Summary

Going to law school in the United States may help you pursue careers in policy that can address some of the world’s most pressing problems. Being a practising lawyer can also potentially have a high impact. The educational experience itself can offer meaningful career benefits.

However, there are substantial downsides to law school, and it may be a poor fit depending on your personal circumstances. It’s worth fully exploring what aims law school would help you accomplish, whether there are more promising alternatives, and whether you would find pursuing a career in law or policy fulfilling.

Pros

  • You may have more access to impactful roles
  • You can develop a deep understanding of critical aspects of US policy
  • Law school imparts potentially valuable skills, connections, and opportunities

Cons

  • Law school can be expensive, competitive, and stressful
  • There may be more promising alternative paths to achieving similar goals
  • Some legal careers are demanding and onerous

Key facts on fit

Pursuing a law degree is best for people who have a clear idea of how they want to use a policy career to have a positive impact. People with strong verbal reasoning, writing, and analytical skills will have an advantage in this path. It may be difficult for people who can’t spend 50+ hours per week on schoolwork or for whom prolonged periods of stress or frequent discouraging feedback are especially costly.

Next steps

Consider attending a law class, watching videos of classes online, or speaking to a law school student to better understand the process. You can even get an internship or an entry-level job in a legal or policy field to test out your aptitude and fit.

Sometimes recommended

If you have a clear plan for using a law degree to effectively address an important cause area, and you have reason to believe you’re well-suited to the work, going to law school may be a particularly productive step in your career.

This article outlines considerations for readers deciding whether to get a US law degree, explains how it might help them have a positive impact, and describes the law school experience. It is based on public resources about law school and careers in law and policy, as well as the experiences of people who have recently attended or considered attending law school. Consider this post a series of “best guesses” about how to approach the decision about whether to attend law school, rather than a definitive guide or empirical study.

If you are interested in getting in touch with members of the effective altruism community who have attended, currently attend, or are considering law school, you can fill out this short survey from a small group of people who help lawyers and students make career decisions and build professional networks for their specific interests and career stage.

I. Why law school could be an important step in a promising career path

The most common jobs for lawyers are probably not the most promising from the perspective of doing as much good as you can. A large share of US lawyers, especially graduates of top-ranked law schools, work in large private law firms, organising corporate transactions or defending large companies from lawsuits.1

But law school can be a promising route into high-impact careers in policy and government, especially for people interested in eventually holding senior roles for which formal credentials are highly valued.

Since we believe working in policy to address some of the most pressing problems in the world is among the most promising career paths for people who want to have a high positive impact, law school may be a particularly appealing place to start, especially for people who are early in their career. Policy work in the US is a particularly high-priority path, because the US federal government has an outsized impact on some of the most important cause areas.

(Readers should note, though, that a law degree is not necessarily required for these positions, and it can be a costly credential to obtain.)

Getting a legal education is also a necessary step to practising law, which includes some roles we haven’t researched much but which might be high-impact, such as becoming a litigator (a lawyer who works on cases that go to court) focused on animal welfare or biosecurity, or designing contracts and governance structures in high-stakes settings.

If you do decide to go to law school, it is valuable to go in with a clear plan about how you will use your legal education to achieve a positive impact on the world. Plan especially to take advantage of opportunities to develop concrete skills, connect with relevant networks, and be on the lookout for opportunities to achieve positive impact that others with different training and backgrounds might have missed.

This section outlines some paths for using a law degree that stand out as especially promising. Readers might also be interested in advice that Cullen O’Keefe, who works on AI governance at OpenAI, shared on these topics during an AMA in 2020.

Roles influencing policy

Some high-impact policy roles for which a law degree can help a great deal include:

Working at a law-focused think tank such as the Center for Democracy and Technology or Public Knowledge could be a promising step for people with law degrees interested in working at the intersection of policy making and research. See this post for additional background about working in think tanks in Washington, DC In some think tanks, having some type of “terminal” advanced degree, such as a JD or PhD, can be an advantage over having a master’s degree.

Some law school graduates also enter legal academia as professors, researchers, or law school clinical instructors.2 A law degree generally is required for these roles. In addition to helping prepare and shape the paths of future generations of lawyers and policymakers, people working in these roles can explore and substantiate legal theories and policy options in important areas, such as governance of emerging technology such as AI. Academics might propose new regulatory structures, articulate legal justifications for important agency powers, or propose important legal limits on government or private action.

Finally, some lawyers work on defining social movements, often in part through litigation, but also using tools outside legal practice like grassroots advocacy and media strategy. This path emphasises the indirect benefits of raising an issue to the public consciousness or conceptualising a harm that might otherwise go ignored.

