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Should I Go To Law School: The $100,000 Gamble

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Ann Levine

Ann Levine


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Ann Levine, of LawSchoolExpert.com, interviews Derek S. Roberti, PhD, JD about his new book "Should I Go To Law School: The $100,000 Gamble." Derek shares his experiences as a graduate of Stanford Law School who decided not to practice law. He and Ann discuss the financial and personal characteristics law school applicants should consider before deciding to attend law school. This is a vital discussion for anyone who is even thinking about going to law school in the next few months or even in the next few years.


0:03 Ann Levine

Hi! This is Ann Levine, and welcome to the sixteenth Blog Talk Radio show. I am the author of "The Law School Admission Game: Play Like an Expert," and my blog is available at lawschoolexpert.com/blog. If you're not familiar with our previous shows, please check them out. We have a lot of information on the LSAT and applying to law school. Today, I'm very pleased to be interviewing Derek Roberti, who wrote a book called "Should I Go To Law School: The $100,000 Gamble." Welcome Derek, I'm glad to have you today.

0:40 Derek Roberti

Thanks so much Ann. It's great to be here.

0:42 Ann Levine

So Derek, you have a really interesting background that led you to write this book and I would love for you to tell our readers a little bit more about how and why someone with a PhD decided to go to Stanford Law School, and why don't we start with that? Tell us a little about what you were thinking at that time and what transition into sort of -- what happened and what you realized while you are in law school?

1:03 Derek Roberti

Yeah. I would say definitely have an unusual profile for anyone and I'm particular for law school students. A lot of law school students, you know, typical passes, you are undergrad and you go straight in the law school or maybe have some work experience for a while and go straight into law school. For me, from undergrad, I was really academically focused. Since I went from undergrad at University of Texas as I grew up in Texas, flew out to California and I started a PhD program at Stanford and I was at the humanities-oriented programs, so you know, lots of history and literature and those kinds of things. When I went to school, I was not so much career focused. I was like really academically focused but like most people experiencing, when you start getting to the end of the academic program, you start thinking, "Hmm... How may I going to make a little bit of money? How I can support myself?" and in a PhD program, it really prepares you to become an academic. So that means, teaching at a University in most cases. But for the humanities area, there is actually not a lot of job and you sort of have to be willing to work anywhere or move anywhere that might have English literature position or like kind of thing. At that point in my life, I realized, you know what, that is not what I want to do. I really had a craving for something but felt more practical. Something where the job market was a little more clear where I could really be doing stuff rather than just researching and think all day and writing papers that no one might ever read. So that was one of the reasons why I sort of started thinking about law school. At the time I sort of have this thought in my head, a lot of people have is like, will I do business school? That is pretty practical. Or should I do law school? And one of the things I found was that to go business school or go to a good business school, you really need to have some work experience behind you.

3:07 Derek Roberti

And because I've been going to school at that point time for so many years, work experience was not a strong plan. I had jobs that I have worked, you know, throughout school but nothing that I felt like was median enough for business school application. Whereas on the other hand law school, the admissions process and everything about law school was something I was already good at. I knew how to take tests. So I knew I could really good on that old fat. And I know I could study really hard so I really felt like law school would be a good fit in that way. So, I sort of thinking, well if I take what I'm good at now, which is studying, and get this degree, then at the end of the day and three more years, I will at least be able to go out there and get a job, to have what pay me more that I could make it that point in my life.

3:54 Ann Levine

Well, that's a great start. And then one thing that -- and we'll talk about what you share in your book in a few minutes, but I think it helps to serve that you do talk in your book about. What you started to realize during your first year of law school? When you look at your peers and looked at yourself, tell us a little bit about that experience?

