Or, “How to Make Lawyer-Money Without the Student Debt”
In 2010, I was working 70 hour weeks for a healthcare ID company, flying all over the country. I was 25 years old and I had the severe back pain and anxiety. Now, 7 years later, I make more money than those days and I spend half that time making web and mobile software products and teaching people how to do the same. To get to where I am now, NOT going to law school was the most important decision I made.
Back then, I was looking for a way out of my job and into a better career. I wanted what every self-respecting millennial wants: more economic security and more creativity and room to learn and grow. There was just one problem: everything in my education, family, and culture was telling me that law school was the only choice I had.
There was a pretty big story in my head about law school and being a lawyer. It went something like this:
Law school is the NEXT LOGICAL STEP. Its the only way to pay back the debt from your prestigious (read ‘expensive’) liberal arts degree. Plus, being a lawyer is becoming a superhero. You are a physical incarnation of the THE LAW. You get a new identity as “an attorney”. A new lifestyle full of suits and sparkling water. A new addition to your name: “Esquire” like you’re a freaking 14th century knight. You can help the good guys and put away the bad guys. You can give people advice at some of the most critical times of their lives. And you can make a lot of money. A LOT OF MONEY! You basically are like a small god among mortals.
What a pitch.
My mom and dad even got in on the action. Corralling me and coaching me to “do the sensible thing”, “take the next logical step after that impressive philosophy degree you got”, and “get serious about my future.”
What my parents were recommending and the whole megalomaniacal story about being a lawyer is not totally wrong, it is just about 20 years late to the party. Becoming a lawyer was a safe bet in the 90’s. But today technology and outsourcing is destroying jobs for lawyers, especially the jobs for entry-level lawyers.
Consider that now any lawyer can use “Command + F” in a 10,000 page PDF to find the phrasing of a law or statute. And that is just with any computer they open. There is a brood of specialized software packages and services that amplify any single lawyer’s powers and these tools are getting better every month. Add to that the looming AI technologies (such as ROSS Lawyer) that promise to further annihilate the ranks of entry-level lawyer jobs.
And if you read the current stats, entry level lawyer jobs are already dried up.
On average there are 2 law grads for every 1 law job. So that sounds like you have a 50/50 chance of getting a job. You just have to be above the top 50% of your graduating class. Seems doable.
However, if you dig into the numbers you see that there are two trends that take this bleak number and make it down right abysmal.
First, there is dramatic stratification in placements of graduates from the top 20 law schools (like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc), and the other 185 law schools in the country. The other trend this clunky average ignores is this is just an average of “Total Lawyer Jobs / Total Lawyer Grads” — it ignores the shrinking pool of ENTRY LEVEL lawyer jobs. Meaning that that 1 for every 2 number is more like 1 for every 5 if you didn’t attend a top 20 law school. So now you have to be in the top 20% of your graduating class to secure an entry-level lawyer job.
That’s an expensive bet.
Law school costs on average $134,000, and because you also have to live for 3 years and there isn’t much financial aid, law school debt averages about the same. The assumption here is that you’ll make enough money to pay back that debt when you graduate. But if you’re not in the Ivy League, roughly 4 out of 5 don’t.
Instead, Become a Software Developer
So my story continues.
I got into software. I started coding on evenings and weekends. I attended hackathons (which, btw, are awesome). I started one startup, another, and another, each one failing in succession, but each one honing my technical and business skills. About 3 months after beginning to code, I went against management’s suggestions and successfully launching a piece of software internally at my 9,000 employee company and got 98% user adoption and 60% recurring users within 6 months. I received not even a nod. So I left.
I wrote a book about how to make rapid change in any organization using a Japanese management tool called nemawashi or piecemeal consensus. Pick up a copy of Leading Change at Work ($14.99) to learn more!
Two months after leaving my job, two friends and I started what is now Wisconsin’s largest coworking space, 100state, and a bevy of other startups. I soon outgrew the middle west and moved out to San Francisco and became a software developer educator.
Three years after leaving my job, I had what I wanted: economic security, a career in technology, and an endless playground of projects and ideas to explore.
Time and $$$ — What it Takes to Become a Software Developer
Becoming an employable software developer takes roughly 9 months and costs by my estimates costs around $25,000 — that is including buying a $2,000 mac pro.
Unlike lawyers, there is a trend where there are MORE entry level developer jobs every year, and more senior level jobs. The whole sector is growing.
Like lawyers, the median software developer salary is ~$100,000. There are large regional differences, with even entry level salaries in San Francisco reaching as high as $120,000. In regions outside of techie cities like SF, NYC, LA, and Boulder, you can expect starting salary to be $60–70k and then usually rises quickly after the first year of work.
So where can you start? Do you have to, like me, work nights and weekends and not get paid for 2 years while you Google your way through thousands of bugs? Thankfully the answer is “No!”. It has gotten a lot easier to become a software developer.
Here is an article I wrote on where to start for free, but eventually you will want to attend some sort of school.
I run a kind of master’s degree equivalent program called Make School in San Francisco. Our program is two years and comes with an accredited bachelors in Applied in Computer Science. We offer a job guarantee, so if you don’t find a high paying job, we pay any loans you take out to attend for you.
Before I moved to Make School, I was a lead instructor at General Assembly and taught 12 week web bootcamp. If you don’t have the time, these sorts of “bootcamps” can get you started quick. General Assembly and programs like them charge around $16,000 for a 12 week program. Galvanize offers a 6 month program (3 months of instruction, 3 months of unpaid internship) for $21,000.
