In the United States, it’s common for policymakers and other people in positions of social influence to have law degrees. The career capital that law school provides could be valuable for several promising career paths, including paths related to AI governance, biorisk reduction, and animal welfare advocacy.
With those potential benefits in mind, should you (or should others in the EA community) go to law school? This post, which focuses on law schools and career paths in the United States, describes the law school experience and outlines considerations for readers deciding whether obtaining a law degree might help them have the greatest positive impact through their careers.
Companion posts will offer (1) tactical advice for navigating the law school admissions process and paying for a legal education, and (2) overviews and tentative evaluations of several post-law school career options.
If you are interested in getting in touch with members of the EA community who have attended, currently attend, or are considering law school, we encourage you to fill out this short survey. We will use your answers to try to connect you to people with knowledge or networks relevant to your specific interests and career stage.
- Law school is a promising route into high-impact careers in policy and government, especially for people interested in eventually holding senior roles for which formal credentials are highly valued.
- Law school is a necessary step to working as a lawyer, which includes some roles that are underexplored but plausibly high-impact, such as becoming a litigator (a lawyer who works on cases that go to court) focused on animal welfare or biosecurity, or designing contracts and governance structures in high-stakes settings.
- Some common advice about law school may apply differently to people aiming at policy roles, rather than roles practicing law. For example, earning top grades in law school appears not to be necessary for most policy roles; using marginal hours to pursue relevant experiences and research may be more valuable for people targeting those paths.
- Attending law school is not the best path for earning to give; most people considering law school for this reason probably have more promising options that do not require the time and expense of earning a law degree. There is a relatively low ceiling for how much a person can earn in law, where compensation is based on salaries, hourly rates, or contingency fees; roles in business and finance, where some people are compensated in equity, have a much higher ceiling for the highest earners.
- Law school is not a good fit for everyone; for example, it is probably not the right choice for people: who don’t have a clear picture of how a law degree would help them have the kind of positive impact they hope to have in the world, who already have a strong personal fit for a high-impact role working on a pressing problem for which there is a short timeline for effective action, who have significant personal commitments that would make spending 50+ hours per week on schoolwork an unusually costly investment, or for whom prolonged periods of stress or frequent discouraging feedback are especially costly.
- Readers can test their potential fit for law school by speaking to a current law student or a recent graduate who holds a position they are excited about, attending a law school class, watching a video of a law school lecture, reading a book about the law school experience, or taking a look at a law school casebook and reading an edited opinion that they would likely read while in law school.
- If you do decide to go to law school, it is valuable to go in with a clear plan about how you will use your legal education to achieve a positive impact on the world; plan especially to take advantage of opportunities to develop concrete skills, connect with relevant networks, and be on the lookout for opportunities to achieve positive impact that others with different training and backgrounds might have missed.
Confidence in this advice
The advice in this post is based on public resources about law school and careers in law and policy, as well as the individual experiences of people who have attended or considered attending law school in recent years. Consider this post a series of “best guesses” about how to approach the decision about whether to attend law school, rather than a definitive guide or empirical study.
Navigating this post
This post includes background information about law school that may already be familiar to some readers, as well as advice and analysis about how to decide whether law school is a good fit and make the most of the experience. We encourage you to use the chapter headings to skip around to the sections that are most useful to you.
Readers who are already somewhat familiar with law school programs in the U.S. may want to skip the first section and start with Section II, “How law school can help people achieve positive impact.”
Readers who are already committed to applying to law school or will enroll soon may want to read Section IV, “Promising paths after law school,” then skip to Section IX, “Advice to keep in mind if you are leaning toward pursuing law school.”
I. About law school
Law school in the U.S. is a graduate professional degree program. Most U.S. law students enroll in Juris Doctor (J.D.) programs, which are typically three-year, full-time programs.
The first-year (1L) curriculum at most law schools consists mostly or entirely of required courses in core subjects like Criminal Law, Contracts, Civil Procedure, Torts, and Legal Research and Writing. (In this video, UVA professors who teach these five subjects explain what the courses are about.) Many law schools divide 1L students into groups, called “sections,” and assign students to first-year classes with other members of their sections.
Second- (2L) and third-year (3L) students can choose from a wider variety of courses, including additional foundational classes, electives, and clinics in which students provide legal services to clients under the supervision of licensed attorneys. Upper-level students often also take on co-curricular activities like working as law review editors or participating in moot court competitions.
Most law school classes are taught using the case method, in which students read decisions (called “opinions”) written by appellate courts as homework and answer questions about them during class. Many law professors make extensive use of the Socratic Method, often by “cold-calling” students (calling on them at random in front of their classmates) to answer questions about the assigned reading.
Law school grades are typically based mostly or entirely on performance on a multi-hour, essay-style final exam. A smaller number of classes involve graded research papers or credit for class participation
Most law schools do not have “majors,” but some offer recommended tracks or suggested courses for students who know they want to pursue a particular area of law. For example, some schools offer courses in legislative drafting and policy advocacy that may be of interest to students who intend to work in and around government. Others offer specialized courses in intellectual property and trade issues that may be of interest to students interested in advising technology companies.
Some people find parts of the law school curriculum and teaching method to be frustrating. Almost all law school courses strongly emphasize understanding structure and procedure over debating the actual content of the law, which can be surprising and discouraging for people who enter law school primarily because of their interest in substantive policy. Some law school classes also seem to encourage creative argumentation over truth-seeking; for example, a professor might ask a student to state the argument on one side of an issue, then ask the same student to switch positions and argue the other side, then move on to another topic without pausing to assess which argument is better supported by the facts and the law.
Internships, externships, and other experiential opportunities
The typical three-year law school calendar leaves time for at least two full-time summer internships in government offices, nonprofit organizations, law firms, or other settings.
These internships can provide valuable, low-cost opportunities to test fit for different work environments, including settings in government where the norm (outside the internship context) is to stay in the same or similar roles for several years. Especially during the summer after 2L year, it is common for law students to “split” their summer between two different internships, spending 6-8 weeks each working for two different employers. Some law schools provide funding to students pursuing public interest-oriented internships, which are often unpaid.
