As the school year winds down, a whispered question is floating in on the wind: “Should I drop out of law school?”
It’s coming from a few different directions:
- Rising 2Ls who aren’t happy with their first-year grades
- Rising 2Ls who did OK, but didn’t enjoy the first year of law school
- Rising 3Ls who aren’t sure they really want to be lawyers after all
- Rising 3Ls who are afraid they’ll never get a job
If this is a question you’re debating (even secretly), here are my thoughts.
Don’t Be Afraid to Consider the Possibility of Leaving
If you’re thinking about leaving law school, give yourself permission to really consider the idea. There’s no reason you can’t do it.
It’s quite possible that you’ll decide — in the end — to carry on, but you’ll feel a lot more secure in that choice if you try on “I’m leaving” for size and see how it feels.
Repressing the very idea of leaving as impossible, or too embarrassing, or whatever, isn’t helpful.
If you refuse to even consider the idea, you’ll never get a place where you’ve made a real choice to stay — you’ll just be muddling through by default, which is unlikely to be very satisfying (or very successful).
Realistically Evaluate Your Options
As the inimitable Bruce MacEwan said in our interview with him, if you’re not doing well in law school the market might be trying to send you a signal. Ignore it at your peril.
You’ve Just Finished 1L Year
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’ve just finished your 1L year, and you’re undecided about whether to continue.
Scenario One: Your 1L Grades are Terrible
If your 1L grades are terrible, that’s a signal. I’m not saying you can’t eventually become a successful lawyer, but you are going to be facing an uphill struggle.
- If your grades weren’t great, but you really enjoyed what you were learning and you have a clear (realistic) idea of what you’re going to do for a career, great. Stick it out, try to improve your grades, and network like crazy. Maybe things will work out, but you’re going to have to hussle.
- If your grades were terrible, and you hated every second of your classes, seriously, what are you still doing here? Cut your losses, because it’s not going to get any better!
- If you’re not happy with your grades, and you found law school tolerable but not enjoyable, it’s time to spend some serious time thinking about what to do. (Personally, I’d suggest enlisting help from a career coach or other expert who can provide an objective analysis of your skills, talents, and potential job options.) What will your career options look like when you graduate in the middle of your class with no particular love for the law? Why are you becoming a lawyer? What’s your motivation? If you can connect (or re-connect) to some overarching motivation, maybe it makes sense to stay. But if you can’t come up with any compelling reason to carry on, I’d seriously question whether it makes sense to continue.
Special Case: You’re Losing a Scholarship
Sad to say, but this is where the rubber really meets the road. If you had a substantial scholarship 1L year, which you lost because your 1L GPA wasn’t high enough, it’s very tempting to keep going. Maybe you want to prove to yourself/your parents/your classmates/your mean professors that you can do this — you can make it through law school.
Is this really the best idea?
There’s no shame in looking at the situation with some hard-nosed realism, and refusing to pay full price to continue.
Scenario Two: You Hate Law School, But You’re Doing OK
So, what if your 1L performance was fine, but you hate law school? Here, it pays to try to figure out whether you’ll actually like being a lawyer, even if you hate law school. (A pretty common scenario, believe it or not.)
The first year of law school is annoying for many reasons: most of your classes are required; the workload is heavy; it can be tedious, and so on. It’s easy to lose track of what brought you to law school to begin with.
Assuming you had some reason (perhaps a bold assumption), try and figure out if it’s still motivating. Ideally, you’ll have the opportunity to work over the summer in a role that’s somewhat related to what you want to do long-term.
Pay close attention to what you like, and don’t like, about this experience.
- You might find that real-life lawyering is fun and interesting, even if law school is pretty awful.
- But if you find your legal work environment equally unpleasant, that’s a sign worth paying attention to.
Again, there’s no shame in stepping back, evaluating what you’re committing to over the long-term, and saying, “No thanks, this isn’t for me.”
You’ve Just Finished 2L Year
If you’ve just finished your second year of law school and you’re having doubts about carrying on, the situation is even more complicated.
I’ve been where you are, in a different graduate program.
I struggled through the first two years of a three-year Masters program in architecture, and then hated the job I got the summer between my second and third years. I was working in a small architecture office (theoretically one of the more pleasant career paths), making 50% less than I’d made answering phones as a temp two years earlier, and sobbing every day as I drove to work. It’s wasn’t a good scene.
I made up some excuse to quit early, and I had no idea what to do. I’d taken out loans to pay for my first two years, I had no real job prospects outside of the field, and I knew I couldn’t work as an architect. (As an added bonus, I also wasn’t very good at it.)
Cut my losses, or stay and finish? I couldn’t decide.
In the end, I finished. But I used the relative flexibility of the final year to position myself for a new career as a web developer. (Weird, but this was Berkeley and you could get away with a lot of weird stuff. I found a loophole in the thesis requirements, which let me write a paper instead of doing a design project, and exploited it fully.)
I pretty much checked out from the architecture school, never went to studio, and taught myself to build databases and write code. Most of my professors hated me, and I barely got sign off on my thesis project, but I didn’t care. I was there to reposition and graduate, not to be a top architecture student. (A friend still laughs about my final studio critique, which was a complete disaster.)
But in the end, it worked. I got a programming job when I graduated, and I never worked as an architect again.
Was it the right choice? Who knows.
For me, I knew I’d feel too adrift if I quit 2/3 of the way through. Given that I had the flexibility to do essentially whatever I wanted for that final year, staying and finishing was workable. If I’d had to do the typical architecture curriculum, including a final thesis that involved a design project, I might not have stayed, because I would have hated every minute of it, and it wouldn’t have positioned me to do what I wanted to do later.
Because the final year of law school is so flexible, I think most rising 3Ls should suck it up and finish.
That’s not blanket advice, of course, and I might feel differently if you told me you were absolutely, 100% sure you never wanted to be a lawyer and you had other good options for what to do instead.
But, in general, you can do very little 3L year that you don’t want to do. Take advantage of the situation and learn something else! Take classes in the business school, study a useful language, get some work experience, whatever.
If you can find a way to reframe the final year of law school as a step on the way to whatever’s next, it’ll be a lot more bearable. And, you might find you actually like being a lawyer in the end. (If nothing else, it’s a decent fallback option, being a member of a protected cartel.)
So, there you have it…my two cents. What does everyone else think? Should unhappy law students stay — or go?
This blog post was reprinted with the permission of Alison Monahan, who’s a 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School. Click here to read more of her blog.
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