Richard G. Lyon ’68
Taking a Gap Year Before Law School
For some reason I’m frequently asked by prospective students about applying to law school. I say “for some reason” because it was almost fifty years ago when I did so, and everyone knows (and the questioners know better than anyone) that the law as a profession and the calculus of law school have changed enormously in the past half century. Particularly the economics.
Maybe I’m asked because grey hair is supposed to make me wise. Maybe it’s that I always say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career in Big Law. Whatever the reason I’m flattered. My answer is much different than what I considered in 1968 and its principal focus is on the dollars.
The economics of law school – $180,000 + living expenses. Like all education, law school tuition has risen far ahead of ordinary inflation. Law school is now a very substantial investment, and that on top of the cost of that college degree. Most kids even with parental support cannot pay out of pocket as they go. The obvious and often only alternative is a loan, resulting for many in a law degree encumbered with a substantial mortgage. And the benefit side of the equation has changed even more. The value of access to a license in a licensed profession that should pay off in increased earning power is far more uncertain than in my day. The growth of law schools, rising legal fees, a recognition that a lawyer isn’t always necessary, among many other factors have left many newly-minted lawyers without an easy opportunity to practice law. As a result any sensible aspiring lawyer ought first to consider these hard fiscal facts before applying to law school.
Can a gap year help?
– It won’t help much with the economics. Two or three years’ savings from most entry-level jobs will barely dent what’s needed for law school.
– You won’t learn that much about the law even if you work with lawyers. You may see lawyers in action and realize that it isn’t Perry Mason, that lawyers work very hard, that as in any profession there is substantial drudgery, that not all lawyers get rich. But it won’t teach you much about how lawyers think and it won’t move you a step closer to that license.
– Your learning will be about life in the real world, that is the world outside the ivy-covered walls of college and carefree schedule of a college student. You’ll learn about forty (or more) hour weeks, punching a time clock, real deadlines, and a life that requires budgeting your time, arranging and rearranging your priorities, living on an entry level salary, and not discussing Nietzsche in your very limited free time.
– You’ll be a year or two or three older and hopefully several years wiser in the ways of the world.
– You should also learn more about yourself. What you really want, what are your goals, what makes you tick. For me that epiphany began to dawn after starting work as a lawyer. It wasn’t the law that brought it on, it was living in the real world.
– You’ll meet many people, future mentors and friends, who can guide you by example or with advice.
– It’s possible you’ll lose – or redouble – your resolve to be a lawyer. Probably something in between. Whatever it is should be a more informed resolve.
I didn’t take a gap year and couldn’t have if I had wanted to. In 1968 I would have been drafted within a month or two had I not made alternative plans. [Making those plans and their consequences are another story. Let me just say that during my senior year I spent more time figuring out how to dodge the draft than in applying to law school.] So I enjoyed the academic life for three more years. After that and some brief military service it was directly on to the practice of law, in a big firm on Wall Street.
I doubt that a year or two to think things over would have changed my mind about law school. Back then law school was affordable enough to serve as the laboratory to see if you really wanted to be a lawyer. A number of my classmates never practiced – law school was (and is) good training for any business or profession. But I surely could have used a year or two of growing up. I think I would have enjoyed a year or two without a long-term goal, maybe with some travel thrown in, before a life of mortgages, responsibilities, and the rat race. I think I would have gotten more out of law school had I treated it more as part of my career and less an extension of college.
What would I have done in between college and law school? I don’t know. Any what I might have done would have been based on my own desires and preferences, which should direct me and no one else. Please yourself. Is there an alternative to the law in the back of your mind? Here’s your chance to test that. A personal or religious mission to fulfill? Now’s the time. Life in another country? Might take some doing getting a work permit, but this is an ideal opportunity. Got a cause – political, social, whimsical, or other? Best time of your life to serve it. I’d have liked to try out for the Phillies.
Whatever you choose do the best job you can. People recognize and appreciate hard work, dedication, intelligence, initiative, and character. Even more readily do they recognize the lack of same. Don’t disappoint your colleagues and clients. That’s disappointing yourself.