I recently testified on bills that would create student-loan-payment pilot programs for private-practice lawyers who accept 50 public defender appointments per year in rural Wisconsin counties where not enough new lawyers are practicing. Lawyers who practice in underserved communities – basically, “up north” – would receive stipends to pay down loans.
Most new lawyers have a significant amount of student-loan debt when they graduate and must make money immediately to repay those loans. Moving to a small town and practicing there require hard work and financial sacrifice, which translate to not enough money for paying down debt.
My daughter, currently in the Peace Corps in Panama, asked me how indebted she and other prospective law students could be and still be able to practice in a field of their choosing.
This question, and the State Bar “bus tour” that takes newer lawyers up state, introducing them to small towns, got me thinking.
I replied to my daughter as follows:
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So, here’s the thing about the law. It matters little about where you went to school in the long run – however, Harvard may open a few doors. Academic standing is important wherever you go. But you make your own breaks. It boils down to how good an advocate you are. The quality of your arguments, the ability to dig into cases for guidance, and ultimately the ability to be quick on your feet is important. You must be flexible as things develop; get into the best position to advance your client’s cause.
School is where you develop skills that will be the basis for what you do in the real world. Lawyers are persuaders. Negotiations occur throughout every case – most settle. For those that go to trial, the outcome is determined by preparation, who got to know the facts and law better, and how skillfully the argument is made to the court.
And you keep practicing. It never ends, but if you like what you do and the causes you represent, it never loses its allure. I represent people against those with almost unlimited resources and manage to more than occasionally win. I know when my client may have a chance on the facts, and I go up against anyone to get my client a break.
Representing an ideal, or I suppose at least a client with a problem that you are sympathetic toward, is a requirement. If you have huge student loans, it forces you to take the best paying job doing whatever it takes to repay loans. State schools like U.W. Law School are outstanding. Get good law school grades, and you’ll be able to get a clerkship or a position on graduation. Make sure you know which side you want to represent, get the best deal on aid, work through school at a law-related position, and go out and save the world – or at least help one client at a time get through a rough time. If you figure out what you like to do, you will love the profession. So many talented and interesting people in it. You run into an ordinate share of jerks, but that happens no matter what you do.
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My advice to those who want to go to law school is work hard, live cheaply, and minimize student debt. To graduates who have student loans: eat cheaply, repay loans quickly, and don’t overlook opportunities for practicing law in a small community. You should have fun practicing. This is a great profession. We help people. We make society function smoothly. Don’t box yourself in by the size of your student loans.