Above the Law asked a simple question of their readers today: “Are you still happy you went to law school?” The post immediately received dozens of replies, some of which are laugh-out-loud funny (as are many things on ATL); but most were impressively negative.
It got me thinking, “Am I happy I went to law school?” And the answer, after a bit of pondering, was an unqualified “yes.” I had to ponder because I don’t practice law today, and I didn’t even go to law school because I had a tremendous passion for the law.
My legal journey started with me simply deciding sometime in grade school that I wanted to be a lawyer. While I have some relatives who are lawyers, I really have no idea where I got this. Then in high school people starting telling me I should be a lawyer – but I think that’s because no one saw me being a doctor. The old adage of being (or marrying) a doctor or a lawyer was still firmly in place (this was before Microsoft added “software engineer” to the list); so, if I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I had to be a lawyer. Then in college my brother headed off to medical school and fraternal competition largely sealed my fate.
I was excited to attend law school because I loved to write and speak, but other than that I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I was pursuing “success,” but I brought no more definition to that than your average 22 year old who had read (but not truly understood) the Great Gatsby . . . or maybe an interview with Van Halen’s David Lee Roth (I remember his 80’s quote, “Money won’t buy you happiness — but it will buy you a boat big enough to sail right up next to it.”). I wanted to be somebody, and being a lawyer seemed like my best path to get there.
I matriculated to The National Law Center at The George Washington University (subsequently and thankfully shortened to GW Law School) in the fall of 1989 and, from one of my earliest 1L classes where my professor called me out for whispering something to another student, I tumbled down the legal rabbit hole – not to return for roughly five years. Almost stereotypically, law school and my early days as an associate sucked the life out me. It was just hard, as I never felt I had time to do anything but work and I never felt that my work was making a much of a dent in the world.
I will spare you the autobiographical soliloquy, but it’s safe to say that my first step in the right direction was a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1994, and everything thereafter just seemed to repeatedly fall into place. The SEC was a fabulous place to learn, and it took me to a big firm and partnership, which led me to being a general counsel for a public company, which led me to moving to the business-side of that company and slowly morphing into a “business-person-with-a-law-degree.”
So, since roughly 1994, I’ve been happy that I went to law school. And I think that happiness is based on the following four skills that law school truly helped me develop:
- Commercial Insights: When I was considering law school, my uncle (a lawyer) told me that my law degree would always be valuable because “The Law” was an underpinning of commerce. He was correct; and to this day I’m always happy to have the ability to quickly evaluate the legal angles of any business situation – and there are legal angles in every business situation.
- Analytical Ability: Law school simply taught me to think better. It forced me to organize my thoughts and present them in a compelling way. The IRAC structure of advocacy (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) still sticks with me and applies to all sorts of non-legal situations. In my earliest media training at Expedia, the trainer taught me an IRAC-like structure for answering questions. Not surprisingly, I picked it up very quickly. Trimming complex things down to their simple parts is an invaluable skill.
- Legal Point of View: How the law works makes a lot of sense . . . if you think like a lawyer. Law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer which gives you a fairly unique point of view. I look at many regulated situations and have a deeper understanding of why they are like they are, and whether I have any chance at affecting them. This was certainly the case with Avvo. I looked at how consumers and lawyers were finding each other and the model simply looked broken. With my legal point of view, I was able to conceptualize something that I knew could be valuable . . . and would weather the legal challenges. :-)
- Mental Strength: Law school made me mentally stronger. I know that sounds almost trite, but the law school crucible forced me to grow up and simply handle difficult situations better. I was a young, coddled undergrad who suddenly was thrown into Mad Max’s Thunderdome. I had to get it together and perform or risk being impaled by law school finals — the academic equivalent of Tina Turner in a chainmail corset. No ifs, ands or buts – you had to start preparing for these three-hour torture sessions from day one of the semester. Similar to SEAL training, I think law school was also just painful enough that almost every life situation is favorably compared against it. “Wow, I’m hanging upside down because I just rolled my new car. Oh well, at least I don’t have law school finals coming up!” I joke, but not by much.
So, for those many ATL commenters who are clearly not finding value in their law degree, I would say that no profession is perfect. No life is perfect. Law school is hard and expensive but, with a little perspective (maybe after you right your professional ship like I did), hopefully you will see the gifts that law school has given you.
In the end, so much of success is what you make of it. Law school puts a unique set of tools on the bench. May you all use them to shape something professionally satisfying.