Students can gain additional work experience during law school by pursuing “externships,” which are part-time, often remote roles with similar responsibilities to traditional internships. Most externships take place during the academic year. Similarly, as described above, students can earn academic credit through hands-on courses called clinics, in which students advise clients in a particular area of law. Many students also write independent papers or take on research projects in areas that interest them as part of seminars.
Each of these experiences provides valuable opportunities to test fit for potential paths after law school. Coming into law school with a plan for the kinds of work experiences you want to have and specific questions you want to explore can help you find and make the most of these opportunities.
The first year of law school has a reputation for being time-consuming, competitive, and sometimes discouraging. Most law schools grade on a curve and signal to students that their outcomes after graduation will depend on their grades, leading many students to work hard to keep up with or outperform their peers. Anecdotally, many law students report spending 50-60 hours per week on their coursework during the first year; some report spending even more time. Most law students find that the 1L year requires significantly more work per semester than they did as undergraduates.
Some 2L and 3L students continue to spend 50-60 hours per week (or more) on schoolwork, but it is more common for students to dial back their time investment in schoolwork after the first year. While there is lots of variation in the approaches students take, many students still spend about 30-40 hours per week on coursework during their 2L and 3L years. Students who spend less time than that are often very active in extracurriculars, such as journals, clinics, or externships.
Law students who decide not to optimize for high grades can likely pass their classes while investing less time in coursework, freeing up time to work toward other goals. This strategy closes the door to some paths (e.g., attorney roles in highly selective government offices and certain nonprofits), but can be compatible with other opportunities (e.g., non-attorney policy roles, many nonprofits), especially for students at highly ranked law schools whose “brand” employers recognize and value. Some of these less-grade-dependent paths have lots of potential to contribute to positive impact in promising cause areas, and are discussed in more detail below. When deciding how much time to dedicate to working toward high grades, it is worth evaluating whether the career outcomes that interest you most require high grades.
Cost of attendance
Tuition and fees for law school programs vary widely. As of 2021, some state universities offered in-state tuition and fees totaling less than $20,000 per year, while the total for many highly-ranked private law schools was nearly $70,000 per year, not including room and board expenses. Most students cover some of the cost of attendance using a combination of need-based scholarships, merit-based scholarships, and loans.
Several top law schools outside Harvard, Yale, and Stanford provide significant merit-based scholarships, often for applicants with GPAs and LSAT scores that are significantly above the median for their incoming classes. For example, the University of Chicago offers multiple full- and half-tuition scholarships every year intended to draw students otherwise likely to attend Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.
Most top law schools have a debt forgiveness program intended to enable or encourage graduates to take lower-paying jobs in the public interest. These programs are not very standardized across law schools; their generosity and specific terms vary. Graduates who work in policy jobs straight out of law school are likely to have incomes that would qualify them for some degree of debt forgiveness under these plans. The names of the program vary; while the generic term for these programs is often “loan-repayment assistance program” (LRAP), the Harvard Law School program is called the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP). At certain schools, these programs are relatively generous and can place graduates’ take-home (after-tax, after-loan payments) incomes in the ballpark of $40,000, and sometimes more. People who remain eligible for and continue to participate in these programs often have any remaining loan balances forgiven after 10 years. However, the details of these programs vary widely. Be sure to study the terms of the LRAP at any school you are considering before relying on this option.
Some students find that they can borrow to finance their law school education at a lower interest rate than was available to them as undergraduates, in part because the cohort of J.D.-holders has a higher average earning potential than the cohort of people with bachelor’s degrees. Outside funding may also be available to help some students cover the cost of a law school education. A (future) companion post will go deeper into these financial details.
Path to law school
Before starting law school, most J.D. students earn a bachelor’s degree (and sometimes one or more graduate degrees) in a subject other than law.
An applicant’s particular undergraduate field of study does not tend to matter very much in predicting law school admissions outcomes; however, undergraduate grades are an important factor. Opinions vary (including among contributors to this post) about whether undergraduates aiming to attend top law schools should consider “easier” majors with more generous grading curves. For more information, see this companion post with detailed advice about law school admissions.
Unlike with some other graduate programs, if you have exceptional grades and test scores, you have very strong odds of admission to a top law school, even if other aspects of your application are less strong. Admissions “predictor” calculators (for example, here and here) can give you a sense for the odds of admission to top schools with a given LSAT score and undergraduate GPA.
It is common for students to work full-time for one or more years between finishing a bachelor’s degree and starting law school. For example, in the most recently admitted class at Harvard Law School, 82% of students were at least one year out of college and 63% were two or more years out of college. Most students work somewhere between two and four years before starting law school. (While it is possible to enter law school after a longer period of working, and every year many people do so, applicants with longer work histories may face a bit more skepticism from law school admissions committees; admissions officers may expect to see a particularly compelling explanation of why such applicants are now pivoting toward law.)
Finally, law school candidates must take an admissions test. Historically, American Bar Association rules have required candidates to take the LSAT and law schools have used LSAT scores as an important factor in making admissions decisions. Following a policy change by the ABA in 2021, an increasing number of law schools now accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT. It is possible that future applicants may not have to take either test: in spring 2022, an ABA committee recommended dropping the test requirement. However, at least historically, law school admissions outcomes have been driven in significant part by undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores, alongside factors like candidates’ personal backgrounds and any extraordinary accomplishments they may have had prior to law school.
II. How law school can help people achieve positive impact
Law school equips students with knowledge about details of the U.S. legal system that may be helpful in a variety of law- and policy-related careers.
Structural knowledge about how law and public policy work
One of the fundamental things taught in law school is the process of answering a legal question: the components of an answer, where to find them, and how to piece them together to understand what is certain and what is ambiguous.
Legal training also gives people a sense of obstacles that are likely to arise when implementing or enforcing a policy. (For example, when might a court get in the way? When might the policy not be interpreted as you expect? When might it fall outside the authority of the entity enacting the policy?)
Domain-specific knowledge about particular areas of law
Law school courses also provide instruction in the content of law in several foundational areas. For example, the standard first-year curriculum at most law schools equips students well to answer questions like:
- Under what circumstances will a court enforce a promise?