Roles practising law

The overwhelming majority of law school graduates practice law.3 Anecdotally, many people who enter law school planning to pursue other paths — including roles in policy — end up practising law instead.

In certain roles, individual practising lawyers can have significant leverage to help others by shaping public policy or private incentives. Promising paths include:

  • Litigation, either on behalf of a government enforcement agency or private plaintiffs. For example:
  • Negotiating and verifying compliance with international treaties. For example:
  • Providing regulatory advice in government roles that require bar admission. For example, attorney-advisors help implement important laws and regulations in offices like:
  • Providing legal counsel about important strategic decisions, either as an employee of an important or highly impactful organisation or an external advisor to people in high-leverage roles. For example:
    • In-house counsel at firms like DeepMind provide important legal compliance advice; senior people in these roles often also participate in strategic decision-making and may be responsible for representing “Policy” or “Governance” teams in meetings of “C-suite” top leaders.
    • In-house counsel at organisations and funders working on priority problems can help organisations start up and scale effectively, while avoiding potential legal problems that could significantly reduce their impact.
  • Advising clients about how to write contracts and structure business deals in high-stakes settings where omitting an edge case or misaligning incentives would be especially costly. For example:
    • Lawyers and researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute developed a framework for a Windfall Clause through which developers of potentially transformative AI systems commit to sharing eventual profits of such a system with others.
      More broadly, practising law can be an entry point into working in the US federal government in an area relevant to a top problem, which may be an especially valuable way of building career capital or having direct positive impact. According to FedScope data, there were nearly 42,000 practising lawyers working in the federal government as of September 2021.

II. Advantages of going to law school

Law school equips students with knowledge about details of the US legal system that may be helpful in a variety of law- and policy-related careers.

But since a law degree isn’t always necessary to have an impact on important policy issues, readers should weigh the significant pros and cons of going to law school for their goals.

We’ll start by looking at the advantages law school brings.

Law school gives you structural knowledge about law and public policy

One of the fundamental things taught in law school is the process of answering a legal question: the components of an answer, where to find them, and how to piece them together to understand what is certain and what is ambiguous.

Even more importantly, legal training also gives people a sense of obstacles that are likely to arise when implementing or enforcing a policy. For example, when might a court get in the way? When might the policy not be interpreted as you expect? When might it fall outside the authority of the entity enacting the policy?

Answering these kinds of questions is critical to using a career in policy to have a positive impact.

Law school imparts domain-specific knowledge about particular areas of law

Law school courses also provide instruction in the content of law in several foundational areas. For example, the standard first-year curriculum at most law schools equips students well to answer questions like:

  • What procedural steps are required to file a successful lawsuit in federal court?
    • Example application: What documents must be filed, and by when, to force factory farms to turn over evidence of routine animal abuse? (See, e.g. recent lawsuits regarding misleading labelling of animal products)
  • What are the default rules used to decide who owns a piece of property?
    • Example application: What rules would courts use to resolve conflicts about who owns resources in outer space?
  • Under the US Constitution, what kinds of laws does only Congress have the power to enact, and what kinds of laws can also be enacted by states?
    • Example application: What kinds of new safety restrictions for bioengineering labs can be enacted at the state level, without requiring an act of Congress?

In second- and third-year courses, students can build relevant knowledge about a wider variety of topics, including specific subject-matter areas (e.g, national security law, animal law).

As with the first-year curriculum, knowledge about these topics could have direct applications to important cause areas, helping graduates make a positive difference through legal or policy action. For example:

  • A course in First Amendment constitutional law can help equip students to answer questions like, “How, if at all, can the federal government restrict publication of potentially harmful scientific information without violating the constitutional right to ‘freedom of speech’?”
  • A course in administrative law can help equip students to answer questions like, “What is the extent of a federal agency’s power to regulate in a new area? When might a court step in to stop an agency action?”

It is possible to learn enough about the relevant laws to perform research on these topics without attending law school. However, law school can help a person become a much more effective legal researcher.

Moreover, giving professional legal advice to others about the answers to legal questions generally requires completing law school and becoming a member of the bar in the jurisdiction where you work.4 Developing this professional skillset could be high-impact if you end up working for or advising effective organisations addressing important problems.

What skills and aptitudes does law school help you develop?

Law school can help students build ‘aptitudes’ that will help them tackle pressing problems, including analytical reasoning, distillation, pragmatic thinking, and written and oral communication.

