Like many American presidents Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer. But he never earned a law degree. Back in his day, all he needed to do was “obtain a certificate procured from the court of an Illinois County certifying to the applicant’s good moral character.” Lincoln appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court, received his certificate, and took his oath six months later. He would go on to try over 5,000 cases, including one before the US Supreme Court.
During the 1850’s, as Lincoln’s reputation as a litigator grew in truth, and probably legend, there were over 2,700 lawyers in his home state of Illinois, three for every 1,000 residents. Even today, that might seem like too many, but Illinois was a growing state, thanks to the expansion of the railroads.
Lincoln’s story offers a cautious tale for today’s would-be lawyers. The costs of a legal education might not be worth it. You need to costs against the numbers of practicioners, and the time that it might take to get a return on your investmen. While law school graduates are likely to finish with over six figures in student loan debt, the average starting salary was less than $90,000 for a new hire in a private practice in 2017. For new hires who joined public agencies, the average was less than $55,000. Abraham Lincoln spent nothing on his legal education, reading Blackstone’s Commentaries on his own before he was allowed to practice.
Whenever I see high costs, but also lower than expected starting salaries, for an advanced degree, I’m primed to ask questions.
The most important question is: “Why do you want to become a lawyer?”
Whenever I ask this question, I get different answers, such as:
I want to fight for (insert name of group here) in court. Ask yourself, who is bringing the fight that you want to fight? Is it a non-profit or a government agency? Or is it a large corporate law firm that is bringing the fight pro bono? It’s one thing to work for an organization where the fight is the primary agenda. It’s another to be told to tackle less interesting work so that your firm can take pro bono clients. Also ask yourself, can you bring the fight in other ways that do not require a law degree? Not everyone who has led a cause has been a lawyer.
I want to make public policy. Not everyone who works for an advocacy group, a government agency, corporate public affairs office or lobbying firm has a law degree, though the education certainly helps in drafting legislation. Consider how much you are ready to borrow or spend to get the education that you would need to take a job designing public policies or management practices. When I studied urban planning, instead of law, I had a choice of two programs that offered me generous financial aid. Most law schools are not so generous.
I want to make big business deals. A law degree can help when you need to draft contracts. But an accounting or finance degree is better when you want to find the best way to make the most money for your company or client. A sports agent, for example, does not need a law degree. But it really helps if s/he knows a sport as well as accounting, finance and statistical analysis.
I want to work for myself. When you consider the costs of a law degree, ask yourself: is this the most cost effective path to self employment? Think about what it would take to start your own practice after you pass the bar, or work for a more experienced lawyer. Are you ready to face competition, as Abraham Lincoln did in his day?
I understand why people want to pursue a law degree. It makes one a “professional,” much like a physician is one. But if you have any doubts about what a lawyer does, talk to a few of them. Open your ears, and your mind. Pay attention when you hear the most interesting lawyers tell you that they did not need a law degree to do what they do well.
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