4:11 Derek Roberti

Yeah. Sure. One of the things that was I really need about law school and so unexpected for me is how competitive law school is and that's probably true in many cases but my graduate program was in many with a lot more competitive. So when I got to law school and I was in this class of people, everyone was starting law school at the same time, it's a great feeling. I met so many incredible people. It's very positive in many ways, and your first semester in law school, for those of you who were just thinking about law school, you seen it dramatized in books like one hour on TV shows. It's really intense. It's really exciting. That's sort of where you learn. Your first semester or first year is where you sort of learn some of the core foundations of law and as they say how one thinks like a lawyer. I'm pretty jazzed about this. So, I went through my first semester, I took my exams. I did well. I was not like at the top of my class but I was also pretty excited about what I have done and then I realized that the whole thing was simpler in some ways than I had imagined and that there is a few little tools that lawyers have in their bag of tricks and they basically refine their ability to get better and better at using this whole tool set and it's not to diminish what lawyers do, good lawyers use that tool set beautifully and remarkably, but what I really found was a couple of a little bit let down like is this all there is to it. I wanted more come along something that was a little bit more juicy to me and what I had found in that first semester or year of law school.

5:50 Ann Levine

And you actually started working at some point in a professional field while you're in law school, but you still decided to stick it out with law school.

5:58 Derek Roberti

Yeah, exactly. So part of the traditional path, at least at Stanford, I think it's true for other schools too is after your first year in law school, not a lot of people get internships at law firms. Some people do, but a lot of it, you started to figure out what to do with that first summer after your first year but you're sort of more significant career opportunity is in your second summer. And that's where you're going to get an internship with the law firm, if you're lucky and obviously economic times are going to vary. I went to law school at the time where the economy was on fire. It was a really tremendous time for us as attorneys and other fields. So there's lots of opportunity and the idea was that you get that job in your second year and then if they like you and if you like them, then they will get a job offer pretty much in the fall of your third year, so it's where the path that was laid out for me. But at that time, I had already realized that like, "You know, I really want to do something else." It was the time when the technology was really taking off in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's like at a job technology-oriented startup and that was where I felt like I found something that I was very passionate about. So I worked fair worked like crazy over the summer and then continued working in my third year and really found like that was something that got the deuces going but because they have that little bit of type A personality, I may be I wasn't thinking clear. 'm not sure, but I sort of felt like, "You know what, I've gotten halfway or two-thirds of the way at this point in time, I might as well finish this thing." It was a great last year of law school. I took classes that meant something to me. I have a lot of good experiences but at that point in time, I really knew my path was elsewhere.

7:52 Ann Levine

And it's really great. Because here, you split together a book, which is available at the thelawschooldecision.com and on Amazon, called "Should I Go To Law School: The $100,000 Gamble." And when I read it, I really felt like you are writing almost and none of derogatory waiver. It felt a help book for people considering going to law school. You're really laying out the things they should be considering and I'd love to go through a little bit for our listeners, some of the things that they should be considering that they might not have thought of and you really talk a lot about how to realize if you're going to law school for the right reasons or not. So I'd love to hear from you what some good reasons are for going to law school and what some not good reasons are for going law school. I mean, we all know about a person goes to law school because they don't know what else to do or because of parental pressure. They would not have health insurance if they do not go to school. So I would love to hear from you what you think some of the good reasons to go law schools are and some of the bad reasons are.

8:51 Derek Roberti

Sure. So the first thought for a little caveat which is in some senses, I want to scare people away from thinking about good reasons and bad reasons, and it's for this purpose.

9:04 Ann Levine

I see that, and what's right for them and what's not right for them. I have a feeling you're going to coach at something like that.

9:09 Derek Roberti

Yeah. But even if I take it one step further, which is to say, everyday as we go about our lives, we make decisions that were not a 100% certain enough. So, if you take me in my own decision making process and going to law school, did I go to law school because I was passionate about becoming an attorney now? I went to law school because I want to figure out how to get a job, and something like that's absolutely there.