However, law school may not be the optimal way to build these skills — so it may make sense to think of them primarily as “fringe benefits.” If your goal is to optimise for one or more of these aptitudes, rather than to build several of them peripherally while working toward a valuable credential, you can probably do that more directly (and cheaply) or while working full-time on a pressing problem.

Having a law degree opens up opportunities

Beyond providing you with a valuable education, law school also provides graduates with a sought-after credential that can serve as valuable career capital.

This career capital can take many forms:

  • Some roles are only available to people with law degrees (e.g, litigator, attorney-advisor, general counsel).
  • Some highly competitive roles preferentially hire people with law degrees, even if they do not explicitly require a JD
  • In some roles, people with law degrees may be taken more seriously by their colleagues or counterparts.
  • People with law degrees may be more likely to be promoted later in their careers to influential positions.

Law school can give you access to valuable professional networks. Over the course of three years studying together and living in close proximity to one another, most law students form close relationships with many of their peers. Some students also form close relationships with professors, especially by working with them as research assistants. Many people also form connections with practising lawyers and other experienced graduates of their law school through alumni networks.

Networking opportunities often continue well after graduation from law school. Lawyers have many opportunities to meet other people, especially other lawyers, including co-workers, co-counsel, opposing counsel, and judges hearing a client’s case — some of whom may end up in positions of significant social influence. Networks within relatively small legal practice areas (for example, environmental or animal law) can be especially tight.

Law school can also provide access to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. In some cases, a law school affiliation may make some people in high-leverage positions more likely to respond to thoughtful outreach.

And for many students, law school provides a unique opportunity to quickly access many different work environments, test your fit, network with potential employers, and work on interesting projects or with certain actors (e.g. the US Department of Justice) that would otherwise be very difficult to access.

Law school might be a more attractive option for you if…

  • You already have a strong interest in careers where a JD is necessary, such as becoming a litigator, or would provide a distinct advantage, such as working on regulatory policy in government.
  • You already have academic credentials that make you a good candidate for admission to a competitive law school, such as a high undergraduate GPA and/or an especially high score on the LSAT or GRE. (See admissions “predictor” calculators here and here).
  • You have access to significant financial resources, such as family support or scholarship funds, that you can use to pay law school tuition but not to provide direct benefits to others or make other valuable investments. (But note that, especially with support from a loan repayment assistance plan, having these resources is not at all necessary to attending law school and having a positive impact afterward.)
  • You have a strong comparative advantage in verbal reasoning and writing, such that you think your best opportunities to make a positive difference through your career are very likely to make active use of those skills rather than quantitative reasoning or other strengths.
  • You know you do not want to further pursue your current career path or are not on any career path. Law school is a career “reset” button in that professional accomplishments prior to law school, unless truly exceptional or highly specialised, do not have a strong effect on what quality or types of legal jobs you can be considered for. Prior resume gaps or experiences you would prefer not to highlight will carry less weight after you graduate law school, and no one is expected to have any prior acquaintance with legal work or subject matter when they start law school. (Though we also think many people are too quick to use law school as an attempt to “reset” their careers instead of pursuing potentially superior options, as is discussed below.)
  • You would prefer to shift focus away from your undergraduate degree on your CV, either because your grades weren’t as strong as you would have liked or because you attended a college whose networks or employment outcomes aren’t as strong as those of a law school you could attend.

III. Reasons you might not want to go to law school

One potential downside of attending law school is that the experience has the potential to push students toward decisions that they would not, prior to law school, have considered optimal, or that cause them harm in other ways.

Law school is often extraordinarily expensive

The need to make payments on large student loans may push some law students toward high-paying roles in corporate law that are unlikely to be among the best opportunities to help others, even considering their potential for earning to give.

Tuition for some top law schools can be as much as $70,000 a year. There are additional details about the costs of law school below.

There may be physical and mental health costs

Law school can do harm to people’s physical and mental health. It is relatively common to experience severe burnout at some point during or after spending three years in such a high-stakes, competitive environment.

Not only is this a terrible experience in itself, but people who experience that kind of burnout may be less likely to take on a demanding role that they might have found attractive before starting law school. And the stress and toll on mental health associated with law school may hinder their overall productivity in addressing pressing problems.

Readers can check out our advice on how to have a successful career while taking care of their mental and physical health.

Law school may change your values in negative ways

Another potential downside of attending law school is that law students are often surrounded by peers who are optimising for landing jobs practising corporate law at large firms (often because they view these roles as necessary or inevitable), rather than for helping others. Even for more altruistically minded law students, it’s relatively rare to focus on larger-scale issues like animal welfare or governing transformative technologies.

