Is your Law Degree Worth it? Make the Most Out of Your J.D.
by Becky Bye
In many respects, this is great news. After spending several years working hard in law school, new attorneys can finally take advantage of their law degree.
Unfortunately, there also is some bad news.
Every year, the number of new lawyers far exceeds the demand for new lawyers, and many new attorneys are left with either part-time legal jobs, less desirable jobs, or, in many cases, no legal job at all. It is a dire situation with many contributing factors, such as the Great Recession, more law schools opening in the United States, and the same or dwindling demand for legal services.
This has caused a great deal of frustration among new lawyers about the value of their law degree. Adding to the frustration is the large student loan debt accumulated from law school that was meant to be an "investment" in a future legal career.
These frustrations and concerns are justified, but all lawyers, especially new lawyers admitted to the bar, can take various steps to add even more value to their law degrees.
Of course, the first step to making your degree more valuable is taking and passing the bar. This significantly enhances your degree by qualifying you to practice law and also enhances your résumé if you seek a non-traditional route to integrate your law degree into your career.
Another important factor that adds value is engaging in mentorship. You probably have heard about the virtues of finding—and being—a mentor numerous times. I personally know many young attorneys who avoid mentorship because they feel that they know the law well enough in their practice area. However, mentoring goes beyond the practice of law, and helps lawyers better understand professionalism and service, whether to clients, colleagues, or the community.
Mentorship allows you to have a confidante to help bridge any gaps between knowing how to practice the law in theory and being an outstanding lawyer by providing the best representation in the most respectful, honorable manner.
Your degree also will become more valuable as you obtain more hands-on experience. Pro bono legal work can help you accomplish this. Providing legal services for those who need access to justice but cannot afford it is personally fulfilling and necessary to maintaining equality within the legal system, regardless of a person’s socioeconomic status. Pro bono work provides you more experience than just the work you do in your day job, which also makes your law degree more worthwhile. Additionally, new lawyers often receive far more hands-on experience with clients, judges, and even juries earlier in their career through pro bono cases.
In addition to pro bono work, do your best to integrate the skills you received in law school in any way you can. Do your best to make the most of your legal knowledge while helping others, whether volunteering as a substitute teacher in the Denver Public Schools; volunteering to be a coach or judge for a Denver Urban Debate League debate or high school mock trial; or helping friends and family with general legal questions.
I urge all new lawyers to maintain the tradition and the value of the legal community by getting involved in local activities and organizations, engaging in pro bono work, volunteering for nonprofit organizations, and working with charitable groups to make a difference. Don’t take the privilege of being a lawyer for granted—be an active citizen and engage in the community outside your day-to-day practice.
In addition to civic involvement, stay involved in the legal community. For example, state, local, and specialty bar associations can provide networking opportunities, continuing legal education, and other types of professional and personal assistance. You also have various other groups and associations at your disposal comprising lawyers and judges who would be happy to meet with you and guide you in your practice. Among those are the DBA Mentoring Program, local Inns of Court, and various programs in the law schools.
Some may believe that the saturated legal market, coupled with student debt, reduces the value of a law degree. However, if lawyers new and established in the practice remain proactive in their career, including developing mentoring relationships, performing pro bono work, making general civic contributions, and staying active within the legal and greater community, they can make the most of their education, degree, and skills they acquired in law school.
This time of year can signify the renewal of the positive contributions the legal community makes to the community, and also can signify a bright and fulfilling future for the new lawyers beginning this exciting journey. D
Becky Bye is a member and former chair of The Docket Committee, former chair of the Colorado Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, a member of the Doyle Inn of Court, a member of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Alumni Council, and a passionate advocate for attorneys, young and less young alike, to get involved and give back.