Should I stay in law school?
July 9, 2009 3:07 PM   Subscribe

Should I drop out of law school or stay in? And if I stay in, what should I do so I can end up leading the kind of life I want to lead?

I just finished my first year at a top-10 law school. My grades were good, and I actually really enjoyed 1L year -- the classes, the people, the experience of being back in school after a 4 year break. And as it turns out, I'm actually pretty damn good at "thinking like a lawyer." But it's becoming increasingly clear to me that I don't really want to be a lawyer in the traditional sense. While I like school generally, I discovered I didn't have any particular passion for the law. I frankly found much of it to be quite boring. I have a summer job now where I'm doing a lot of research and writing for complex litigation. It's fairly stimulating stuff, but it's getting monotonous. The idea of showing up at the same office and doing this same work for years on end is scaring me.

I came to law school thinking that I could take on a load of debt, and because of the school I'd be attending, easily snag a $200k/year job upon graduation and pay off that debt quickly. Unfortunately, as of this year those jobs no longer seem like a sure thing. I also think I underestimated just how much I would despise working at such a job 60-80 hours per week anyway. I've realized that I don't care much about money, but rather, experiences; I want to be doing interesting, different things, to travel, to find myself in strange and compelling situations, and to lead something of an adventuresome life. Those things aren't in abundance in legal culture. Journalism has always appealed strongly to me, but pragmatism won out -- there aren't many fields with a bleaker future right now. Other things I find interesting are start-ups, some aspects of finance, and the arts. While I know there are legal jobs that involve these things, they're not being thrown at graduating law students the same way the firm jobs are, so I know I'm going to have to do a bit more work and be creative in forging my own career path.

I've actually considered dropping out of school, but I'm already something like $70k in the hole with law school loans, and in this economy I have no better prospects. I'm thinking the best thing to do will be to finish up the next two years -- which, let me be clear, I'll probably enjoy -- and hopefully get a firm job for a few years, which will let me crawl out from the $200k of debt I'll have accumulated at that point. However, even though that would only be 2-4 years, those are still 2-4 years of my life, and a pretty good age (late 20's/early 30's). The alternative would just be to take a lower paying but more interesting job, and work on paying off the loans over a much longer time period. Not my ideal, and not my original plan, but it might be the only way to preserve my happiness.

I suppose what I'm asking, then, are two things. First, is my plan a decent one, or should I drop out now while my debt is a sort-of-manageable $70k, rather than an unbelievable $200k+? Second, what are some things I can do with a JD that aren't very "law-like," at least in the traditional sense, and that would give me an interesting life full of experiences? And what should I be doing with my remaining two years of school to set me up for such a job? While I'd always assumed I'd be a litigator after law school, I'm thinking at this point that it would be best to avoid litigation, as it's such a specialized set of skills that doesn't readily permit one to transition out of law into something a bit broader.
posted by anonymous to Education (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Those things aren't in abundance in legal culture.

After 1L you have absolutely no idea what the practice of law is like. They don't teach it to you in law school at all, except for in practice situations.

As for litigation making you too specialized, this litigator just doesn't see that. The skills taught there are totally transferrable.

I'd see what you have lined up for the summer. Frankly, when I see these types of questions, I usually write it off to "what am I doing for my summer job" types of anxiety.

MeMail me if you have any more questions. I say hang in there.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:16 PM on July 9, 2009

I refused to go the biglaw path and am very happy -- yes, I'll be paying student loans for a good long time, but at least I can live with myself. As it happens, my practice involves arts/entertainment, financing, and small businesses -- so MeMail me if you want to discuss what it's like to go a less traditional path while still being a practicing attorney.
posted by katemonster at 3:28 PM on July 9, 2009

You can stay in law school and be a journalist. That's what I'm doing. In an economy like this, you can't have many life-enriching journalism adventures when there's no money to pay reporters.

But with a sideline in law, you can write features, shoot documentaries, whatever, on the side + earn respect for your education when pitching a law-related story to whatever editors haven't yet been shitcanned. Oh yeah, and don't work for a big law firm.
posted by Kirklander at 3:31 PM on July 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'd say finish, not because it gets better or more interesting, but you're in for a penny, in for a pound at this point--$70K in loans does not just disappear, and you may as well plow through to the point when you're making the big bucks for a bit. Yes it's true that this economy has been hard on the top-tier schools and on the associates in BigLaw, but I am hopeful that by the time you get out, things will be better (oh please Lil' Baby Jeebus, let it be so).

That said, there are all sorts of fun stuff lawyers end up doing. I had a friend at my last firm who is now, I think, general counsel at a modeling agency, which sounds awesome to me.