Being surrounded by peer groups with such different goals may make it more challenging for effective-altruism-minded students to keep up the motivation to pursue a less-trodden path, such as taking a policymaking role focusing on AI safety.

Readers considering law school may want to speak with someone who has been to law school to get a better sense of how these pressures manifest in practice. Some people have also written perspectives on this phenomenon that may be helpful: this essay, which was written by a law student in 1998 but still resonates with students today, provides one perspective on potential personal costs of spending time in an institution optimising for goals other than your own. This qualitative study explores the pressures toward corporate law that many top law students report experiencing; it includes several excerpts of interviews with law students.

Should you get a law degree to earn to give?

We think readers considering law school with an eye toward making a high salary in order to donate part of it to effective organisations – earning to give – may benefit from considering other options.5

While it is possible to earn a high income by working as a lawyer (e.g. as a partner in a law firm serving large corporate clients or as a general counsel to a large public company, both of which can lead to seven-figure compensation; or as a plaintiff-side class action litigator, which can lead to 10-30% contingency fees on nine-figure court judgments and settlements), the paths to the highest-earning legal roles are highly selective, demanding, and uncertain.

You might have options for earning to give that have higher expected value. For example, strong candidates for admission to top law schools who also have above-average quantitative skills would likely also be competitive for roles in finance or management consulting that can eventually lead to high incomes without incurring the opportunity cost and direct expense of spending three years in law school. Similarly, the expected value of becoming a for-profit entrepreneur may be higher than the expected value of high-earning legal careers for many candidates, and it is not clear that law school would improve most people’s chances of success on an entrepreneurial career path.

Law school might be a less attractive option for you if…

  • It seems unclear whether a JD would help you on the path to having the kind of positive impact you hope to have on the world, and you can think of more promising uses of the three years you would spend in law school.
  • You don’t currently have a clear plan for what you would like to do after law school and why that option is valuable compared to alternatives that are available to you without a law degree.
  • You already have elite credentials, such that the additional value of a law degree as a signal of intelligence and conscientiousness would be less useful.
  • You already have a strong personal fit for a high-impact role working on a pressing problem, such that the opportunity cost of the three years you would spend in law school is unusually high.
  • You have significant personal commitments, such as family obligations, that make spending 50+ hours per week on schoolwork (as well as taking on significant debt) an unusually costly investment.
  • You find prolonged periods of stress, such as a multi-week exam period, or negative feedback, such as a disappointing response from a professor to an answer to a cold-call question you gave in front of several dozen classmates, to be especially costly or discouraging for mental health or other reasons.

IV. What alternatives to law school should you consider?

Most people who have a good shot at admission to a top US law school also have lots of other promising opportunities to have a significant positive impact on the world.

Options that would allow you to test fit for potential paths after law school

Each of these options could be a 2-3 year venture before law school or could help you launch a career that doesn’t include law school at all:

If you feel relatively confident that law school is the right path for you, and you are interested in practising law after graduation, you could also consider working for 1-2 years as a paralegal or legal assistant at a law firm or legal aid organisation. These options involve significant tradeoffs, but they could give you a better idea of lawyers’ day-to-day responsibilities and your potential fit for working as a practising attorney.

Education options that may be attractive alternatives to law school

If you are considering law school primarily as a route to policy careers, you should give serious consideration to master’s degree programmes in subjects directly relevant to policy work, such as MPPs.

Most master’s programmes last two years, compared to three years for law school, and provide students significantly more flexibility in course selection. On the other hand, a law degree might be a somewhat more valuable credential for certain roles.

People with the relevant background should perhaps also compare the costs and benefits of law school to those of a PhD programme in a promising field, such as economics or computer science. Among other differences, law school is shorter but more expensive than most PhD programmes — at least if the PhD is fully funded by the university, which is very common for top programmes.

V. What is law school actually like?

Law school in the US is a graduate professional degree programme. Most US law students enrol in Juris Doctor (JD) programmes, which are typically three-year, full-time programmes.

The sections below will provide detailed descriptions of key facets of law school, which should help you assess whether choosing this path would be a good fit for you.

The first-year (1L) curriculum at most law schools consists mostly or entirely of required courses in core subjects like Criminal Law, Contracts, Civil Procedure, Torts, and Legal Research and Writing. (In this video, UVA professors who teach these five subjects explain what the courses are about.) Many law schools divide 1L students into groups, called “sections,” and assign students to first-year classes with other members of their sections.

