Derek Meeker is the Founder and President of Dean Meeker Consulting (www.deanmeekerconsulting.com), a law school admissions and career consulting company. Derek previously served as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as Recruiting Manager for global law firm Paul Hastings, and as an admissions reader for the University of Chicago Law School. A former practicing attorney, Derek holds a B.S. in Journalism and is a continuing student in the Writers’ Program at UCLA. He also serves as a volunteer writing and career coach for the Posse Foundation and College Summit.
If you are considering going to law school, you may be wondering if you should apply directly from college or work for a while first. Getting work experience before applying to law school will not only help you stand out in the admissions process, but also will help you stand out as a law student when interviewing for future legal jobs. Law schools really like applicants who have work and life experience. And legal employers love applicants who have work experience. Additionally, spending some time in the workforce could help clarify your career goals and allow you more time to explore whether law school is a prudent investment for you. Thus, my advice: Take at least a year or two to get some “real world” experience before applying to law school. There is no downside—only tremendous benefits!
Work Experience will help you stand out in the law school admissions process.
Acquiring work and life experience after college will make you a more compelling law school applicant because you will have broader experiences from which to draw when writing your application essays (or when interviewing with admissions officers). Law schools want interesting students with diverse perspectives and varied experiences in their classes. Additionally, having full-time work experience illustrates that you have developed and honed skills that are transferable both to your work as a law student and as a future lawyer. Such skills might include writing and editing, advocacy, interpersonal, analytical, critical reading and thinking, communication, leadership, and networking skills. The job does not have to be law-related, as any number of jobs would allow you to hone one or more of these essential skills. Moreover, working full-time requires a heightened degree of maturity, dependability, commitment, discipline, and judgment because you are responsible for showing up everyday for eight or more hours to deliver some type of service or work product. Someone is counting on you, just as your future boss at a law office, co-counsel, and future clients will be relying on you.
Getting work experience helps clarify your career goals.
Getting work experience could clarify your longer-term career goals. You may discover a whole other passion that takes you in a new direction. Or you may become more certain that you want to be a lawyer—and that certainty will translate into a more confident, articulate law school application. Admissions committees like confident, goal-oriented applicants who can clearly articulate why they’re interested in law, and why a particular school is a good fit for them. Once you begin law school, you are on a regimented track that moves very quickly. The first year of law school (1L) is rigorous and demanding. At the end of spring semester of 1L year, you go straight from final exams into a writing competition for membership on your law school’s journals. You then begin work in your 1L summer job, and just a few short weeks later, you are bidding on the law firms with which you want to interview later that summer for your second-year (2L) summer job (yes, those interviews take place a year in advance!). Moreover, that 2L summer job typically leads to your first full-time job after you graduate. Thus, there is very little time in law school to “figure things out.” Do it before you get there. Being in the “real world” after college will inevitably help clarify your career goals.
Law School is expensive and today’s legal market is competitive.
Law school is an expensive endeavor. Allow yourself time to ensure it is the right choice for you. We all hear stories about unhappy lawyers. In my experience, many unhappy lawyers didn’t fully understand what they were getting into because they didn’t take the time to thoroughly research what lawyers do. And they found themselves in jobs they didn’t really want but felt they needed to take to pay off their student loan debt. Or worse, the only job they could get was a job that didn’t pay enough for them to live comfortably and make their monthly student loan payment. Indeed, the median starting salary for recent law school graduates was just over $62,400, while their median debt was $141,000!
That said, there are also lawyers who love what they do and make a comfortable living. You could be one of them. Take time to do sufficient research on what law school entails, on what lawyers do (and earn!), and on what the estimated cost will be to you. Working after college could allow you additional time to fully explore the cost of law school and your job prospects. And you will likely be a happier lawyer should that be the path you choose!
Work Experience will help you stand out in the job search process.
Having work experience will make you a more competitive candidate when you are applying for legal positions, especially if your work experience is related to the practice area that you will be pursuing. But even if it is completely unrelated (or you don’t yet know your practice area interest), as discussed earlier there are a plethora of jobs that will allow you to cultivate qualities and skills that will make you a better lawyer and, thus, a more competitive job candidate. And being a more competitive job candidate, i.e., someone with a JD and highly developed skills and experience that legal employers are seeking, means you will be better positioned to land one of the more lucrative legal jobs.
Bonus benefits of working before going to law school.
If all that isn’t enough, here are some additional benefits to working full-time before applying to law school:
Work experience helps compensate for a lower GPA.
The undergraduate GPA is a critical factor in the admissions process. Work experience for a sustained period of time will help offset a weak academic record. Once your college career ends, your grades are set in stone and a law school admissions committee is going to scrutinize them as part of the admissions process. While obtaining a high LSAT score is an effective means for compensating for a lower GPA, it doesn’t show whether you are capable of performing excellent work for a sustained period of time. Substantive, progressive work experience for an organization or company can do just that!
Letter of recommendation from your employer.
While law school admissions committee desire letters of recommendation from college professors, they also value having letters from employers who provide perspective on professional skills, work ethic, and character. Working full-time could provide an opportunity to obtain additional letters of recommendation in a non-academic setting.
Save some money; minimize debt.
And of course, working after you graduate from college could allow you to save money for law school (or pay off some debt you may have incurred during college). In summary, working before attending law school provides many short- and long-term benefits. Many students, alumni, and clients with whom I have worked over the years expressed regret for not taking time off in between college and law school. But not a single one of those who worked before going to law school ever expressed remorse. If a law is the right career path for you, law school will always be an option—and you will get there.