9:36 Ann Levine

Yes, that is the better reason than most. That is the better reason at most. Some people don't think about that so it's too late. As you said, you didn't think about until the end of your PhD program. Some people don't think about it until their third year of law school. So I think, you know, you're on the right track there.

9:51 Derek Roberti

But even though I wasn't passionate about law school, I'm not sure it was a bad decision. So in other words, whatever decision to make about your career, you're always going to -- most of the time, you're going to be doing it with imperfect information. So the question is maybe not, is it a good decision of bad decision but more, can you make a conscious decision and a thoughtful decision about why you're doing it and whatever career path is used if that's law school or something else. And one of things I want to do with the book is try to help people surface, what are some of those motivations you might not be thinking about that you just need to be aware of, and then in the book, I sort of say, "Hey, if you're going to law school because your parents are pressuring you to go in to law school, that does not necessarily be in a bad decision." What it does mean is that you need to be aware of that's why you're making the decision, so that way, you can sort of fit with that and what you're stepping into. Because I think in life, we never really have regret about decisions for which we sort of thought of something through, we figured out what's right for us at that point in our lives and we have done it. Those decisions can withstand the test of time even if our life, perhaps go in a different direction. But the ones who are really sort of slap ourselves in our forehead and think, what was I thinking are the ones. We just made a little bit more time or put a little bit more effort into the thought process, we could have come to a different decision and that decision that made more sense for us. And that's the thing that I want people to do is just say, "Hey stop for a second" or just stop the show; may be you can keep studying for yourself on the background that's okay. But take a minute to really think through the consequences of the past that you are putting yourself on because if you don't think of the consequences, the past is going to take you on it's own direction and you're going to end up at some place that you may not have predicted.

11:45 Ann Levine

Well that's a really good point. Your title of your book actually talks about money, the $100,000 gamble. So that's really a topic I think that going to a lot of people as minds as they are contemplating going to law school and I would love to hear from you, you know, some of the considerations and costs that people may not even be thinking about. I mean, you talk in your book about opportunity cost, what the lifestyle and things like that. But let's start with the money question because actually you can argue that $100,000 is not quite enough. It's actually more than that for many people that they're gambling. Talk to me a little bit about that.

12:23 Derek Roberti

Yeah. If you would follow -- I know have Ann, but listeners have followed some of the recent new stories about recent college graduates, recent law school graduates, I have heard of stories where people just graduate from undergrad already with a $100,000 or more in law school, in debt. People who graduated from law school have another $70,000 to $150,000 of debt on top of that. That really is going to translate into for you as an exercise sitting in front of your checkbook, write out a check for $1000 or $1500 to some bank, and imagine that is what you're going to be doing for the next 10 or 20 years of your life after finish law school. It's something to take really seriously because there are many people out there who go into the legal profession, thinking this is a stable career. I'm going to go to law school, I'll be an attorney, and that all sort of smooth sailing and not risky. And whether I want to surface for people is, minimally at the financial perspective, law school debt alone for many people is going to be between $70,000 and $150,000 plus any undergraduate loans that you might already have. So on the one hand, we don't like to think of law school as risky and traditionally people who are risk averse or the ones who would like to go law school. But in the current climate where you can borrow so much money, education costs are really going up. It's actually a significant risk that you're taking on that what happened if as we seen recently you graduated on time when the economy is tanking. The legal profession is extremely sensitive to changes in the economy and hiring tracks, the economy growth, pretty directly. So there's a cost of tuition, there's the cost of your living expenses, there's the cost of your books, and the good news is that those things are actually really easy to figure out, and I have to admit, I'm embarrassed to say this.