Second- (2L) and third-year (3L) students can choose from a wider variety of courses, including additional foundational classes, electives, and clinics in which students provide legal services to clients under the supervision of licensed attorneys. Upper-level students often also take on co-curricular activities like working as law review editors or participating in moot court competitions.

Most law school classes are taught using the case method, in which students read decisions (called “opinions”) written by appellate courts as homework and answer questions about them during class. Many law professors make extensive use of the Socratic Method, often by “cold-calling” students to answer questions about the assigned reading.

Law school grades are typically based mostly or entirely on performance on a multi-hour, essay-style final exam. A few classes involve graded research papers or credit for class participation.

Most law schools do not have “majors,” but some offer recommended tracks or suggested courses for students who know they want to pursue a particular area of law. For example, some schools offer courses in legislative drafting and policy advocacy that may be of interest to students who intend to work in and around government. Others offer specialised courses in intellectual property and trade issues that may be of interest to students interested in advising technology companies.

Some people find parts of the law school curriculum and teaching method to be frustrating. Almost all law school courses strongly emphasise understanding structure and procedure over debating the ethics or wisdom of the actual content of the law, which can be surprising and discouraging for people who enter law school primarily because of their interest in substantive policy. Some law school classes also seem to encourage creative argumentation over truth-seeking; for example, a professor might ask a student to state the argument on one side of an issue, then ask the same student to switch positions and argue the other side, then move on to another topic without pausing to assess which argument is better supported by the facts and the law.

The typical three-year law school calendar leaves time for at least two full-time summer internships in government offices, nonprofit organisations, law firms, or other settings.

These internships can provide valuable, low-cost opportunities to test fit for different work environments, including settings in government where the norm (outside the internship context) is to stay in the same or similar roles for several years. Especially during the summer after 2L year, it is common for law students to “split” their summer between two different internships, spending 6-8 weeks each working for two different employers. Some law schools provide funding to students pursuing public interest-oriented internships, which are often unpaid.

Students can gain additional work experience during law school by pursuing “externships,” which are part-time, often remote roles with similar responsibilities to traditional internships. Most externships take place during the academic year. Similarly, as described above, students can earn academic credit through hands-on courses called clinics, in which students advise clients in a particular area of law. Many students also write independent papers or take on research projects in areas that interest them as part of seminars.

Each of these experiences provides valuable opportunities to test fit for potential paths after law school. Coming into law school with a plan for the kinds of work experiences you want to have and specific questions you want to explore can help you find and make the most of these opportunities.

The first year of law school has a reputation for being time-consuming, competitive, and sometimes discouraging. Most law schools grade on a curve and signal to students that their outcomes after graduation will depend on their grades, leading many students to work hard to keep up with or outperform their peers. Anecdotally, many law students report spending 50-60 hours per week on their coursework during the first year; some report spending even more time. Most law students find that the 1L year requires significantly more work per semester than they did as undergraduates.

Some 2L and 3L students continue to spend 50-60 hours per week (or more) on schoolwork, but it is more common for students to dial back their time investment in schoolwork after the first year. While there is lots of variation in the approaches students take, many students still spend about 30-40 hours per week on coursework during their 2L and 3L years. Students who spend less time than that are often very active in extracurriculars, such as journals, clinics, or externships.

Law students who decide not to optimise for high grades can likely pass their classes while investing less time in coursework, freeing up time to work toward other goals. This strategy closes the door to some paths (e.g. attorney roles in highly selective government offices and certain nonprofits), but can be compatible with other opportunities (e.g. non-attorney policy roles, many nonprofits), especially for students at highly ranked law schools whose “brand” employers recognize and value.

Some of these less-grade-dependent paths have lots of potential to contribute to positive impact in promising cause areas. When deciding how much time to dedicate to working toward high grades, it is worth evaluating whether the career outcomes that interest you most require high grades.

Tuition and fees for law school programmes vary widely. As of 2021, some state universities offered in-state tuition and fees totaling less than $20,000 per year, while the total for many highly-ranked private law schools was nearly $70,000 per year, not including room and board expenses. Most students cover some of the cost of attendance using a combination of need-based scholarships, merit-based scholarships, and loans.

Several top law schools outside Harvard, Yale, and Stanford provide significant merit-based scholarships, often for applicants with GPAs and LSAT scores that are significantly above the median for their incoming classes. For example, the University of Chicago offers multiple full- and half-tuition scholarships every year intended to draw students otherwise likely to attend Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.