- Application: What conditions must be in place for a court to enforce an AI lab’s promise to follow the terms of the Windfall Clause?
- What are the default rules used to decide who owns a piece of property?
- Application: What rules would courts use to resolve conflicts about who owns resources in outer space?
- Under what circumstances will a court require a person to pay compensation to someone who was injured as a result of their conduct?
- Application: When would a court require a company that designed an AI system to bear the costs of compensating people who are harmed by that system’s mistakes? Similarly, when would a court require the operator of a lab that experienced a leak of a harmful pathogen to compensate people harmed as a result of the leak?
- What procedural steps are required to file a successful lawsuit in federal court?
- Application: What documents must be filed, and by when, to force factory farms to turn over evidence of routine animal abuse? (See, e.g., recent lawsuits regarding misleading labeling of animal products)
- Under the U.S. Constitution, what kinds of laws does only Congress have the power to enact, and what kinds of laws can also be enacted by states?
- Application: What kinds of new safety restrictions for bioengineering labs can be enacted at the state level, without requiring an act of Congress?
- What facts must the government prove to convict a person of conspiracy?
- Application: What things people could say or do in connection with the idea of pivotal acts could result in criminal convictions for conspiracy?
In second- and third-year courses, students can build relevant knowledge about a wider variety of topics, including specific subject-matter areas (e.g., national security law, animal law).
As with the first-year curriculum, knowledge about these topics could have direct applications to EA cause areas, helping graduates make a positive difference through legal or policy action. For example:
- A course in First Amendment constitutional law can help equip students to answer questions like, “How, if at all, can the federal government restrict publication of potentially harmful scientific information without violating the constitutional right to ‘freedom of speech’?”
- A course in corporate law can help equip students to answer questions like, “How can members of the public affect corporate behavior?” (See, e.g., the recent lawsuit that Legal Impact for Chickens filed against Costco)
- A course in administrative law can help equip students to answer questions like, “What is the extent of a federal agency’s power to regulate in a new area? When might a court step in to stop an agency action?”
It is possible to learn enough about the relevant law to perform research on these topics without attending law school. However, law school can help a person become a much more effective legal researcher. Law school courses teach students how to identify the necessary and sufficient components of an answer to a legal question, how to read legal materials, and where to look to find the most relevant authorities. Moreover, giving professional legal advice to others about the answers to legal questions generally requires completing law school and becoming a member of the bar in the jurisdiction where you work.
Law school can help students build aptitudes that will help them tackle pressing problems. For example:
- Analytical reasoning: Law school provides students with extensive practice in applying rules to facts, understanding how and why small changes to facts or rules lead to different outcomes, and identifying strengths and weaknesses of logical arguments. This practice may help students reason through other kinds of abstract problems.
- Issue spotting: One of the core skills taught and tested in law school is quickly identifying and analyzing potential issues or points of failure (e.g., unlawful conduct) in a complicated fact pattern. This skill may help students identify potential failure modes or prioritize areas for follow-up questions in other contexts.
- Distillation: Through assigned reading, law students gain significant experience reading long, complicated texts (especially judicial opinions) to extract the most important details. This practice may help students become more efficient in digesting large volumes of information.
- Pragmatic, instrumental thinking: Many law school classes emphasize practical reasoning about how to achieve outcomes under certain sets of facts, constraints, and rules, in contrast to some kinds of undergraduate classes that emphasize more discursive, philosophical, or abstract thinking. This kind of thinking may be helpful to students who take roles that require a high level of practical sense about how to get things done.
- Written communication: Many (though not all) law students complete significant writing assignments as part of classes or co-curricular activities, in contexts that prize clarity and brevity that is often lacking (or even disincentivized) in undergraduate writing instruction. This practice may help students learn to write more effectively, especially for audiences that expect the kind of organization and formal style of writing taught in most law schools.
- Oral communication: In class, law students must often answer “cold calls” by providing impromptu oral responses to difficult questions in front of an audience of peers. There are also opportunities to opt-in to more extensive oral communication practice in courses like trial advocacy and activities like moot court. This practice may help students develop skill and confidence in explaining ideas in high-pressure situations.
Because law school may not build these aptitudes in the most efficient way or in the way most targeted at using them to solve pressing problems, it may make sense to think of them primarily as “fringe benefits.” If your goal is to optimize for one or more of these aptitudes, rather than to build several of them peripherally while working toward a valuable credential, you can probably do that more directly while working full-time on a pressing problem. 
Over the course of three years studying together and living in close proximity to one another, most law students form close relationships with many of their peers. Some students also form close relationships with professors, especially by working with them as research assistants. Many people also form connections with practicing lawyers and other experienced graduates of their law school through alumni networks.
Networking opportunities often continue well after graduation from law school. Lawyers have many opportunities to meet other people, especially other lawyers, including co-workers, co-counsel, opposing counsel, and judges hearing a client’s case. Networks within relatively small legal practice areas (for example, environmental or animal law) can be especially tight.
Law school can also provide access to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. In some cases, a law school affiliation may make some people in high-leverage positions more likely to respond to thoughtful outreach.
The connections formed in law school and in legal practice can be valuable throughout a graduate’s career. Networks can help graduates learn about and secure future job opportunities. And because law school graduates frequently end up in positions of significant social influence, law school networks can also help graduates influence former classmates who are in positions to make important decisions.
Opportunities to access and try many different work environments
For many students, law school provides a unique opportunity to quickly access many different work environments, test your fit, network with potential employers, and work on interesting projects or with certain actors (e.g., the U.S. Department of Justice) that would otherwise be very difficult to access.
A law degree, especially from a top school, is a widely recognized credential that (in addition to being necessary to working as a lawyer) can serve as valuable career capital for paths in government and policy, even independent of the knowledge, aptitudes, and networks that graduates obtain on their way to the degree.
This career capital can take many forms:
- Some roles are only available to people with law degrees (e.g., litigator, attorney-advisor, general counsel).
- Some highly competitive roles preferentially hire people with law degrees, even if they do not explicitly require a J.D.
