Dear New Law Student and Family:

This is a form letter for families that have just had a son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother, start law school and are asking for advice or who want to understand just what is going on. The following are the things you need to know. By the time you've finished reading, you should have the answers to the questions you've been asking.

First, the first year of law school is incredibly time consuming. Plan on the new law student dropping out of sight for 60-70 hours a week. They will also begin to socialize and to make friends with other law students which will take another five to twenty hours a week. Needless to say, divorce rates in law school are extremely high. First year law students are learning to "think like a lawyer" which means that they are learning to put everything last except time spent on law. Some recover, but many experience a permanent change in priorities and goals.

Second, the first year of law school is extremely stressful. This has several parts.

Almost all first year law school students are used to doing very well academically and have learned how to learn. By graduation they have a number of things they expect. Most of those expectations are dashed in law school.

(a) To being with, first year law school classes actually disrupt the learning process. The manner in which the classes are taught lends a net negative pedagogic benefit -- students lose ground by attending classes. The ABA (American Bar Association) has made class attendance mandatory. So excellent students go from learning easily and really enjoying it to being disrupted and finding classes painful.

(b) Next, college seniors in the to 10% or so of their classes are used to being respected and well treated by their professors. They are used to consideration, patience and respect. First year law class professors consider the students untried raw meat, 95% worthless. The change is often a dramatic shock for students.

(c) Finally, 90% of the class will not be in the top ten percent. That seems pretty obvious, but in most law schools, 90% of the class (or more) is used to being in the top 5% (or top 1%). For most students, law school means that they will have failed (since not being in the top 10% means failure to them). Worse, the grading method in law school is extremely arbitrary and guarantees a result more random than fair (especially in the first year when all the important grades, rankings, admissions to co-curricular programs and 1st clerk ships are all determined).

Most law school grade curves have a range of thirty to forty points. (e.g. a school may grade all tests between 50 and 90. No grades higher than 90, none lower than 50). The difference from the top third to the bottom point is often 3 points or less. (Perhaps 2.75). If you have a background in applied statistics you are ready to appreciate that between the 25%tile of performance and the bottom 75%tile of performance there is no reliable distinguishing feature. So students perform orally all semester and then have a written final without significant writing experience for the type of final given. From this one test comes the class's grade.

The changes in ability to learn, status, treatment, and fairness cause a great deal of stress (unless a student ends up in the top 10%, whereupon they are told by professors that it is pure merit that got them where they are and that while all the other students are worthless culls, the top 10% is the deserving cream that has risen to the top -- even if their overall GPA falls over time to the bottom third or lower).

Third, law students encounter the reality of life after law school. This reality is harsh and not at all what placement, recruiters or popular media has held it out to be.

(a) Only about 16% of law students find employment after law school. For example, in Texas, 3000 new attorneys are admitted to practice every year. Texas has 500 new legal jobs every year. (500/3000 is 16.7 percent). Some schools do much better, some do worse. Typically, legal recruiters (not law school recruiters, but the people with jobs to offer) want only students between the top 25% and the top 15% from "top 25" schools (I put "top 25" in quotes since there are about forty schools that fit into that category -- more than 25 schools, but less than 25% of the 200 or so ABA approved law schools).

(b) Many law firms require 2,400 or more billable hours a year. (A billable hour is a specific lawyer concept, but to generate 40 of them in a week takes about 60 hours). Long talks with academics who left large law firms reflects that in most cases they estimated that the firms were only doing about 1,100 hours of useful work every year and then overbilling the rest in order to generate the hours necessary to meet the standards. Of those who meet the standards, maybe 5% are making partner in ten to twelve years instead of 75% making partner in five or six years. That applies to Harvard grads (thus The Wall Street Journal story, run on page one of the second section, comparing the Harvard ten year reunion for the class of '85 to the numbers at the ten year reunion for the class of '75).

(c) Many consumers of legal services are discovering that associates working on a file take up a great deal of time and accomplish very little. A large business with regular EEOC work that my brother consulted for (he is an MBA), noted to him that when their lawyer brought associates he did worse quality work. So they told the firm that one they would not pay for any of the associate hours and two whenever associates were brought along, they expected a discount for the drop in quality of work. This trend (of dumping associates) will have a downward pressure on the demand for new lawyers by large firms. Many small firms have just quit hiring associates (in the town where I live I don't know of any new lawyer associates hired for the last ten-twelve years and only two experienced lawyers hired as associates in the last five or six).