Most top law schools have a debt forgiveness programme intended to enable or encourage graduates to take lower-paying jobs in the public interest. These programmes are not very standardised across law schools; their generosity and specific terms vary. Graduates who work in policy jobs straight out of law school are likely to have incomes that would qualify them for some degree of debt forgiveness under these plans. The names of the programme vary; while the generic term for these programmes is often “loan-repayment assistance program” (LRAP), the Harvard Law School programme is called the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP). At certain schools, these programmes are relatively generous and can place graduates’ take-home (after-tax, after-loan payments) incomes in the ballpark of $40,000, and sometimes more. People who remain eligible for and continue to participate in these programmes often have any remaining loan balances forgiven after 10 years. However, the details of these programmes vary widely. Be sure to study the terms of the LRAP at any school you are considering before relying on this option.

Some students find that they can borrow to finance their law school education at a lower interest rate than was available to them as undergraduates, in part because the cohort of JD-holders has a higher average earning potential than the cohort of people with bachelor’s degrees. Outside funding may also be available to help some students cover the cost of a law school education.

VI. Cheap tests to assess your fit for law school

There are several low-cost ways to help figure out if you’re likely to fare well in law school:

1. Speak with a current law student or recent law graduate about their experience.

2. Try attending a class at a nearby law school. Many (but not all) law professors will allow prospective students to sit in on one of their classes, if asked politely in advance. Consider writing an email to a professor at a university where you are studying or are a recent graduate, or near where you are currently working.

3. Try watching a video of a mock law school class.

4. Read a book about the law school experience. One contributor recommends 1L of a Ride, which describes itself as providing “a candid, comprehensive roadmap to both academic and emotional success in law school’s crucial first year.”

5. Try reading an edited version of an opinion written by an appellate court. You could try reading an edited version of the US Supreme Court’s opinion in Erie Railroad v. Tompkins, or McBoyle v. United States. Note that it’s normal for this to be a slow, challenging process at first — most people need more time to read legal opinions than to read other kinds of writing of similar length, especially when starting law school.

You should also consider assessing your ability to earn admission to top law schools by taking a practice test for the LSAT, which you can do for free using the Khan Academy platform or LSAT Demon.

You should not rule out attending law school based on a bad first experience with the LSAT — most people can dramatically improve their performance on the test through study and practice. But finding that these question types come naturally would be good evidence you have some of the verbal reasoning skills that help people succeed in law school.

VII. Getting into law school

An applicant’s particular undergraduate field of study does not tend to matter very much in predicting law school admissions outcomes; however, undergraduate grades are an important factor. Opinions vary (including among contributors to this post) about whether undergraduates aiming to attend top law schools should consider “easier” majors with more generous grading curves. For more information, see this post with detailed advice about law school admissions.

Unlike with some other graduate programs, if you have exceptional grades and test scores, you have very strong odds of admission to a top law school, even if other aspects of your application are less strong. Admissions “predictor” calculators (for example, here and here) can give you a sense for the odds of admission to top schools with a given LSAT score and undergraduate GPA.

It is common for students to work full-time for one or more years between finishing a bachelor’s degree and starting law school. For example, in the most recently admitted class at Harvard Law School, 82% of students were at least one year out of college and 63% were two or more years out of college. Most students work somewhere between two and four years before starting law school. (While it is possible to enter law school after a longer period of working, and every year many people do so, applicants with longer work histories may face a bit more scepticism from law school admissions committees; admissions officers may expect to see a particularly compelling explanation of why such applicants are now pivoting toward law.)

Finally, law school candidates must take an admissions test. Historically, American Bar Association (ABA) rules have required candidates to take the LSAT and law schools have used LSAT scores as an important factor in making admissions decisions. Following a policy change by the ABA in 2021, an increasing number of law schools now accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT. It is possible that future applicants may not have to take either test: in spring 2022, an ABA committee recommended dropping the test requirement. However, at least historically, law school admissions outcomes have been driven in significant part by undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores, alongside factors like candidates’ personal backgrounds and any extraordinary accomplishments they may have had prior to law school.

VIII. Advice to keep in mind if you are leaning toward pursuing law school

Many people enter law school in part to avoid making decisions about what to aim for in their careers. As a descriptive matter, this choice is understandable: making these decisions is genuinely difficult and in most cases involves grappling with massive uncertainty about personal fit and the potential impact of different paths. But unfortunately, as described above, law school is a costly choice that will not, on its own, provide a satisfying resolution to most people’s uncertainty about where to begin their careers. On the contrary, some people find law school pushes them toward career decisions they would not have considered optimal when they first applied.

Instead, it might be helpful to approach the choice to attend law school as an important career decision in itself — not to mention perhaps the largest single financial investment you will ever make. Your experience in law school, like your experience in your first full-time, permanent job, will shape the rest of your career. Considering the choice on those terms might help you decide how law school compares to your other options.