- In some roles, people with law degrees may be taken more seriously by their colleagues or counterparts.
- People with law degrees may be more likely to be promoted later in their careers to influential positions.
However, keep in mind that for many roles, there may be other ways of obtaining relevant, transferable credentials that are less expensive than law school in both time and money, including taking on a meaningful role working directly on a priority problem. Also note that the credential value of a law degree varies between different professional contexts: its value is lower, for example, in entrepreneurial circles than it is in government.
III. How law school might hinder efforts to achieve positive impact
One potential downside of attending law school is that the experience has the potential to push students toward decisions that they would not, prior to law school, have considered optimal, or to cause them harm in other ways.
Law school can be extraordinarily expensive. The need to make payments on large student loans may push some law students toward high-paying roles in corporate law that are unlikely to be among the best opportunities to help others, even considering their potential for earning to give.
Physical and mental health costs
Law school can do harm to people’s physical and mental health. It is relatively common to experience severe burnout at some point during or after spending three years in such a high-stakes, competitive environment. By one person’s estimate, perhaps 20% of students have a physical or mental health crisis during their 1L year.
People who experience that kind of burnout may be less likely to take on a demanding role that they might have found attractive before starting law school, and the stress and toll on mental health associated with law school may hinder their overall productivity in addressing pressing problems.
Another potential downside of attending law school is that law students are often surrounded by a reference class of peers who are optimizing for landing jobs practicing corporate law at large firms (often because they view these roles as necessary or inevitable), rather than for helping others as much as possible. Many students who do not pursue law firm roles steer instead toward community-focused, direct legal services work or systemic advocacy focused on criminal justice and civil rights.
Being surrounded by peer groups with such different goals may make it more challenging for EA-minded students to keep up the motivation to pursue a less-trodden path, such as taking a policymaking role focusing on AI safety.
Readers considering law school may want to speak with someone who has been to law school to get a better sense of how these pressures manifest in practice. Some people have also written perspectives on this phenomenon that may be helpful: This essay, which was written by a law student in 1998 but still resonates with students today, provides one perspective on potential personal costs of spending time in an institution optimizing for goals other than your own. This qualitative study explores the pressures toward corporate law that many top law students report experiencing; it includes several excerpts of interviews with law students.
IV. Promising paths after law school
Law school can open up a number of promising opportunities to help others. However, the most common jobs for lawyers are probably not the most promising from the perspective of helping others as much as possible, so having a clear perspective on which paths to prioritize after law school can be important.
This section outlines some paths after law school that stand out as especially promising. Readers might also be interested in advice that another member of the EA community, Cullen O’Keefe, shared on these topics during an AMA in 2020.
We plan to provide a more thorough analysis and address a wider variety of paths in forthcoming posts on career choice for law students and recent law graduates.
A framing note: Practicing law vs. shaping policy
Some of the most promising ways of using a law degree to help others fall into two main categories: (1) practicing law, and (2) roles outside legal practice that involve making or influencing policy.
While there is plenty of overlap in the skills, credentials, and experiences that would make a person a good fit for either kind of role, there are some important differences. For example, policy roles tend to involve much more social interaction than most roles practicing law. Policy roles might also be a better fit for people who like doing several different things during a workday, rather than work on a single task for many hours (or days) at a stretch as practicing lawyers often do. Roles practicing law tend to reward extraordinary attention to detail, ability to hit deadlines, and willingness to jump through procedural hoops without dwelling on the underlying reasons for certain requirements. Some legal roles also involve being “on call” at all hours to answer urgent questions from clients. Others involve spending a lot of time in adversarial settings, such as negotiations or court appearances.
In general, employers for roles that involve practicing law are more likely to value “traditional” legal credentials, such as graduating from a top law school with excellent grades, while employers for policy roles may be open to people with a wider variety of formal credentials and place higher value on candidates’ demonstrated ability to do relevant work.
Roles practicing law
The overwhelming majority of law school graduates practice law. Anecdotally, many people who enter law school planning to pursue other paths—including roles in policy—end up practicing law instead.
In certain roles, individual practicing lawyers can have significant leverage to help others by shaping public policy or private incentives. Promising paths include:
- Litigation, either on behalf of a government enforcement agency or private plaintiffs. For example:
- Lawyers at Richman Law & Policy and Legal Impact for Chickens bring civil lawsuits to deter private actors from engaging in activities that harm vast numbers of animals.
- Lawyers at the Legal Priorities Project are exploring using civil lawsuits to reduce catastrophic biorisk.
- Lawyers at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau write regulations and can bring civil lawsuits aimed at increasing transparency in the use of AI models in consumer lending.
- Negotiating and verifying compliance with international treaties. For example:
- Lawyers in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance at the Department of State work with counterparts in other countries to design, verify, and enforce multilateral agreements to manage access to nuclear, biological, cyber, and conventional weapons.
- Providing regulatory advice in government roles that require bar admission. For example, attorney-advisors help implement important laws and regulations in offices like:
- the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which develops biomedical countermeasures.
- the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Department of the Treasury, which is responsible for sanctions policy.
- Providing legal counsel about important strategic decisions, either as an employee of an important or highly impactful organization or an external advisor to people in high-leverage roles. For example:
- In-house counsel at firms like DeepMind provide important legal compliance advice; senior people in these roles often also participate in strategic decision-making and may be responsible for representing “Policy” or “Governance” teams in meetings of “C-suite” top leaders.
- In-house counsel at organizations and funders working on priority problems can help organizations start up and scale effectively, while avoiding potential legal problems that could significantly reduce their impact.
- Advising clients about how to write contracts and structure business deals in high-stakes settings where omitting an edge case or misaligning incentives would be especially costly. For example:
- Lawyers and researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute developed a framework for a Windfall Clause through which developers of potentially transformative AI systems commit to sharing eventual profits of such a system with others. (While developing these frameworks was not formally “practicing law,” advising a client about how to implement them would be.)
More broadly, practicing law can be an entry point into working in the U.S. federal government in an area relevant to a top problem, which may be an especially valuable way of building career capital or having direct positive impact. According to FedScope data, there were nearly 42,000 practicing lawyers working in the federal government as of September 2021.
