Monthly Archives: July 2013

What’s a J.D. Worth To You?

It’s been a busy week of debate about the value of a JD.  Much of the debate started with this article by Simkovic and McIntyre, where the takeaway is that a JD can be worth up to one million dollars over the course of a lifetime.  As Elie Mystal at Above the Law pointed out, however, there are lots of problems with this study, to the point of embarrassment.  The million dollar valuation didn’t factor in the cost of the JD, for one thing.  Law school graduates routinely emerge with a few hundred thousand dollars in debt.  Those who graduate with significantly less debt often go to public law schools, which may correlate with lower earnings over their lifetimes (depending hugely, of course, on the school).  Another problem is that the study is based on pre-2008 earnings data, which bears pretty much no relation to the current legal market.  Although several other writers criticized the study, the headlines remain.  I feel for the college graduates who go to law school for the wrong reasons, including the influence of studies like this.

Although I’m not a social scientist, I’m a former BigLaw partner, and I’ve talked with over two hundred current and former lawyers about their career choices and satisfaction.   Thirty of those former lawyers, including Elie Mystal, are profiled in my forthcoming book, Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the JD You Have.

My advice to anyone contemplating law school is to ignore studies like Simkovic’s and focus instead on what you want to do specifically.  The worst reason to go to law school is to prolong career indecision.  If you truly need a study to support your choice, take a look at the more useful ones described in Mystal’s follow up post (and have you considered a sociology master’s instead)?

I don’t think it’s possible to generalize in any meaningful way about the value of a JD now.  The old adage that “you can do anything you want with a JD” obscures the fact that you can do almost anything you want – except actually practice law – without a JD, too.  It’s true that law school provides excellent training for any number of ventures.  Hundreds of thousands of former lawyers have found ways to put their legal skills and experiences to use in more rewarding post-law careers.  But if you are contemplating whether or not to go to law school, or to stay in law school, the question should be whether the J.D.  is worth the additional time and money to you personally.  That’s not something any broad study of a J.D.’s earning potential can answer.

Equating a JD with big money is dangerously misleading.  It is, of course, possible to earn scads of money without getting a JD.  It’s also possible to have an immensely rewarding legal career, although most lawyers I know who love their jobs don’t earn scads of money.   I believe Big Law is here to stay, sadly, in spite of its periodic contractions and the implosion of a major firm every two years or so.  But I wouldn’t counsel anyone to go into it without a solid backup plan and a truly informed understanding of what it’s like to work in that environment, because many people find misery unsustainable no matter what they earn.  Only that kind of study, together with some serious self analysis, will lead to the right career.

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From Lawyer to Marketer to Jeweler

Zoe Mohler Head Shot-2Zoe Mohler is the artist behind Three Sisters Jewelry, which makes gorgeous handstamped necklaces among other beautiful things (I wear her “Aria” necklace most days).  She is also a former lawyer and law firm marketer with a truly great story.

Zoe had doubts about law while she was still in law school.   Although she had a nagging feeling that law practice wasn’t right for her, she wasn’t about to change her plans on that basis alone.  “I didn’t understand the importance of instinct when I was 24,” she says.  “I didn’t think that happiness mattered, because I was raised to be practical about work.”

She joined the transactional practice of a firm with more female attorneys than other firms, and stayed there for five years.  When she became pregnant, she transitioned into a job in the then-emerging field of law firm marketing.  She had her first two daughters while working a flexible schedule.  Her mother took care of both kids while Zoe was at the office.  When her children were four and two, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and her heath went rapidly downhill.   While her mother was dying, Zoe asked for some family leave.  Her manager refused.  Zoe quit.  One week later, her mother passed away.

Zoe was devastated.  After some months at home, she started thinking about how else she might contribute to the family’s income.  She had always liked photography, and started taking night classes to improve her photography skills.  She started doing weddings and portraits on the weekends.  Once she started promoting her photography, it turned into a business that kept her busy all weekend.  Her husband watched the girls while she worked.

Two years after her mother died, Zoe herself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  At the time, her youngest daughter was two months old.   During her radiation treatments, she could not see her three children because even casual contact would put them at risk for radiation poisoning.  While she was in isolation, and thinking about family, she made keepsake jewelry for her daughters.  She had researched how to make hand-stamped jewelry and stamped metal discs that were personalized for each girl.

The treatments worked, and Zoe found herself wanting to make more of the stamped jewelry.  But the jewelry business didn’t go well at first.  At her first trunk show, she didn’t sell a single piece.  “I sat in the car and cried afterward.  It was a disaster,” she says.  Instead of selling person to person, she decided to create her own website, which she learned to do online.

Her big break came unexpectedly.  About four years ago, Zoe took the financial plunge of hiring a professional web designer.  On the day her new website launched, the Today Show did a segment on personalized jewelry and broadcast her website address across the screen.  She got 8,000 hits that first day.   “I believe in small miracles,” she says.

But it wasn’t entirely a miracle.  The Today Show apparently found Three Sisters by doing a key word search for “personalized jewelry.”  At the time, few other companies produced the same kind of personalized jewelry that Zoe was creating, and she took advantage of that.  She had used the SEO skills she learned in marketing to code her site so that it ranked highly during searches for “personalized jewelry” and “handstamped jewelry.”  If she hadn’t made Three Sisters so easy to find, the Today Show would not have promoted her site.

Zoe credits law school with helping her develop a sense of drive and confidence in her own abilities.  She recalls the unspoken law school rule that you had to come to every class fully prepared and on top of your game.   “Everything that I’ve done for my business, from learning how to build my own website six years ago to creating new jewelry lines, required that same kind of personal dedication,” she says.  She also uses the analytical skills she honed in law school to understand her competition and adjust her position in response.  She has a better understanding of copyright law than most other artisans, and is more comfortable negotiating contracts than most small business owners.

Zoe urges lawyers who are thinking of changing careers to have confidence, and not to underestimate their own chances of success.   “Before I started this business, I would never have expected that I could,” she says.  “I was 38 when I started.  But you never know.  You can do more than you think you can.  You just have to try.”


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