What is this career path?
By Law we mean studying for a law degree and then practicing law in the US as an attorney, counsel or solicitor, or in the UK as a barrister or solicitor. In particular, we focus on ‘high-end law’, since there are really two law job markets, the lower end offering significantly less potential to achieve good.
Note that in the US you must do a three year law degree after your undergraduate studies. In the UK, however, you can complete most of your studies as an undergraduate, or do a two year conversion course, which is usually paid for by a law firm. So, it is much cheaper to enter law in the UK.
Potential for immediate impact
Potential for direct impact
Lawyers can contribute by helping to create an effective legal system, especially if they become judges. However, our guess is that this route is not neglected, so we expect you’d need to be exceptionally talented to rise up the ranks and make a difference through this path.
Much more ordinary legal work doesn’t seem to make a large difference, because it might involve a zero-sum competition over a fixed pool of legal fees. Moreover, there’s widely thought to be a trade-off between earnings and positive direct contribution, suggesting that if you seek a more beneficent area, you’ll reduce your potential to earn to give.
High-end law is a high-earning career, so you can make a difference through earning to give. We rank it lower on earnings potential than front facing finance, because of the time spent training. The largest and highest paying firms (“BigLaw”) pay similar starting salaries – around $180,000 in 2016. Bonuses for first-year lawyers at Cravath, which tends to pay the largest amount, were $15,000 in 2016. Although this is high, it takes three years of expensive training to reach that level. Investment bankers start on more like $110,000 (including bonuses), but by year four would typically be earning around $170,000 and have spent nothing on training. In addition, the top end of earnings within front facing finance seems higher than the top end of legal salaries.
Potential for long-run impact
A law degree (and to some extent practicing law) is a common pathway into policy and political careers, especially in the US, while at the same time it gives you access to legal jobs, some of which are very well paid. It’s also a generally impressive qualification.
Being a lawyer shows you can work hard, synthesise information and argue a case. Knowledge of the law is also useful for some positions in management, finance and the civil service. Lawyers often move into other fields (see More to Law for profiles).
However, we don’t recommend entering law unless you’re relatively confident you want to either practice law or enter policy. It’s expensive to qualify (especially in the US), and we suspect there cheaper ways to learn more transferable and valuable skills, which will better keep your options open (such as [strategy consulting]).
Finally, the culture within some law firms is often thought to be bad (perhaps from the focus on zero-sum games and the defense of the morally, socially or environmentally criminal which is often intrinsic in Corporate Law), which may pose a challenge to progression for someone especially interested in having a social impact.
Law is among the most high-earning options for people with strong verbal abilities but relatively weaker numerical ability. You’ll need to be prepared to work very long hours.
Job satisfaction is a significant problem for this career. Although it’s likely that widespread claims that lawyers are unhappy are overblown, job satisfaction is lower in this career than others. Moreover, rates of depression are several times higher than average.1 There are many features of the work that could encourage disatisfaction (see here, here and here)
“Although lawyers are consistently manifesting levels of satisfaction around 80%, this nonetheless reflects disproportionate levels of dissatisfaction
when compared to other occupations where the percentage of “very satisfied”or “somewhat satisfied” is in the 84–86% range. Comparatively speaking, then, lawyers may be slightly less satisfied than those engaged in other occupations. More significantly, the fact that roughly 80% of lawyers consistently describe themselves as being “satisfied” still has to be reconciled with the separate empirical data that indicates lawyers disproportionately experience alcoholism, depression, and other mental health issues.” (p45) Jerome M. Organ, “What Do We Know About the Satisfaction/ Dissatisfaction of Lawyers? A Meta-Analysis of Research on Lawyer Satisfaction and Well-Being”, University of St. Thomas Law Journal, Volume 8, Issue 2, Article 7. URL:http://ir.stthomas.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1252&context=ustlj. Accessed: 2014-10-29. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6Th3iXpS6) ↩