each year I am amazed at the number of prospective (and even matriculated) students who have never met and/or observed an attorney in practice yet know that they want to practice law. It is important that students gain some understanding of what lawyers do including the skills used and expectations involved in the legal profession. Consider making arrangements to shadow a lawyer for a period of time, conduct informational interviews with practitioners from several different practice settings, and/or review publications that discuss the work of attorneys. The Guide to Legal Specialties published by the National Association for Law Placement is an excellent resource as are many of the career guides published by the American Bar Association. Attend criminal and civil trials, attend law school classes, or work as a messenger or paralegal at a law firm.

3. Understand that law is a profession and not just “a job.”

Law is a noble profession (contrary to its portrayal in the popular media). Law school trains one in legal analysis, advocacy, ethical responsibility and the underlying values of the law. But, graduating from law school is just the first step in the process of becoming a lawyer. You must recognize that being a lawyer is a privilege. As with any privilege, though, the individual granted the privilege bears certain responsibilities. For lawyers, this includes taking the bar examination of the jurisdiction(s) in which they will be practicing law, completing a certain number of continuing legal credits each year, fiscal responsibilities, and become an integral part of the community in which they live.

Be aware that your actions, now and in the future, may have consequences on whether you will be able to practice law or not. What do I mean by this? As I already mentioned, graduating from law school is just the first step in becoming an attorney. One must also be admitted to the Bar of the jurisdiction in which they wish to practice. Gaining bar admission usually entails a "character and fitness" test in addition to a written bar examination. Character and fitness boards look closely at incidents of underage drinking, arrests and/or citations one may have been issued, charges of plagiarism in college and/or law school, and a host of other matters — even the status of debts an individual may have. Think before you act — you may be surprised what behaviors are scrutinized.

4. Don't be seduced by the headlines that read “entry-level lawyer salaries top $100,000.” Your future salary as a lawyer is primarily dependent on the clients that you serve.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, Jobs and J.D.'s Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates, Class of 1998 (hereafter Class of 1998 Report), the median starting salary for members of the Class of 1998 was $45,000 with salaries of $70,000 or more being the exception versus the rule. It may surprise many students to learn that $40,000 and $30,000 were the most frequently reported salaries in the Class of 1998 Report. Individuals who serve corporate clients earned more than individuals serving indigent persons (median salary of $60,000 versus median salary of $31,000); and the median salary for government positions was $36,000.

5. If you are interested in pursuing a position in the private sector, you will most likely work for a law firm of 50 attorneys or less.

More than 50% of the private sector entry level positions for the Class of 1998 were in firms of 50 attorneys or less. Small law firms of 2-10 attorneys accounted for the largest percentage of the positions with more than 30% of all private sector positions. The median starting salaries for firms of this size is $37,000. For firms of 11-25 attorneys the median salary is $43,500, and for firms of 26-50 attorneys, $52,000.

Hiring at law firms of 100+ attorneys has increased over the past few years with approximately one-third of the Class of 1998 obtaining positions with these firms. The starting salaries have increased as well with the median salary for firms of 101-250 attorneys at $62,000; 251-500 attorneys at $85,000 and firms of more than 500 attorneys at $90,000. One should not count on obtaining one of these positions. Hiring criteria for these firms are very strict and usually confined to the students in the top 10% or 20% of their class and to those who hold law review membership. In addition, we do not know how long the current hiring trend for the larger firms will continue. In the late 1980's/early 1990's the economy changed —many lawyers were laid off—it could always happen again.

6. From a financial standpoint, plan to be in the middle of the class versus the top 10%.

Be aware that the average law student graduates with more than $50,000 in debt. A recent article in the American Bar Association Journal reported that the Nellie Mae Corporation found “lawyers who have been out of school between one and three years made an average of $37,200 in 1996 but had average educational related debt of $52,600.” June 1999) The monthly repayment amount on this debt would be more than $650.00 per month (at a 9% interest rate). This means that more than one-third of an individual's monthly income is going to this one item alone! Another way to look at this—if you purchase a pizza every week at an average cost of $15.00 with loan money, that pizza will actually cost you $27.00 at the end of ten years. Do you really need that pizza every week?

Often law students expect a large payoff in terms of salary when they graduate and feel entitled to treat themselves well during school. DO NOT DO THIS. The payoff is not immediate upon graduation and you may experience a lifestyle that is very different from what you imagined once you have graduated. Therefore, my advice is to "live like a law student while a student." This means borrowing as little money as you can to finance your legal education, limiting credit card and other debt, learning what it means to borrow $30,000, and being careful how you spend your money. Visit for a wealth of information about borrowing money for school and managing debt.

7. Take a tough academic curriculum and develop excellent writing skills while an undergraduate.

While there is no one major that prepares students for law school, taking on an academic program that is challenging can help prepare a student for the rigors of law school. If one is thinking about the field of intellectual property law, a science or engineering degree is important to have.

Good writing is an important skill for lawyers. They must be able to convince others that their position is the “correct” position both verbally and in written formats. Lawyers write all the time and how well one writes can make the difference between whether the client wins or not. If you have any doubts about your writing ability, I encourage you to seek assistance to improve it now. It will enhance your abilities and marketability in the long run.

8. Be knowledgeable about what is happening in the world.

Becoming focused on one's immediate surroundings is easy while a student. I think that getting in the habit of reading a national newspaper such as the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. is important while an undergraduate. Most of these newspapers are available via the Internet. Being aware of current events can make the classroom experience more meaningful. Oftentimes, in job interviews, current events become a topic of conversation.

9. Be willing to think outside the box.

Law school teaches one to be a problem solver. But you can start this process before you get to law school by recognizing that there is more than one way to approach a problem. Whether you are looking at prospective law schools or prospective employers, look at your strengths and figure out how to market your uniqueness. Similarly, know how to recognize opportunities that may present themselves and take advantage of them. Remain focused on your goals, but recognize that there is more than one path to get there.

10. When all is said and done, law schools ask themselves three questions when deciding whether to admit an applicant or not.

  1. Does this person have the ability to succeed here?
  2. Does he or she appear to be motivated to succeed here? Recognize that motivation is defined differently by different people. This means that you should do things because you have an interest in doing them and not doing them for “resume purposes” only.
  3. Is this individual the “typical” kind of person who has done well here in the past?

The answers to these questions will vary at each institution. A rejection from an institution should never be looked at as a referendum about you as a person. It should be taken as, this institution has determined that it is not the best place for me to undertake my law school studies.

11. Give yourself permission to be happy.

Whether you are looking at potential law schools or at future employment opportunities, it is important that you take the time to get to know yourself. Figure out what you like and do not like. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Your most important values? Your short-term and long-term goals? Remember you are a multidimensional person and not just one or two different things. In other words, you are more than your grades and credentials. If you are in doubt about the questions to ask or are having difficulty sorting through what your responses mean, visit your pre-law advisor and your career services office. They are wonderful resources for you.

Law is a life-long learning process and can be a wonderful journey if you are open to the possibilities.

The journey begins, though, with making decisions that are most appropriate for you.


  1. “And Debt’s All Folks”, American Bar Association Journal, June 1999, p. 24.
  2. Access Group
  3. Jobs & J.D.’s: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates Class of 1998, National Association for Law Placement (1999). [Note: This report is published each year and provides information on positions, salaries, geographic areas, and on how graduates found their jobs. It may be ordered from NALP at (202) 667-1666 or visit their website for further information.]