(d) Many of the sources of work that new lawyers traditionally signed up for, Legal Services Corporation Attorneys (LSC is a federal agency that does legal work for the indigent -- most divorces for abused and penniless women and the like), criminal defense appointments, mental health appointments, and such, are now being done by established attorneys who need the work. They have better connections, better skills and (due to the changed economic climate) a well-honed sense of desperation. The kind of work that used to be the bread and butter of new attorneys who had to take a route other than "large firms" is now completely unavailable and being done by attorneys with ten to thirty years of experience.

Law students generally do not discover these facts until they are in their second or third years of law school. By this time they usually have substantial debts, substantial dreams, have lost any useful or employable skills or contacts they had outside of law, and reality is a dramatic encounter for them. All projections are that things will get worse every year for the next five to ten years.

Fourth and finally, law students begin to discover that the "thinking like a lawyer" that law schools teach is not how lawyers think. In fact, it takes four to six years for a graduate of law school to quit thinking like "an ----" and to start thinking like a lawyer.

A graduating law student does not think like a lawyer and has no useful skills to practice as an attorney. Worse, there is no one interested in training him or her. (The ABA has a publication, Survival Skills for Practicing Lawyers that has a chapter on why the partners in a large firm do not want to waste time training new lawyers and some suggestions about how to persuade them to help a little. It has nothing for the 90% who are not in that environment).

For comparison, to obtain a Masters in Clinical Psychology requires 450 supervised clinical hours (in addition to the academic work) and to become a Licensed Professional Counselor requires another two thousand hours of supervised clinical internship. Many health care providers question whether that is enough experience.

By comparison, to graduate from law school takes 0 hours of supervised clinical experience and to take the bar exam and become a licensed attorney takes 0 more hours of supervised clinical experience. Any recently graduated law student in his right mind knows that 0 hours is not enough when more than 2,400 hours is considered not enough in other fields.

If he or she doesn't know it upon graduation, they soon discover the truth.

In conclusion, not only does your new law student have the usual mannerisms and attitudes that come from learning to act like his or her professors in logically questioning everything and dissecting statements into very small parts, they have extremely stressful loads of work, a great deal of shock and turmoil as they go through law school, and even worse to encounter as they graduate.

I hope that I've answered all the questions you probably had. Things like, "why don't I see Jane any more?" or "Why isn't John more excited about graduation?" or "How did Susan get so bitter?" or "Why are David's grades so poor?" or "What am I getting for $40,000.00 a year in tuition and expenses?" or .... you now know what is going on and why your law student is either acting extremely stressed or has reached new levels of self-esteem and pride.

That's right, some students find law school rewarding. In a good law school, the top 10% (at the end of the first year) still receive something valuable and still find ready employment.  Heck, even the rest of the students learn things and have an excellent chance of success – they just don’t see things that way. Law school isn't bad for everyone. It is great for the type of people who become law professors and provides them a comfortable living with status, substantial time to relax and apparent security. It can be great for the rest of the students as well – if they learn how to get past what seems like insurmountable barriers.

Hope the information in this form letter helps. While these answers are not solutions to the problems that caused you to have questions, I hope that by having some understanding of what is going on you are better prepared to deal with the new law student in the family.

THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN FOR AN AUDIENCE CENTERED IN THE LATE 1980s, EARLY 1990s.  MUCH OF IT IS NOW OUT OF DATE, NUMBERS CHANGE, THE ECONOMY CHANGES, AND OTHER THINGS CHANGE.  The target audience of this essay was the families of new law students who were having difficulty understanding the pressure and stress that “their” law student was feeling (and for a particular friend of mine in specific).  This essay was not intended to discourage people from going to law school or to tell them they couldn’t succeed afterwards (since I think highly of the value of going to law school and of the chance people have to succeed, regardless of class standing or the school they attended).



Mediation Bulletin Board Link
Link to Dispute Resolution Related Book Reviews

Copyright 1998 Stephen R. Marsh [home]

Mediation Essays

Mediation Topics

Mediation Centers

Advanced Topics

Bulletin Board

ADR Links

More ADR Links


E-Mail to Author

Author's Home Page

Search the Site