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A Salt with Deadly Weapon

[Editor’s Note] Ashley Garbe Smith is a talented musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mother. This fall she enrolls in the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU. She had been very helpful in launching the NEVES LAW website. In recent years, the financial incentives to go to law school have been rewritten in much the same way lawyers operate in this post-recession economy. In this post, Ashley explores the personal reasons behind her decision to go to law school.

Why Law School?

It’s the question I hear most often when people find out that I will be attending law school at Brigham Young University this fall. I am a thirty-three year old mom of two young boys and a professional musician. I’m not a typical law student.

Let me be clear: I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll go to law school” like Elle Woods in the movie Legally Blonde. This was decided carefully over ten years even at a time of such great volatility. The legal industry isn’t what it was ten years ago. Law school applications are down, salaries cut, and post-graduation opportunities slashed. What hasn’t changed is that going to law school is a substantial financial investment and a big time commitment. And for me, a decision to go to law school means altering not just my life but also the lives of my husband and children. I hope by writing this I will encourage other people to pursue those dreams-not-forgotten. Here are five reasons why I decided to go to law school:

1. The impact of the law in our lives is fascinating. I worked for a law firm for five years as a paralegal, and I loved going to work every single day. I enjoyed drafting legal documents and learning about the law. I was interested in hearing stories of real people and how our lawyers were positively impacting their lives. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a positive influence in people’s lives. I even know the general areas of law I will practice. I have a realistic perspective of what being a lawyer means. While not as glamorous as portrayed on TV, it still appeals to me.

2. A law degree makes financial sense. For most, going to law school means incurring a large amount of student loan debt. The average debt taken on by a law school graduate going to a public school is $84,000.[1] Over the past few years, I have purposefully saved money to help cover living costs while attending law school, and my husband working full-time will support me. BYU Law is renowned for its low cost tuition and being ranked in the top 50 laws schools in the country. I was also awarded a partial scholarship. I will graduate law school with significantly less debt than the average lawyer. Upon graduation, I will see a dramatic increase in my income potential. The median annual salary for lawyers remains well above the national average. I am not going to law school to become rich, but I can expect a decent income unencumbered by heavy student loan debt. No one should go to law school primarily to make the big bucks, and everyone should consider their own return on investment. For me, going to BYU Law makes financial sense.

3. The law provides opportunities to help others. I realize there are more selfless, cheaper, easier, and less painful (no tolerating lawyer jokes) ways to help others. However, at risk of being cliché, lawyers play an exclusive role in society that provides countless opportunities help others. Whether working in public interest, providing pro bono representation, volunteering in the community, resolving conflict, defending criminal charges, helping avoid taxes, or facilitating innovation, the opportunity to help others is ever-present. In my own experience working for a law firm, I frequently saw lawyers change many lives for the better. As a lawyer, I will help others who couldn’t help themselves.

4. Flexibility is important. As a mom of two young boys, I want a career with some measure of flexibility. In one way or another, lawyers choose their own hours, set their own fees, and most importantly, choose their areas of practice. Some even telecommute, work part-time, or have other nontraditional arrangements. There are some who work over 100 hours each week, and others who never practice law altogether. Whatever career path I eventually choose, a law degree provides me with a broad skill set that will open many doors that were otherwise closed.

5. Greater opportunities to serve community. The last seven years as a work-from-home mom has reinforced my desire and belief in the importance of giving back to society. I’ve volunteered for various community events and organizations, and I’ve personally experienced poor decisions made by influential members of my community. A law degree will afford me greater resources and credibility to make positive contributions to the local decision making process and help resolve conflicts.  

Law school will not be easy—that’s what I'm told. But, I am prepared to undertake three years of intense schooling while being a wife and mom and the ensuing sacrifices and struggles because I am satisfied with the justifications and consequences. Based on my experience, albeit limited, I know that being a lawyer will be both a challenging and rewarding career. Ultimately, when someone asks why I want to go to law school, they want to know why I want to be a lawyer. Before even beginning the law school application process, all aspiring lawyers should ask themselves what they want to do with their law degree.

[1] American Bar Ass’n, Average Amounts Borrowed: 2001–2012 (2013), Graduates of private institutions average $122,000 in debt. Id.