Our career decision process might be helpful here.

Some people leave a job they enjoy and find valuable to enter law school, perhaps because they believe it is important to have the credential value of a graduate degree. While this move can make sense, make sure you understand how law school will help you achieve your long-term goals before making the leap.

If you think your current work is promising and a good fit, before leaving for law school, make sure you have a clear plan for how law school will help you have even greater impact. Talking with more senior people in the field where you hope to work long-term can be a good way of checking how valuable a law degree is likely to be.

There are many different ways of using a law degree, some of which involve very different skills than others. Entering law school with a preliminary theory of how you will use your degree can help you make the most of the time you have in law school to pursue relevant internships, independent projects, and courses.

Some contributors to this article said their most valuable experiences in law school came from self-initiated opportunities outside of class (e.g, clinics, research projects, internships), making it particularly important to have a plan for how you will identify and prioritise projects on object-level questions that are relevant to your interests and goals.

As in other careers, a large fraction of your impact in a career related to law or policy might depend on developing good judgement about which problems to work on and which opportunities are most promising for addressing them. As time allows, try to keep learning about important problems and connecting with people whose work you admire.

That said, you will most likely be extremely busy in law school, and you will need to defer to others for all but a small number of questions that are most directly relevant to your work and current theory of impact. That’s normal and necessary for people pursuing demanding, full-time projects like law school.

There are still a relatively small number of people in the effective altruism community who have attended law school, so the exploratory value of trying this path with an eye toward advocating for animal welfare, improving the long-term future, or pursuing other relatively neglected work to benefit others seems likely to be high. In some cases, you may be among the first people to give serious consideration to using the law in a particular way.

If you’re involved in effective altruism, the legal literacy you gain in law school will also give you a different perspective and skillset from many other members of the effective altruism community, which may help you identify opportunities adjacent to existing projects or give advice that increases the effectiveness of others’ efforts.

IX. Which law schools should you consider?

Within the legal profession, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard have historically been regarded as the “top three” US law schools. (Recently, the University of Chicago has risen in law school rankings, in part because of its excellent employment outcomes; it leads Harvard, which is tied for fourth with Columbia, in the most recent US News and World Report rankings.) Graduates of these schools are well-represented in influential government offices, elite private law firms, and top roles within selective nonprofits. Before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2020, the last person to be appointed to the Supreme Court without having attended Yale, Stanford, or Harvard was Justice John Paul Stevens, in 1975.6

However, many other law schools train students well and place graduates in influential positions. The US News and World Report maintains a ranking of law schools; placement in this list tends to be correlated with graduates’ employment outcomes and the strength of the school’s network, especially in its local market. For those interested in paths in the Washington, DC area (including many US federal policy careers), the law schools at Georgetown, George Washington University, and perhaps George Mason University (particularly for readers interested in building networks among conservative policymakers) may be worth considering. As of 2019, Georgetown was the second-most common law school alma mater of Members of Congress (14 alumni), after Harvard (23 alumni).7

A note of caution regarding mid- and lower-ranked schools

Multiple contributors to this post warned that prospective applicants should think carefully before accepting a seat at a law school outside the top 14 places in the US News and World Report rankings (referred to in law circles as the “T14”), where tuition is similar to that at top schools but career outcomes may be very different.

The demand for especially high-impact legal jobs in federal government, litigation, or advocacy significantly exceeds supply, so employers often resort to filtering candidates using naive proxies, including which law school a person attended. The focus on where people earned their degrees is stronger in the legal profession than in some other fields, so attending a mid-ranked law school may have very different career consequences from, for example, attending a mid-ranked college (which is an excellent choice for many people). There may be an exception to this rule for those who can easily chart their own career paths (e.g. opening up their own impact litigation nonprofit), but the personal risks of that path are high, and even there, getting a top-ranked degree can help.

But note that law school rank will also matter less when your goal is to get non-legal jobs where your hiring managers are not themselves lawyers, as is true for certain congressional or think tank positions.

A post on the Effective Altruism Forum about the law school admissions process provides additional details about schools to consider and data that applicants can use to inform their decision-making.

X. Special programme types

Some JD students attend law school part time, usually by taking evening or weekend classes while working. These programmes typically take four years to complete, often including some summer coursework, but some schools offer three- or three-and-a-half-year tracks.

The part-time JD programmes at Georgetown and George Washington University are well-regarded and could be a good fit for people who are interested in gaining policy-related work experience in the Washington, DC area while pursuing a JD.