Practicing law isn’t the best fit for everyone. Legal practice can be intensely deadline-driven and can involve time-sensitive demands from clients, courts, or other parties that make it difficult to be ever truly “off the clock.” Many roles require an incredible level of attention to detail, both because some parts of the profession view attention to detail as a proxy for general competence and because in certain settings, small mistakes can be costly and difficult to correct. Most roles are not particularly social; some legal work environments are described as “monastic,” requiring long, uninterrupted hours of individual research and writing. Finally, some roles (especially in litigation) require high performance in adversarial settings such as negotiations, depositions (a kind of formal interview that is similar to an interrogation), and trials.
Roles outside the practice of law
For some other promising positions, a law degree is a helpful credential and legal training provides useful background knowledge, but completing law school and joining the bar is not a job requirement. In some cases, other credentials and training might provide similar preparation for these positions at less cost.
For example, some roles in regulatory policymaking do not formally involve practicing law, but are very frequently performed by people with law degrees. For example:
- Lawyers at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs design and implement cost-benefit analysis procedures for the entire federal government.
- Lawyers in the Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security maintain regulations governing the export of sensitive technologies.
Having a law degree could be a significant factor in actually receiving these roles, and can be especially helpful if you use your time in law school to stock up on legal internships and other experiences that you cannot access without attending law school.
Beyond these “traditional” lawyer roles, there are many other high-impact roles for which a law degree can help a great deal.
- Working in the executive branch in a policymaking role may be among the most promising opportunities for people with law degrees to help others. There are a vast number and variety of potential promising roles in this area, many of which may preferentially hire people with law degrees. We plan to explore these opportunities in greater detail in future posts.
- Congressional staffing is another especially promising option, profiled by 80,000 Hours here and discussed at length in these two posts. One survey administered in 2017 found that about 16 percent of congressional staffers working in Washington, D.C. (excluding interns and fellows) have J.D.s; for comparison, about 30 percent hold a master’s degree in some field. As two examples (among many) of high-profile leaders with law degrees who have followed this path:
Readers should also consider the following potential paths for which a law degree seems to be helpful, with examples of prominent people with law degrees who have pursued each one:
- Elected public office (e.g., three of the last five Presidents of the United States: Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton; a majority of U.S. Senators and more than a third of U.S. Representatives; 16 of out 50 U.S. governors)
- Appointed roles in policymaking (e.g., looking only at the current Cabinet: Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior; Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture; Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce; Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services; Marcia Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy; Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security)
- Diplomacy (e.g., four of the last five Secretaries of State: Antony Blinken, Mike Pompeo, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton)
- Roles in global or regional governance bodies such as the United Nations or the European Union (e.g., David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme at the United Nations)
- Journalism (e.g., Matt Levine, columnist for Bloomberg News; Adam Liptak, Supreme Court reporter at The New York Times)
- Grantmaking (e.g., John Palfrey, President of the MacArthur Foundation)
- Business (e.g., Richard Anderson, former CEO of Delta Airlines and Amtrak; Lloyd Blankfein, former CEO of Goldman Sachs)
- Research focused on questions related to EA priority cause areas (e.g., Cass Sunstein, a leading scholar on the use of cost-benefit analysis in law and policy)
Working at a law-focused think tank such as the Center for Democracy and Technology or Public Knowledge could be a promising step for people with law degrees interested in working at the intersection of policymaking and research. See this post for additional background about working in think tanks in Washington, D.C. In some think tanks, having some type of “terminal” advanced degree, such as a JD or PhD, can be an advantage over having a master’s degree.
Some law school graduates also enter legal academia as professors, researchers, or law school clinical instructors. A law degree generally is required for these roles. In addition to helping prepare and shape the paths of future generations of lawyers and policymakers, people working in these roles can explore and substantiate legal theories and policy options in important areas, such as governance of emerging technology. Academics might propose new regulatory structures, articulate legal justifications for important agency powers, propose important legal limits on government or private action.
Finally, some lawyers work on defining social movements, often in part through litigation, but also using tools outside legal practice like grassroots advocacy and media strategy. This path emphasizes the indirect benefits of raising an issue to the public consciousness or conceptualizing a harm that might otherwise go ignored.
Earning to give: A path for which there may be choices better than law school
We think readers considering law school with an eye toward earning to give may benefit from considering other options.
While it is possible to earn a high income by working as a lawyer (e.g., as a partner in a law firm serving large corporate clients or as a general counsel to a large public company, both of which can lead to seven-figure compensation; or as a plaintiff-side class action litigator, which can lead to 10-30% contingency fees on nine-figure court judgments and settlements), the paths to the highest-earning legal roles are highly selective, demanding, and uncertain.
Readers who have not yet gone to law school may find that they have options for earning to give that have higher expected value. For example, strong candidates for admission to top law schools who also have above-average quantitative skills would likely also be competitive for roles in finance or management consulting that can eventually lead to high incomes without incurring the opportunity cost and direct expense of spending three years in law school. Similarly, the expected value of becoming a for-profit entrepreneur may be higher than the expected value of high-earning legal careers for many candidates, and it is not clear that law school would improve most people’s chances of success on an entrepreneurial career path.
V. Counterfactual alternatives to consider
Most people who have a good shot at admission to a top U.S. law school also have lots of promising opportunities to do direct work that could have a significant positive impact on the world.
Before you commit to applying to law school, consider pursuing one or more of the following options.
Options that would allow you to test fit for potential paths after law school
Each of these options could be a 2-3 year venture before law school, or could help you launch a career that doesn’t include law school at all:
- Working as a congressional staffer (see advice from 80,000 Hours and from a previous EA Forum post).
- Working at a policy think tank.
- Founding or co-founding a new organization to tackle an important project.
If you feel relatively confident that law school is the right path for you and you are interested in practicing law after graduation, you could also consider working for 1-2 years as a paralegal or legal assistant at a law firm or legal aid organization. These options involve significant tradeoffs, and are not the right choice for everyone: you likely would not have as much direct impact as you would with the options above, you may be surrounded by people whose goals and values differ from your own, and you likely would receive significantly less compensation than you could in other private sector roles; however, these options could give you a better idea of lawyers’ day-to-day responsibilities and your potential fit for working as a practicing attorney.
