For the record, a law degree is not “versatile.” Being a lawyer amounts to a strike against you if you ever decide to pursue another career.
So why do people keep insisting it’s an “extremely versatile degree”?
A bunch of reasons.
Law schools are in it for the money. Teaching law doesn’t cost much, but they charge a fortune – made possible by not-dischargable-in-bankruptcy loans. That makes each law school a massive cash cow for the rest of the university. Money flowing from the law school pays the heating bill for the not-so-profitable Department of Neo-Structuralist Linguistics.
Law students play along with the “extremely versatile degree” farce to justify the three years of their life and the ungodly pile of cash they’re blowing on a degree they’re not interested in and know nothing about. This myth is also intended to calm down parents. You need a story to explain why you don’t have a job, but that it’s somehow okay.
No one else cares. And that’s chiefly why this old canard still has some life left in it.
Time to put it out of its misery.
Why is a law degree not versatile?
Let me count the ways.
For one thing, it costs about $180k. Anything that leaves you two hundred grand in a hole is not increasing your “versatility” – it’s trapping you in hell.
For another thing, studying arcane legal doctrine for three years (a purely arbitrary number) leaves you with no translatable skills. The arcane legal doctrine you learn in law school isn’t even useful at a law firm, let alone anywhere else.
And let’s talk about the “skills” a lawyer “hones” in his “profession.”
A litigator is about the worst thing you can be if you want to do anything else. Why? Let’s examine the skills you “master” as a litigator.
Pumping up billables. Dragging out discovery. Dreaming up and laboriously penning pointless motions to create delay. Behaving in an oddly aggressive and hostile manner at meetings that end in a standstill. Organizing complicated information into folders, and folders of folders and labeling everything and organizing that into lists, and lists of lists, then billing for it by the hour. Researching recondite issues and writing memos you’re not even sure you understand. Wrapping your head around Byzantine procedural rules and forum and jurisdictional niceties and arbitrary court filing deadlines, all so you can trip up the other side with needless delay and expense.
Okay. Now translate those skills into the real world, where people make products and sell useful services.
See my point?
If you’re on the corporate side, at least you get to watch business people do their thing before you spend the night typing it up. That’s why corporate partners are considered more valuable at firms when it comes time to recruit. Corporate guys hang out with business people, so they bring a “book of business” (i.e., customers) with them. A litigator doesn’t even have clients, just cases, which might (God forbid) end some day. A litigation partner without a live case is dead wood awaiting pruning. Sorry.
Of course, the actual “stuff” of corporate law could drive you mad. Studying securities law is like learning the rules to the most boring, complicated board game ever invented. All you want to do is quit playing and go home.
But there’s a bigger, broader problem with switching careers when you have the letters JD after your name: people hate lawyers.
Why do they hate lawyers? A bunch of reasons.
If you are a real person in the outside world, the word “lawyer” means obstruction. The phrase “run it past Legal” means you might as well give up, ’cause it’s never gonna happen. Exciting business ventures ooze to a standstill like a sabre-toothed tiger in the La Brea Tar Pits. Some risk-adverse dweeb in a suit will spout dire warnings to you about unlikely contingencies until nothing seems like it’s any fun anymore.
Lawyer means pretentious – socially awkward losers with fancy degrees telling you what to do when they’ve never run a business in their lives.
Lawyer means threats. “You’ll hear from my lawyer” is the worst thing you can say to another person. And lawyers love to write threatening letters – it’s what they do best. That’s why lawyer is synonymous with wasted time and wasted money.
Lawyer means annoyance. Lawyer means hassles. Lawyer means a total void of common sense. Lawyer means expensive, with little to show for it.
Now mail someone in the real world a resume that says “lawyer” all over it and ask yourself why you never got called in for an interview.
When I was trying to escape from law I hid my law degree at the bottom of my resume, in small print. At the top, I made the most I could of a year spent managing a small, independent bookstore.
I was trying to get a job in the marketing department of a major online bookseller.
I got lucky. The guy who hired me was a former banker, who talked his way into his job by stressing experience in the credit card business. Ultimately, the two of us created the co-branded Barnes & Noble.com mastercard.
He was willing, as an ex-banker, to understand how badly I wanted to be an ex-lawyer, and I sweetened the pot by taking a 45% pay cut and doing my own legal work (which saved him about half his departmental budget.)
I also begged, and came very close to breaking down in tears. It isn’t easy convincing someone in the real world to hire a lawyer.
A year later I tried to get a friend – another burnt-out lawyer – into a job in my department. I took his resume to the head of HR.
She looked at me, uncomprehending.
“This guy’s a lawyer,” she said, like it tasted bad.
I flashed a winning grin. “C’mon Brenda,” (HR people are always named Brenda and have big hair.) “A year ago I showed up here with the same exact resume and I got hired.”
She didn’t smile.
“I wouldn’t have hired you with this resume.”
Then I realized why it took my boss so long to finalize my hire. He fought for me, and ended up pulling rank to get past HR.
Versatile my ass.
Look – I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
Psychotherapy is about owning your thoughts and feelings.
A J.D. is not a versatile degree. Law is a specialized field which carries a heavy stigma beyond its own hermetic confines.
An “extremely versatile degree”?
That’s simply a crock. A versatile crock. But still a crock.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)