One of the questions college students and people in their 20s typically ask me is, "Should I go to law school?"

They ask because they know I went to law school, they know I never actually practiced law, and I've had some jobs and career experiences they find interesting (in politics as Mike Bloomberg's campaign manager, in government as Deputy Governor of Illinois, as a venture capitalist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist).

To me, there's one very easy question to resolve this and then a series of harder questions.

If you want to practice law, you should go to law school (it's pretty much a prerequisite). But anyone asking me doesn't want to practice law, they just want to know if they should incur the time and expense of getting a law degree.

So that leads to a series of other questions:

  • Is there something specific you think you'd get out of law school that you couldn't get otherwise? I definitely developed a sound framework for analytical reasoning in law school, and it's been useful at different points in my career (if you're really busy and have to make a lot of decisions, knowing which questions to ask is helpful). But three years of your life and $100-200k is a pretty high cost to get good at analytical reasoning.
  • Are you asking me this question because your parents are pressuring you to go to law school? Odds are, they're not doing so because they don't want you to be a lawyer. Even if they're arguing it's just good to have as a backup, they envision you practicing law. So if that's not how you envision yourself, then don't go.
  • What kind of law school would you go to? Ironically, in this situation, you'd want a law school as unfocused on possible on turning out practicing lawyers. If it's a law school that focuses on preparing their students for passing the bar and finding a specific legal job, you're either not going to like it or you're going to end up practicing law, despite your intentions. If it's a top ten law school, they know you'll pass the bar and they know you'll find a job. So they can focus instead on broader intellectual training and exposure, which you'll find both more interesting and more applicable to other fields.
  • What value do you think a law degree has on a resume? I hire a lot of people and a decent number have legal educations. But that's not why I hire them and to the extent it even factors into my subconscious, it's a minor consideration. So at least based on my own experience, the benefit of listing a law degree on your resume does not justify the costs (if you just want to list something, go to business school - it's easier, cheaper and shorter).
  • Do you think it'd be good training for jobs in government, politics, and civic life? I don't. If you want to learn about politics, go work on campaigns. If you want to learn about government, go work for a Mayor or Governor. Practical experience will yield far better training and instead of paying them, they pay you. It's a much better deal.

Don't get me wrong - law school has its benefits. I met some of my best friends in law school. I thought much of the work was interesting. And most of the time, I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. But is it responsible for what I've been able to do since? No, not really.

In other words, if you want to practice law, go to law school. If you don't, unless you get into a really great school and want the intellectual experience for the sake of having it, it's a bad use of your time and money. Even if your parents disagree.