Options that may be attractive alternatives to law school
If you are considering law school primarily as a route to policy careers, you should give serious consideration to policy master’s programs (e.g., MPPs). (Among other differences, most master’s programs last only two years, compared to three years for law school, and provide students significantly more flexibility in course selection. On the other hand, a law degree might be a somewhat more valuable credential for certain roles.)
People with the relevant background should also compare the costs and benefits of law school to those of a PhD program in a promising field, such as policy, economics or computer science. (Among other differences, law school is shorter but more expensive than most PhD programs. There are many differences in the career options available to law graduates vs. people with PhDs in especially promising fields, but both paths open many options for careers in policy.)
VI. Which law schools should candidates consider?
Within the legal profession, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard have historically been regarded as the “top three” U.S. law schools. (Recently, the University of Chicago has risen in law school rankings, in part because of its excellent employment outcomes; it leads Harvard, which is tied for fourth with Columbia, in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings.) Graduates of these schools are well-represented in influential government offices, elite private law firms, and top roles within selective nonprofits. Before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2020, the last person to be appointed to the Supreme Court without having attended Yale, Stanford, or Harvard was Justice John Paul Stevens, in 1975.
However, many other law schools train students well and place graduates in influential positions. The U.S. News and World Report maintains a ranking of law schools; placement in this list tends to be correlated with graduates’ employment outcomes and the strength of the school’s network, especially in its local market. For those interested in paths in the Washington, D.C. area (including many U.S. federal policy careers), the law schools at Georgetown, George Washington University, and perhaps George Mason University (particularly for readers interested in building networks among conservative policymakers) may be worth considering. As of 2019, Georgetown was the second-most common law school alma mater of Members of Congress (14 alumni), after Harvard (23 alumni).
A note of caution regarding mid- and lower-ranked schools
Multiple contributors to this post warned that prospective applicants should think carefully before accepting a seat at a law school outside the top 14 places in the U.S. News and World Report rankings (referred to in law circles as the “T14”), where tuition is similar to that at top schools but career outcomes may be very different. This note of caution is consistent with advice another member of the EA community shared on the Forum about two years ago.
The demand for especially high-impact legal jobs in federal government, litigation, or advocacy significantly exceeds supply, so employers often resort to filtering candidates using naive proxies, including which law school a person attended. The focus on where people earned their degrees is stronger in the legal profession than in some other fields, so attending a mid-ranked law school may have very different career consequences from, for example, attending a mid-ranked college (which may be an excellent choice for many people). There may be an exception to this rule for those who can easily chart their own career paths (e.g., opening up their own impact litigation nonprofit), but the personal risks of that path are high, and even here getting a top-ranked degree can help. Law school rank will also matter less when your goal is to get non-legal jobs where your hiring managers are not themselves lawyers, as is true for certain congressional or think tank positions.
A companion post about the law school admissions process provides additional details about schools to consider and data that applicants can use to inform their decision-making.
VII. Special program types
Some J.D. students attend law school part time, usually by taking evening or weekend classes while working. These programs typically take four years to complete, often including some summer coursework, but some schools offer three- or three-and-a-half-year tracks.
The part-time J.D. programs at Georgetown and George Washington University are well-regarded and could be a good fit for people who are interested in gaining policy-related work experience in the Washington, D.C. area while pursuing a J.D.
Attending law school part-time could be a good fit for some students, but may not be the best choice for everyone. See this post for a list of several factors to consider.
A small number of law schools offer two-year J.D. programs for students who already hold a bachelor’s degree.
Some universities also offer “3+3” B.A./J.D. programs, in which students who have just completed high school (or its equivalent) complete both an initial bachelor’s degree and a law degree in a total of six years, rather than the typical seven.
In general, the law schools with the strongest track record of placing students into selective roles do not offer accelerated J.D. programs. However, Columbia Law School’s Accelerated Interdisciplinary Legal Education Program, a “3+3” option available to students at Columbia College and Barnard College, is an exception that may be worth considering for students at those schools.
These programs carry some risks. Some students in accelerated programs might end up feeling that they committed too early to what they later consider to be a suboptimal decision to attend law school. Compressing academic requirements into a smaller number of years might also reduce valuable opportunities to build credentials and gain experiences from internships and other hands-on experiences during law school.
While accelerated programs might be the right fit for some people, it seems especially important to have a clear plan for how you plan to use your law degree before committing to such a program.
Dual- and joint-degree programs
Many law schools offer dual- or joint-degree programs, allowing students to complete a J.D. and another graduate degree in a shorter time (and often at a lower total cost) than would be required to obtain the two degrees independently. Gaining the networks and disciplinary perspectives of two professional schools has its advantages, but readers should also consider the diminishing returns of elite credentials and, if applicable, the opportunity costs of another year of study.
Common degree combinations include:
- J.D. / Master in Public Policy (MPP). Generally a four-year program. See also the J.D. / Master in Public Administration in International Development (MPA-ID) at Harvard.
- J.D. / Master of Business Administration (MBA). Generally a four-year program, but see three-year programs at Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, George Mason, and Notre Dame.
- J.D. / Master of Public Health (MPH). Either a three- or four-year program, depending on the school.
All of the most highly ranked law schools offer dual- or joint-degree programs, but specific offerings vary between schools. Refer to the links below for more information about specific dual- and joint-degree programs available at several law schools that may be of particular interest to readers:
- George Washington
- Georgetown (the joint degrees offered with the Walsh School of Foreign Service may be of particular interest to prospective law students interested in international relations)
- New York University
- University of California, Berkeley
- University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
- University of Pennsylvania
- University of Virginia
People who hope to work in the U.S. and already hold a law degree from a non-U.S. institution—often an LL.B., or an equivalent undergraduate degree in law—could consider applying for an LL.M. (“Master of Laws”) program at a U.S. law school. LL.M. programs are typically one-year programs requiring a mix of coursework and research. LL.M. students often enroll in the same courses as J.D. students.
