Noe Valley Voice June 2005

Career Consultant Asks Graduates: Should You Really Be a Lawyer?

By Heidi Anderson

Deborah Schneider says she went to law school for all the wrong reasons. Problem was, she didn't realize it until three years--and $90,000--later.

"I realize now how little I knew about my decision to go to law school," says Schneider, a 33-year-old writer and career consultant who lives on Church Street.

After graduating in 1999 with a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Schneider promptly decided not to practice law. She went on to hold jobs in other fields, and soon discovered a lot of other non-practicing attorneys working alongside her.

As she talked with more and more former lawyers, she noticed something important: "Just because you have an aptitude for law school doesn't mean you will be a happy lawyer," she says.

She knew then that she wanted to help people consider their options before heading, lemming-like, to law school. With the help of a family friend and mentor, Gary Belsky--a journalist and executive editor of ESPN Magazine--Schneider wrote a book that explains how faulty decision-making can lead to becoming a miserable attorney.

She hopes the book, Should You Really Be a Lawyer? The Guide to Smart Career Choices Before, During, and After Law School--published in January by Decision Books--will prevent others from making the same mistakes she did.

Should You Really Be a Lawyer? is written for three groups of people: students contemplating law school, law students contemplating careers, and working lawyers. The book gives the reader "Twelve Choice Challenges" and provides several self-assessment tests, including exercises focusing on the physical aspects of one's work environment.

Schneider says that during her three years of research for the guide, she learned a lot about the way people think. "People often make career decisions under the influence of mental traps, like the herd mentality (everybody's doing it), decision paralysis (the real world looks scary, school feels safe), and even family expectations (my folks think it's a good career for me)," she says.

Money can be a snare, too. "Some people said they went to law school because their parents were paying for it. They realize, years later when I'm counseling them, that they would not have dreamed of spending their own money on law school," Schneider says. In her book, she calls it "mental accounting," which means that people place a different value on money depending on where the money comes from.

Another pitfall--being miserable in law school but staying because you'll be perceived as a failure--is more common. Schneider describes that phenomenon as "regret aversion."

Despite the caution Schneider prescribes, she understands that some people are, in fact, a good match for law school. If you've worked in or around certain legal jobs, or you know practicing attorneys and can see yourself doing the same work, then by all means, get a law degree, she says. "Also, if you are in a non-legal field now and you've determined that having a law degree will assist you in your job, then you should go to law school."

After her own defection from the field of law, Schneider worked for a few years in Washington, D.C., for an online textbook company. Then she quit, moved to San Francisco, and found another dot-com job related to publishing. That was in 2001, at the height of the dot-com shakedown, and the company failed within a year after she arrived.

But she moved here to live in San Francisco, she says, and she wanted to stay. "I never even considered leaving San Francisco, and never Noe Valley. I like how you get to know everybody in the neighborhood."

At that point, Schneider had time to think about what to do next.

She went to a career counselor, attended some career development courses, and then took part in a two-week workshop led by Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute? It wasn't long before her career broadened into three areas: writing, speaking, and career counseling in the legal field.

Looking back at her journey, she does some quick math. "I spent $90,000 on law school, and later $750 on career counseling." That was the wrong order, she says.

"Spend about twenty bucks on a book about the law field--and more importantly about decision-making--before you spend a hundred thousand on the wrong school," she says.

Since her epiphany, Schneider has worked as a career counselor for the University of San Francisco School of Law, and more recently as an associate director for career development at U.C. Hastings College of the Law.

She now often speaks about career choices at bar associations around the country. At a recent visit to the Bar Association of San Francisco, she met an undergraduate student who was practically in tears at the end of her talk.

"I was so glad to be there for that student at the right time," she says. "Her parents are really putting on pressure, but she is feeling law school is not the right choice. One idea I had was to present the family with another graduate school plan, not just to argue against law school."

Sometimes her speaking engagements turn into profound experiences.

At one event, a gathering of female attorneys, it was clear that many of the women there had their doubts about choosing law as a career. Everyone became emotional and supported one other, Schneider says. "It became like an episode of Oprah!"

You can find more information about Schneider and Belsky's book at