14:25 Derek Roberti

That I know how much tuition already was before I started law school? I did not. I never even had the exercise of saying, here's my living expenses for three years, here's my tuition for three years, and here's how much my total bill is going to be at the end of the day. It's something that you should definitely do because you should know how much you're investing. You should also think about interest that you're going to pay on those at debt depending on the length of you debt. You're going to probably pay about one and a half to two times which you originally borrowed. So if you -- depending on your interest rates, it varies pretty significantly. But let's say you borrow $100,000 that means once you paid it back, you're going to be paying back to the bank between $150,000 and $200,000 over the life of loan. So if not a trivial investment, just because it costs a lot of money, though it doesn't mean it's bad investment. It just means that is one, like I was saying earlier, that you just need to have your eyes open about. Know what you're stepping into because if you know what you're getting into, you're not going to regret it. If you mainly jump into it and then graduate and realize your $100,000 and that and can't get a job, that's not the best feeling.

15:41 Ann Levine

And that's what I tell people all the time actually. And I write this on my blog all the time that I don't want people to be the disgruntle law school graduates and the way to avoid being one of them is first, to do your research, to be sure you're making an intelligent decision so you know what you're getting yourself into but also to be the person who really hobbles during law school and doesn't wait for someone to hand them a job. And I've done many Blog Talk Radio shows on that aspect but I think what you're saying is absolutely right. That -- the more prepared people are mentally for what they're getting themselves into, the more likely they'll get out of the experience what they hope to.

16:15 Derek Roberti

Yeah. Exactly. And then if they don't get what they hope to out of the experience, it's just sort of more okay because, you know, you fought it through, you took a risk, may be it worked out, may be it didn't, but at least you had your eyes open going into it and that's a good feeling. There's one other group of people that I want to address that you mentioned earlier is the -- I don't know what to do in my life. People feel -- this is the person who a lot of times, this will happen to a junior or senior in college. They could happen to people who had been working for few years as well.

16:48 Ann Levine

Well, especially with people who had play offs and seeing a lot of that actually Derek. With people who sounds like offering positions and they don't know what else to do or hide out in law school for a few years.

16:58 Derek Roberti

Yeah. If the understandable impulse to basically say; well I don't know what had to do, law school is something to do so may be I'll do that. I have this quote in my book. It's very brief and I just want to read it. It's that -- I see that not knowing the right answer, it doesn't mean that you should accept an easy answer that you haven't considered carefully. So a lot of times, for undergrads especially you might see, this friend is going to medical school, that friend is going to law school, maybe some other friends is going to business school, some other friends getting a job and some industry that may be you're not familiar with or don't have a degree for. I say, you might think, "Alright, well I need to do something for myself" and then law school jumps into your mind and suddenly that feels like it solves some problems for you. You don't have to worry anymore about what am I going to do for a living or what's my career going to be. It's just sort of a pre-packaged answer and what I want to encourage people to do is that if you find yourself in that position, I have some direction of how to do this in your book. It's really to take that moment to pause. Don't jump at the easy answer. Instead use that time to understand better what you're good at, what your interests are, and what you can be passionate about in your life.

18:13 Ann Levine

That's really helpful. You actually spent quite a bit of time on that in the book and I think something else that you do, that's really effective in a book is when you talk about what it really means to work 60 or 70 hours a week, that you know, when you are in your 20s and you have lots of energy and most of those people might have no spouses or children at this point or other obligations. It doesn't sound like such a big deal. You know, "Oh, 60 hours a week. Sure." But I love how you sort of talk about what a day really looks like when you're working 60 hours a week, and I would love for you to share a little bit of that with our listeners.