For students who earned their bachelor’s degree in the U.S., earning admission to an LL.M. program generally requires first completing a J.D. Because an LL.M. from a U.S. law school provides relatively little marginal benefit on top of a J.D., pursuing both degrees is an uncommon path.
S.J.D. and Ph.D. programs
A small number of students pursue research doctorates at U.S. law schools. Many U.S. law schools offer either an S.J.D. (“Doctor of Juridical Science”) or Ph.D. as a terminal degree for students interested in the academic study of law who already hold an LL.M. As with research doctorates in other fields, program lengths vary. Students typically complete coursework and a research dissertation.
An S.J.D. or Ph.D. program can be a good choice for someone who plans to become a law professor, but would be an unusual step for someone planning to practice law or become a policymaker.
VIII. So, should you apply to law school?
As with any important career decision, whether attending law school is the right choice for you depends on the opportunity cost in your individual situation and on a variety of personal fit factors. This section outlines steps you could take and factors to consider to help evaluate whether law school makes sense for your plans.
Cheap tests to try
- Speak with a current law student or recent law graduate about their experience. It might be especially valuable to speak with a recent law graduate who holds a role that you are excited about. People with firsthand knowledge may be able to provide insight about parts of the law school experience not covered here that are important to you. If you fill out this short survey, we will try to connect you with members of the EA community who have attended or currently attend law school in the U.S.
- Try attending a class at a nearby law school. Law school classes often use a format called the Socratic Method that might be different from the one you encountered in earlier studies; attending a class can help you decide whether you enjoy learning in this format. Many (but not all) law professors will allow prospective students to sit in on one of their classes, if asked politely in advance. Consider writing an email to a professor at a university where you are studying or are a recent graduate, or near where you are currently working.
- If you can’t attend a law school class in person, try watching a video of a mock law school class that includes student participation, like this video of a mock criminal law class from Suffolk Law School. (The few videos of real law school classes you may find online are unlikely to be representative of the Socratic format and the typical experience you would have in law school classes. Likely due to the need to preserve student privacy, almost all posted videos are in a lecture format in which students are not actively participating. While real classes sometimes use this format, it is uncommon.)
- Read a book about the law school experience and strategies for succeeding as a law student. One contributor recommends 1L of a Ride, which describes itself as providing “a candid, comprehensive roadmap to both academic and emotional success in law school’s crucial first year.”
- Try reading an edited version of an opinion written by an appellate court. As noted above, reading appellate opinions is one of the primary forms of homework in law school, and law textbooks are made up mostly of edited versions of these opinions. Reading one can give you some sense of whether you might enjoy–or eventually learn to enjoy–that kind of work. However, note that testing fit for law school by reading an appellate opinion without any instruction in the subject is a bit like testing fit for gymnastics by trying to do a cartwheel with no training: the point is not to succeed on the first try, but to get a sense for whether the hard moments feel tolerable and whether it would be fun to get better through lots of practice. With that caveat in mind, you could try reading an edited version of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Erie Railroad v. Tompkins, which is a famous case that you would likely study in a first-year course on civil procedure. You could also try reading the Court's brief opinion in McBoyle v. United States, which you would likely see in a class on criminal law. (Just to emphasize again: This might feel like a slow process at first. That’s okay! Most people need more time to read legal opinions than to read other kinds of writing of similar length, especially when first starting law school. It’s normal to need to look up lots of definitions and have some unanswered questions when you finish reading.)
Separately from tests that might tell you whether you would enjoy law school, you should also consider whether you are likely to be successful in earning admission to great law schools and succeeding once you get there. Toward that end, consider taking a practice test for the LSAT, which you can do for free using the Khan Academy platform; one contributor highly recommends LSAT Demon as an alternative. While you should not rule out attending law school based on a bad first experience with the LSAT (most people can dramatically improve their performance on the test through study and practice), finding that one or more of the question types comes naturally to you would be good evidence that you already have some of the kinds of verbal reasoning skills that would help you succeed in law school.
Other factors that might make law school a more attractive option
- You already have a strong interest in careers where a J.D. is necessary, such as becoming a litigator, or would provide a distinct advantage, such as working on regulatory policy in government.
- You already have academic credentials that make you a good candidate for admission to a competitive law school, such as a high undergraduate GPA and/or an especially high score on the LSAT or GRE. (See admissions “predictor” calculators here and here).
- You have access to significant financial resources, such as family support or scholarship funds, that you can use to pay law school tuition but not to provide direct benefits to others or make other valuable investments. (But note that, especially with support from LRAP, having these resources is not at all necessary to attending law school and having a positive impact afterward.)
- You have a strong comparative advantage in verbal reasoning and writing, such that you think your best opportunities to make a positive difference through your career are very likely to make active use of those skills rather than quantitative reasoning or other strengths.
- You know you do not want to further pursue your current career path or are not on any career path. Law school is a career “reset” button in that professional accomplishments prior to law school, unless truly exceptional or highly specialized, do not have a strong effect on what quality or types of legal jobs you can be considered for. Prior resume gaps or experiences you would prefer not to highlight will carry less weight after you graduate law school, and no one is expected to have any prior acquaintance with legal work or subject matter when they start law school.
- You would prefer to shift focus away from your undergraduate degree on your CV, either because your grades weren’t as strong as you would have liked or because you attended a college whose networks or employment outcomes aren’t as strong as those of a law school you could attend.
Other factors that might make law school a less attractive option
- It seems unclear whether a J.D. would help you on the path to having the kind of positive impact you hope to have on the world, and you can think of more promising uses of the three years you would spend in law school.
- You don’t currently have a clear plan for what you would like to do after law school and why that option is valuable compared to alternatives that are available to you without a law degree.
- You already have elite credentials, such that the additional value of a law degree as a signal of intelligence and conscientiousness would be less useful for roles outside the legal field.
- You already have a strong personal fit for a high-impact role working on a pressing problem, such that the opportunity cost of the three years you would spend in law school is unusually high.
