Some great discussion on the WSJ Law Blog. Read in the comments section following the link.
Q: I am a first-year law student at a fourth-tier regional law school and I got my grades about a week ago. They were below average for my class, and I have been very depressed lately . . . . How do I evaluate whether I should drop out of law school and do something entirely different? I really want to be a lawyer, but I don’t want to do it if I’m not going to be any good at it. Any ideas?
A: Some people are better suited to being lawyers than law students. You may be one of them. [Ouch.] The first year of law school presents a difficult challenge for many students. You are learning new concepts and a new way of thinking. Some students “get it” sooner than others. Sometimes it takes a semester or two, or possibly more, to figure out how to approach legal issues. In a few cases, law is not the right career choice
Consider whether you like the law, without letting your grades taint your assessment . . . . Similarly, separate your grades from your comprehension of the course material . . . . Ask yourself whether you possess the skills and characteristics that lead to success in the practice of law . . . .
Do not make a hasty decision to drop out of law school. Take time for self-assessment. Explore your options. Benefit from the help that is available to you.
O Beloved Law Blog readers, anything to add to the New York Lawyer’s response?
Some brief thoughts of my own:
- Your grades do not define you. Regardless of how well or poorly you did, don't let it go to your head. Your grades are not your identity, nor are they your destiny. Don't start thinking of yourself as better or worse than others based on your class rank. Either approach is likely to make you into a very miserable person. If you did well this semester, enjoy your success, stay humble, and keep working hard. If things didn't go so well, learn from this experience , pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and jump back into the fray. See this previous post for much more on this.
- School rank matters. Class rank matters. The lower both of these are, the more you should seriously re-evaluate the expected value of your law degree. Even coming out of law school, high salaries are not guaranteed. I think a lot of people have unrealistic expectations of high salaries coming into law school. If you're not in the top of your class, you will likely not make much more (or even less) than you could have made coming out of undergrad.
- Debt matters. If you are incurring a lot of debt to go to law school, consider ways to slow the pace of debt acquisition. Does your school have a part-time program? Consider that as an option to earn a salary while going to school. Who knows? Your employer might even help pay for school. Debt can be a heavy burden, particularly if you're not making the high salary you were hoping for.
- Do you have a technical undergraduate degree? If so, intellectual property seems to have a lower barrier to entry than other legal fields, with a better chance of getting a high paying salary. Consider taking the patent bar exam while in law school. (I didn't realize until after I started law school that you don't need a law degree to sit for the patent bar.) If you pass this exam, it will greatly enhance your chances of finding summer employment and your first job out of school.
- Ask yourself why are you going to law school? If it is to practice law, your grades to a large extent reflect your opportunities immediately out of school. So does your school ranking. If both of these are low and you will not be happy with a law degree unless you practice law, you may want to re-evaluate. On the other hand, some people go to law school for other reasons. Ask yourself why you are in law school and honestly re-evaluate your goals and career prospects. Don't stick with it just because you started it. By some measures, dropping out of law school is one pathway to success.
- Try one more semester. Depending on your expneses and your class rank, you might want to try another semester of law school. It takes some people longer than others to learn a new way of thinking. Now that you've got some actual feedback on last semester's performance, you know some things you didn't know before and have a better idea of what works and what does not in law school. I had a less than impressive start in my PhD program, but turned around and have made almost straight A's after that. There's no reason this can't happen for many people in law school. Most law schools have already passed a deadline for tuition reimbursement, so redouble your efforts, try to find the best legal job you can over the summer (this will help motivate or demotivate you to study law), and make it a challenge to overcome your class rank if it's not what you hoped for.
Some viable alternatives to law school:
- Consider an MBA instead. Having been through and MBA and currently in law school, I can say that I think the MBA is a far more versatile degree. It's also (in my opinion) less stressful and is less likely to trap you in a low-paying job with excessive debt. Many schools have part-time programs and my impression is that there are many more employers who would be willing to help cover the costs of an MBA than there are for law degrees. I think the MBA is generally a more broadly applicable degree and teaches some useful skills for starting a business, leading groups, and volunteering with various organizations. I am of the opinion an MBA gives you good training to help in just about any career path your pursue. Getting an MBA is far less path dependent than getting a law degree too. Grades and class don't matter nearly as much as they do in law school (especially after your first job out of business school) and they don't have a strict, mandatory curve like they do in law school. You are likely to have good career prospects coming out of a top 25 or top 50 program -- possibly out of even lower ranked schools. I expect median salaries are higher at most business schools compared to law schools, and it only takes two years instead of three to complete the degree.
- Travel. Despite my many degrees (engineering, MBA, law, economics PhD), my best education by far has been my travels around the world. For the price of a law degree (both in terms of time and money), you could see an incredible amount of the world. Seeing other cultures, experiencing how others live, and exposing yourself to new environments will help you appreciate your own and other cultures more deeply, broaden your perspectives, and help you to see opportunities where you have not before. For less than $8,000, you can take a 13 week trip through 20 countries across Europe, Asia, and Australia. (I would so love to do this!)
- Become an Entrepreneur. Use the time and money you would have put towards law school to try starting a business instead. Get creative -- start-up costs for many businesses consist of not much more than a laptop and a printer. Give yourself a year to pursue a dream you've had and see where it takes you.
- DO ALL OF THE ABOVE! In three years, you could travel the world, get an MBA, and start a new business. If you manage your finances correctly, it is quite likely you could do all three for less than the cost of a law degree.
Bottom line: Don't box yourself into a path just because you've started down it. Like I mentioned earlier, regardless of if your grades were higher or lower than expected, don't let them define who you are. I know some great people who are bemoaning their first semester's results and some not so great people who are currently gloating. Your character matters far more than good grades or high salaries.