Attending law school part-time could be a good fit for some students, but may not be the best choice for everyone. See this post for a list of several factors to consider.

A small number of law schools offer two-year JD programmes.

Some universities also offer “3+3” BA/JD programmes, in which students who have just completed high school (or its equivalent) complete both an initial bachelor’s degree and a law degree in a total of six years, rather than the typical seven.

In general, the law schools with the strongest track record of placing students into selective roles do not offer accelerated JD programmes. However, Columbia Law School’s Accelerated Interdisciplinary Legal Education Programme, a “3+3” option available to students at Columbia College and Barnard College, is an exception that may be worth considering for students at those schools.

These programmes carry some risks. Some students in accelerated programmes might end up feeling that they committed too early. Compressing academic requirements into a smaller number of years might also reduce valuable opportunities to build credentials and gain experiences from internships and other hands-on experiences during law school.

While accelerated programmes might be the right fit for some people, it seems especially important to have a clear plan for how you plan to use your law degree before committing to such a programme.

Many law schools offer dual- or joint-degree programmes, allowing students to complete a JD and another graduate degree in a shorter time (and often at a lower total cost) than would be required to obtain the two degrees independently. Gaining the networks and disciplinary perspectives of two professional schools has its advantages, but readers should also consider the diminishing returns of elite credentials and, if applicable, the opportunity costs of another year of study.

Common degree combinations include:

All of the most highly ranked law schools offer dual- or joint-degree programmes, but specific offerings vary between schools. Refer to the links below for more information about specific dual- and joint-degree programmes available at several law schools that may be of particular interest to readers:

People who hope to work in the US and already hold a law degree from a non-US institution—often an LLB, or an equivalent undergraduate degree in law—could consider applying for an LLM (“Master of Laws”) program at a US law school. LLM programmes are typically one-year programmes requiring a mix of coursework and research. LLM students often enrol in the same courses as JD students.

For students who earned their bachelor’s degree in the US, earning admission to an LLM programme generally requires first completing a JD Because an LLM from a US law school provides relatively little marginal benefit on top of a JD, pursuing both degrees is uncommon.

A small number of students pursue research doctorates at US law schools. Many US law schools offer either an SJD (“Doctor of Juridical Science”) or PhD as a terminal degree for students interested in the academic study of law who already hold an LLM As with research doctorates in other fields, programme lengths vary. Students typically complete coursework and a research dissertation.

An SJD or PhD programme can be a good choice for someone who plans to become a law professor, but would be an unusual step for someone planning to practise law or become a policymaker.

Learn more

You can also review recent postings on our job board, which may give you a sense of potential high-impact career opportunities you’re interested in and what their requirements are.

And, as noted above, if you are interested in getting in touch with members of the effective altruism community who have attended, currently attend, or are considering law school, we encourage you to fill out this short survey.

Sign up

Join our newsletter and get notified when we release new career profiles.

Notes and references

  1. Another significant fraction work on the front lines of the criminal justice system, where there is a significant opportunity to help others that is largely bottlenecked by policy decisions rather than by the effort of front-line lawyers.

  2. Note that working as a clinical instructor, unlike working as a law professor or researcher, often involves practising law.

  3. Formally, “practising law” means performing functions that a person who is not admitted to the bar is not authorised to perform. In the US, state professional licensing statutes determine what constitutes practising law. The American Bar Association has compiled many of these definitions here. According to the American Bar Association, ten months after graduation, 76% of all 2021 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools held jobs that required passing a bar exam; for graduates of some top schools, that rate was significantly higher: it was 96% at Columbia, 94% at Chicago, 91% at NYU, and 87% at Harvard.

  4. In a small number of states, it is possible to be admitted to the bar to provide this kind of advice without attending law school, or after attending law school for less than three years. This uncommon path involves working as an apprentice to a judge or practising attorney and receiving on-the-job training.

  5. For readers who are already practising law in private law firms or businesses and donating some of their income to highly effective charities: we strongly encourage you to continue donating, particularly in light of the fact that some of the most effective charities in the world expect to be able to absorb much more funding this year (a/o 2022).

  6. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School for two years but graduated from Columbia Law School. Justice Barrett attended law school at the University of Notre Dame.

  7. Adjusting for class sizes, Georgetown still compares favourably to other schools in sending alumni to Congress, but slips behind Yale, which has smaller graduating classes. There is currently one alum in Congress for every ~48 people in Georgetown’s 2021 graduating class, compared to one alum for every ~26 people in Harvard’s class and one for every ~36 people in Yale’s class that year.