- You have significant personal commitments, such as family obligations, that make spending 50+ hours per week on schoolwork an unusually costly investment.
- You find prolonged periods of stress, such as a multi-week exam period, or negative feedback, such as a disappointing response from a professor to an answer to a cold-call question you gave in front of several dozen classmates, to be especially costly or discouraging for mental health or other reasons.
IX. Advice to keep in mind if you are leaning toward pursuing law school
Choosing law school to avoid making career decisions is a common failure mode
Many people enter law school in part to avoid making decisions about what to aim for in their careers. As a descriptive matter, this choice is understandable: making these decisions is genuinely difficult and in most cases involves grappling with massive uncertainty about personal fit and the potential impact of different paths. But unfortunately, as described above, law school is a costly choice that will not, on its own, provide a satisfying resolution to most people’s uncertainty about where to begin their careers. On the contrary, some people find law school pushes them toward career decisions they would not have considered optimal when they first applied.
Instead, it might be helpful to approach the choice to attend law school as an important career decision in itself—not to mention perhaps the largest single financial investment you will ever make. Your experience in law school, like your experience in a first full-time, permanent job, will shape the rest of your career. Considering the choice on those terms might help you decide how law school compares to your other options.
Most people shouldn’t leave promising work for law school without a clear plan
Other people leave a job they enjoy and find valuable to enter law school, perhaps because they believe it is important to have the credential value of a graduate degree. While this move can make sense, make sure you understand how law school will help you achieve your long-term goals before making the leap.
If you think your current work is promising and a good fit, before leaving for law school, make sure you have a clear plan for how law school will help you have even greater impact. Talking with more senior people in the field where you hope to work long-term can be a good way of checking how valuable a law degree is likely to be.
Entering law school with a theory of change in mind can help
There are many different ways of using a law degree, some of which involve very different skills than others. Entering law school with a preliminary theory of how you will use your degree can help you make the most of the time you have in law school to pursue relevant internships, independent projects, and courses.
Some contributors said their most valuable experiences in law school came from self-initiated opportunities outside of class (e.g., clinics, research projects, internships), making it particularly important to have a plan for how you will identify and prioritize projects on object-level questions that are relevant to your interests and goals.
As time allows, keep building your subject-matter knowledge
As in other careers, a large fraction of your impact in a career related to law or policy might depend on developing good judgment about which problems to work on and which opportunities are most promising for addressing them. As time allows, try to keep learning about important problems and connecting with people whose work you admire.
That said, you will most likely be extremely busy in law school, and you will need to defer to the conclusions of experts and others in the community who you trust for all but a small number of questions that are most directly relevant to your work and current theory of impact. That’s normal and necessary for people pursuing demanding, full-time projects like law school.
Keep an eye out for new opportunities
There are still a relatively small number of people in the EA community who have attended law school, so the exploratory value of trying this path with an eye toward advocating for animal welfare, improving the long-term future, or pursuing other relatively neglected work to benefit others seems likely to be high. In some cases, you may be among the first people to give serious consideration to using the law in a particular way.
The legal literacy you gain in law school will also give you a different perspective and skillset from many other members of the EA community, which may help you identify opportunities adjacent to existing projects or give advice that increases the effectiveness of others’ efforts.
X. Next steps
If law school seems like a promising way of advancing your career, consider finding a job (or an internship, especially if you are still in college) that would allow you to test out your fit for the kind of work you are interested in doing after law school.
For example, if you are interested in a policymaking role within the executive branch, finding an entry-level role working in an agency that interests you could give you valuable insight into whether you have a good personal fit for working in that context. Similarly, if you are interested in impact litigation, working as a legal assistant or a paralegal in a plaintiff-side law firm that does a lot of impact litigation could help you evaluate whether you want to be a full-time litigator later in your career. Options like these also have the benefit of giving you substantive, valuable work experience that would strengthen your candidacy for admission to law school.
Also, as noted above, if you are interested in getting in touch with members of the EA community who have attended, currently attend, or are considering law school, we encourage you to fill out this short survey. We will use your answers to try to connect you to people with knowledge or networks relevant to your specific interests and career stage.
If you have done all of the above and are ready to apply, check out the next post in this series, “Admissions and financial advice for U.S. law school applicants.”
As noted above, first-year law students take a standardized set of courses and have hardly any control over their curriculum. Opportunities to take specialized courses related to causes like national security and animal law come later, in the second and third years.
In a small number of states, it is possible to be admitted to the bar to provide this kind of advice without attending law school, or after attending law school for less than three years. This uncommon path involves working as an apprentice to a judge or practicing attorney and receiving on-the-job training.
A large share of U.S. lawyers, especially graduates of top-ranked law schools, work in large private law firms, organizing corporate transactions or defending large companies from lawsuits. Another significant fraction work on the front lines of the criminal justice system, where there is a significant opportunity to help others that is largely bottlenecked by policy decisions rather than by the effort of front-line lawyers.
Formally, “practicing law” means performing functions that a person who is not admitted to the bar is not authorized to perform. In the U.S., state professional licensing statutes determine what constitutes practicing law. The American Bar Association has compiled many of these definitions here. According to the American Bar Association, ten months after graduation, 76% of all 2021 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools held jobs that required passing a bar exam; for graduates of some top schools, that rate was significantly higher: it was 96% at Columbia, 94% at Chicago, 91% at NYU, and 87% at Harvard.
Note that working as a clinical instructor, unlike working as a law professor or researcher, often involves practicing law.
For readers who are already practicing law in private law firms or businesses and donating some of their income to highly effective charities: we strongly encourage you to continue donating, particularly in light of the fact that some of the most effective charities in the world expect to be able to absorb much more funding this year. If you are interested in transitioning to a different kind of role, now or in the future, please reach out by filling out this short survey—we’d be excited to talk with you about possible transitions.
Adjusting for class sizes, Georgetown still compares favorably to other schools in sending alumni to Congress, but slips behind Yale, which has smaller graduating classes. There is currently one alum in Congress for every ~48 people in Georgetown’s 2021 graduating class, compared to one alum for every ~26 people in Harvard’s class and one for every ~36 people in Yale’s class that year.