18:49 Derek Roberti

Yeah. First of all, sometimes you have someone to hasn't practiced law thinks, "Well, I work really hard in school. I know how to work hard so I can be in a career that also requires a similar level of effort for me." But what you don't see is necessarily the details of how it plays out. So, first of, if you think about a traditional 40-hour work week, which is not what you're going to work in a law firm, means that you work about 8 hours a day. So that is the 9:00 to 5:00 idea. To work a 50-hour work week and again most people don't just work 50 hours in a law firm. Law firms vary but 50 would be on a very low end. That's going to be working about 10 hours a day, five days a week. On anytime you start going over 50 hours, to like 60 or 70 hours, you're talking about really working six or seven days a week the entire day. So what it means is like, if you have a favorite TV show or if you have friends that you want to hang out with, or a family that you want to start, the legal profession is not necessarily going to facilitate that. Again, I don't want to make a blanket statement about what all law firms are like but traditional law firms which are requiring you to build hours in order to pay for your salary than other administrative costs, you're going to have to work really hard and that means the fundamental change in your social life, a fundamental change in your ability that cultivate other interests. And I would like in it to -- and it's a non-perfect analogy but I like it's something like the military, where at your station in another country will think on a military basis, your whole life is organized or around that endeavor. You know, there's no like, "I want to take a vacation with my family or pursue other interests" because you're sort of there doing that thing.

20:44 Derek Roberti

Law is like doing that for an entire career but at least for 5 or 10 years, it's really saying, everything I'm doing right now is centered around the law firm in my other social interest or romantic interest or hobbies, or whatever are going to take second place to my career.

21:05 Ann Levine

At least for the significant younger years of your life, I mean, obviously at some point that changes and all of the hopefully associates you hired are working hard for you. You see, you don't have to work quite this hard but it takes a while to get into that point. I've been doing a lot of research on this recently actually, and talking about what lawyers really make it, what point in their career but the good things about incoming the legal profession is that in most areas of the profession, outside of the public service or working for the government where you top out at a certain level, the legal profession is one where as a 20-year lawyer, you're making significantly more each year. There's not necessarily a path. But there's -- I remember I had a friend in law school, who talked about how he wanted to be a partner in a certain firm by the time he was at the certain age, and then he quit and retired by -- I don't know what he said, 42 or 47, and enjoy life. And that's fine too, you know, you're making some bets there that you are going to live through all of that. But I think there are some good things about how lawyers own their money as well. And then I think are worth sharing; for example, many lawyers in private practice are paid based on what they bill, so there's sort of meritocracy about it. It was your partner you're bringing in business; you're paid for that as well. You're compensated for that. It's not -- it's more fluid I think. I think many lawyers are making much more five years out of school and 10 years after school, and 20 years out of school, then they were initially. So I think sometimes it's a little bit pushing on the topic forward, but people talk about what is their first salary is, and what they will be able pass their loans, and I do urge them to look a little bit beyond that. That it would not always be as hard as it is the first three years out of law school.

22:59 Derek Roberti

And it's actually factors into the attractiveness of candidates for law firms. It makes law firms, in my experience will be much more interested in people who took the path of they went from undergrad. May be of a little bit of work experience, but went pretty closely into law school, because they know that they're ready for that challenge of just sort of a grind of that first five or seven years working at a law firm whereas more seasoned applicant, you might say, law firms have an intuition of how much you are going to be willing in your 30s or beyond. To be really willing to sort of pay your dues as it were in a legal career. It's a little bit harder.

23:45 Ann Levine

Yes. But also that's the time when a lot of people make a jump. First of all, they decide whether they are on partner track or not at their firm and sometimes that's decided for them, and then they may decide to go up on their own or join a boutique practice or what they have and there are many, many ways of practicing law. So one thing I wanted to sort of talk to you about is the -- you wanted to talk a little bit of I think today about people who are thinking about whether there's a career for them in law and whether they can make it to law school, whether they are too old, whether it is. It's just too late for them and I wanted to sort of get thoughts on that especially because you went to a law school where there are people of all ages that have been very diverse, incredibly bright brilliant people, tell me a little bit about some of the careers that your peers are in it. I believe you graduated, is it 10 years ago now?