Whether you spend 12 weeks, 6 months or 1 year or longer in a software engineering school, the cost will never compare with the cost of three years of law school.
Please follow me on twitter and tweet at me if you want more advice @ajbraus.
Ok — now 29 NOT to go to Law School and Become a Software Developer Instead!
- Lower Tuition & Debt — Law school costs an average of $130,000. Even the most expensive tech school costs only $40,000 and there is a lot of financial aid and innovative “Pay it forward” financing models.
- Forget 3 Years of Law School — Law school takes roughly a year to prepare for, and 3 years to complete. It will take you roughly 3 months to prepare to enter a 3–6 month bootcamp or a more in depth program like Make School’s Product College. It might take you as long as 3 months after to secure a job. So a conservative grand total of a little more than a year.
- Forget the LSAT — The LSAT take months to prepare for and are completely inane. Most developer schools, like Make School, want to see real projects that you’ve built for entrance, so you are doing something meaningful even before you begin.
- Forget the Bar — As a software developer the only bar you have to think about serves beer and margaritas.
- A Great Salary — don’t lawyers make more than software developers? Lawyers are always saying “I charge $520 per hour”. That’s a lot! Right? Wrong. Lawyers make on average $55 an hour. The median salary is $100,000 — the same as a software developer. (Ref Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook)
- Less Work — lawyers and law firms are famous for their long hours. Software developers are famous for their more relaxed schedules.
- No Chasing Ambulances — As a lawyer you have to are essentially a contractor. You have to get clients. As a developer, you usually are paid a salary and don’t have to worry about clients.
- Build Things — Being a software developer you build products people use every day.
- No Suits — forget about suits. Software developers can wear anything they want.
- Computers — You’re gonna use them 95% of the time in either job anyways.
- Join the Zeitgeist — The law was the Zeitgeist in the 1700–1900’s, but these days technology is what is moving, changing, and pushing the world forward. Come on in!
- Start Startups — Lawyers don’t make startups, software developers do.
- Have Impact — Lawyers can help their clients and set important precedents with their cases. However, software can also make a huge impact. Software can be used to make systems that dramatically improve education, equity, and the environment.
- Be Future Proof — Anyone can tell you the robotic overlords are coming eventually, but software developers are likely going to be one of the last humans to have jobs. Along with massage therapists and olympic gymnasts.
- Hackathons — Hackathons are when you go to a conference and build a whole product in 50 hours. Its an amazing rush.
- Don’t Not Have Fun —A picture of a common lawyer party:
17. Have Fun — Developer party
18. Don’t be the Butt of Bad Jokes — There are way more bad jokes about lawyers than about software developers.
19. Be Creative — A lawyer can be creative, but a lot of their job is just “following the law”. Software developers are always striving to disrupt common patterns with new and innovative solutions.
20. AI — AI is just cool. If you’re a lawyer, AI will take your job. If you are a software developer, that AI company that took that lawyer’s job will give you a job.
21. No Math Requirement — A lot of lawyers to be have expressed that they would do software but they “need to be good at math for that”. Turns out, Nope. Software is largely rule-based logic much the way the law is. Certain words have specific meanings (i.e. variables) and some words do specific, discrete actions (i.e. functions). At advanced levels, you’ll need some probability, discrete mathematics, and linear algebra, so like upper level high school math, and you’ll almost never need to do any calculus (and when you do, you just look it up!)
22. No Judges — Software developers don’t have to talk to judges. Almost ever.
23. Professional Liability Insurance — It’s pretty hard to be sued if you code something improperly so you don’t need the costly malpractice insurance lawyers have to pay.
24. Breaking the Law — Lawyers can be sued, reported to the Bar, and even thrown in prison for things they do wittingly or unwittingly in their jobs. Software developers have to be pretty deliberately malicious for any of this to happen.
25. No Continuing Legal Education — CLE sessions are required by the American Bar Association to keep your licensing. And they are goddamn boring and you don’t get paid to complete them. Software developers have to continually update their knowledge, but they largely do that by building new cool projects on their own time or even during work.
26. No Job Lock — Lawyers are punished for jumping from one form of law or firm to another. Software developers resumes get BETTER by switching focuses and changing jobs.
27. Be Good and Don’t Be Evil — This one might be a stretch to defend, but from where I stand, very few, very low paid lawyers help protect the weak from the strong, and very many, very high paid lawyers help the strong to hurt the weak. Software, on the other hand, pretty much helps people do things better and faster, learn, and overall improves people’s lives.
28. Stress, Anxiety, and Substance Abuse — It shouldn’t be a surprise that the ABA studied over 12,000 lawyers and confirmed the stereotypes that many, many lawyers struggle with debilitating stress, anxiety, and substance abuse including alcoholism, prescriptions, and cocaine. Granted that no equivalent study of software developers has been done, but if stereotypes are right, then software developers might struggle with above average amounts of depression and social anxiety, and their addictions likely include pot, beer, and coffee. Take your pick.
Don’t get me wrong, the world needs lawyers, but the world needs fewer and fewer lawyers every year. On the other hand, the world needs more and more software developers.
Come on in the water is fine. If you apply to Make School our admissions officers will provide free counseling to help you get to the right program for you.
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