24:33 Derek Roberti

Yes. It is about 10 years. In terms of looking back, as you would expect, a lot of my peers are in legal practice but in a lot of different ways. So I found the people actually interview for the book are practicing as corporate counsels, so not in a law firm but working for a company working as corporate counsel there. Some of them are working in those traditional corporate law jobs. Some of them are working in public interest firms, and environmental firms or other kinds of public sort of legal advocacy kind of roles, and a lot of people went into the business worlds, what are my colleagues occurred for a Supreme Court justice. Some people are really all over the place and I do not think for most people things like age would be a factor at all. But I would say that -- you said this many times before is that, you can't be passive about opportunities that are there for you. But certain degree you can if you go to a school that has a lot of law firms and one of court attorneys from that school, not everyone in that position, but I think in any case, you really need to take charge of how you're guiding your future and your career. The one other question I think that I see a lot on my blog when people ask questions, is like am I smart enough? This is the question actually I like because it's easy to answer. I would say really about the old set, but I do think it's a good measure of years, the experience of preparing for the LSAT is a good measure of how you will do and how you will experience law school because like a lot of things in the legal profession, it requires a lot of preparation, a lot of details, a lot of thinking through things and I would say, get a book on the LSAT, take a practice exam or two and just see if it gets your juices flowing because it does seem like awful and boring or it seems like something they gets your imagination going and your curiosity going, that can sort of indicator as to whether or not law school is for you. I would say if you...

26:40 Ann Levine

But it may not they also have anything to do with whether the legal profession is for you. That they are very...

26:46 Derek Roberti

That. Fair enough. Fair enough. But I would say if it's too hard for you to get yourself to a bookstore to Amazon and get such a book, that is an indicator that maybe you need to find that passion and the drive before for you to think about applying to law school.

27:05 Ann Levine

And I think a lot of our listeners are at the point where they understand the LSAT and what it is, and the limits of it as well as the expectation of what means to happen with it. But I think in terms of the intellectual curiosity and sort of the fun of challenging yourself in that way, that's definitely an indicator of how you'll enjoy law school. Of course some of the people, I think from my law school class, are most successful in their careers and people who did not enjoy the process of law school at all and sort of __27:33__. So I think it works for both people. You know, for me I love law school. I was a dork. I loved it and didn't end up loving the practice of law firm myself and went into higher education and became the director of admissions. But many of my peers who just bellyache through law school were really hustling on the side to find their profession and they're doing very, very well in it and very successful with it. I think that's really -- what is important is that people take the initiative and I think you've taken great initiative with writing, "Should I Go To Law School: The $100,000 Gamble." I think it's a wonderful resource for anyone even thinking about going to law school whether they have already been admitted, they're weighing their options, or whether they are considering applying in the future. I think you take a very nonjudgmental approach. If they decided law school for them, great. If they don't, great. But they have thought about it and that you'll be happy if they just think about it. And I think you provided a great resource for that. As the one to tell people that when they do buy your book, whether through Amazon or through thelawschooldecision.com, it does come with four CDs of interviews of people, and yes, I am one of them, but various people who, it could be a life coach, attorneys, in-depth interviews about the profession and the decision to go to law school that I think people will find really fascinating.

29:00 Derek Roberti

For the kind of person who feels that, you know, you're afraid to reach out the people and talk to them about the legal career, the goal of those CDs is just sort of doing some network for you so you can get some of that informational interviewing them but curiously.

29:12 Ann Levine

I think it's fantastic. I find them really helpful. I actually put them in the computer where I was working the other day and was listening to them and I think that they're great resources and you ask really thoughtful provoking questions that people would not have act. A lot of law school applicants would have access to these individuals or individuals like them to ask these questions and you've really done a great job of asking the right questions and I think that your book would be a great resource for anyone contemplating law school in it. Thank you so much for taking the time to join me today to talk about it.

29:43 Derek Roberti

Thank you so much Ann and I'm a big fan of your blog. I am a big fan of your book, so it's an honor to be here.

29:50 Ann Levine

Thank you so much Derek and for you listeners, if you enjoyed this, please do check out our other Law School Expert Blog Talk Radio shows. Thank you.