MeMail me, etc.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:38 PM on July 9, 2009

In Canada, I'll bet at least half the members of Parliament are lawyers. Aboriginal rights only were put on the front burner by the feds because there were finally some lawyers among them. I agree with Katemonster. No one says you have to join a large firm.
posted by x46 at 3:58 PM on July 9, 2009

Talk to your career center. They likely have a list of non-practicing alumni that you could talk to.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 4:00 PM on July 9, 2009

I say stay in. I went alternate roots after school (federal regulatory and then consulting firm) and I have loans like you and it's manageable.
posted by Pax at 4:13 PM on July 9, 2009

I dropped out of law school and it was the best thing I ever did. Sometimes you just know when something is not right for you--and if you know that, you might as well figure out what IS right for you. There are so many lawyers out there who loathe their jobs (of course, there are also lawyers who love their jobs). The world doesn't need more of them.
posted by millipede at 4:24 PM on July 9, 2009

You can also look into advocacy and public policy, whether directly from the legislature or by working for a nonprofit and/or lobbying for something you believe in.
posted by questionsandanchors at 4:39 PM on July 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

The World Famous beat me to it. And along the same lines, you're not going to be able to pay off that law school debt in two to four years even with a high paying big firm job.

That said, you've already invested $70k in this endeavor (cripes, what school are you going to, that's almost double what my law school cost for a year, counting cost of living loans) so hang in there and in the next two years try to find an area of law or a good-paying profession that ignites your passion.
posted by amro at 4:51 PM on July 9, 2009

I should specify that I was referring to The World Famous saying that you were never going to get a $200k job right out of law school.
posted by amro at 4:52 PM on July 9, 2009

Some thoughts on staying in law school versus leaving.

I stayed in law school (albeit in very different economic times) and went with Biglaw, to a firm on the rankings in the top fifty but not top twenty, and I'm happy with my decision. Similar pay, similar kinds of work, but my hours aren't nearly as crazy as they would have been had I gone to a Wachtel or a Skadden. Also, I'm in tax which is a little more friendly to having a life outside the firm, and in my opinion tax is very interesting (though maybe not extremely exciting--or stressful--most days). I'd say try taking some courses in tax law and see how you like it. Especially if you're at NYU or Georgetown, or can take some courses in tax at one of those schools through reciprocity. Or, consider getting a dual JD-MBA. Only takes an extra year, I think, and may open your eyes to other prospects and/or give you some interesting contacts for the future regardless of whether you go into law or business - not to mention buy you another year to weather the economic storm. I knew a guy who did a dual JD-MBA and ended up going into the business world instead of legal, and I'd imagine he has added credibility there from the law degree. I guess my anecdotal information and advice boils down to what some others have said already - try doing things a little differently, but not so drastically differently as dropping out. Try something other than litigation, or other than working at a firm, but keep your degree.

On the economy and the cost of your education, times are hard now but might soften a few years out of school. If you don't get a Biglaw job straight out it'll honestly be very hard to get one down the road, but you may be able to go into public service and take advantage of your school's loan forgiveness program to take care of some of your debt. Some schools forgive debt without actually going into public service - their requirements are only that you make below a certain dollar threshold per year. I'd definitely look into that program before leaving school.

About paths of people post law school: of friends of mine from law school (class of 2006), three have already left Biglaw to start their own businesses. Probably half of those who are working in the legal field are in public service positions. So not everyone goes the Biglaw route, and those who do will often leave to go do interesting things. Regardless of who your friends are at law school, you're bound to hear about them going off after a few years and doing various great things - and they'll help you think of ideas of things to do yourself or might be great contacts for you down the road.

Also, Anon is right on the 200k/year jobs, at least in NYC - I went to a top 10, and a few years ago 200k/year was easily doable for many first year associates in NYC - starting salaries were around 160k plus a significant bonus after 1900 hours.

After all this, Anon, I'll tell you to take into account my bias to *want* to be happy with my decision to stay in law school. I never considered leaving, maybe in part because the economy was much better when I was in school, so I didn't have the higher chances of failing to get a Biglaw job. If I had left law school after my first very stressful year, I might have sung a different tune to justify my alternate decisions, or because I wouldn't know what I'd missed by staying with it. Or if I hadn't gotten an offer for a firm, I might have felt I'd "wasted" my money - but I doubt it, because I'd have still been a lawyer from a top school and that's something to be proud of, I think (from my biased perspective!).
posted by lorrer at 5:56 PM on July 9, 2009

A law degree from a top-10 school is worth $130k.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:17 PM on July 9, 2009

(worth more than, that is)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:20 PM on July 9, 2009

I went to a top-10 school, and could never have gone into BigLaw. Instead I went to a small, boutique firm that does all criminal law (everything from huge white collar cases down to street crime and minor misdemeanors). It isn't quite as adventuresome as being a war journalist, say, but it's about a thousand times more interesting than BigLaw.

Also, if you are at a Top-10 school, you could probably get a free ride at a lower ranked school. I clerked with a guy who did that, and it worked out well for him, especially since he ended up near the top of his class.
posted by mikeand1 at 6:28 PM on July 9, 2009

Look, two things here.

First, BigLaw jobs never paid $200k to start. The market maximum was $160k. That's starting to erode; a lot of firms that were at $160k are back to $145k, and many have started to ditch lock-step pay increases. If you don't read Above The Law, you really should, because it's the source for information about the direction of BigLaw. A lot of it is pretty banal, and if you weren't excited about law firm culture before you certainly won't be after reading ATL for any length of time, but seriously, it's the only way to know what's going on.

Second, BigLaw is not your only option. Most lawyers don't work for them. There's plenty of medium and small firms out there. Glamorous? No. Doable? Absolutely. But law firms aren't your only option. I just graduated from a top-25-ish school (it moves up and down a bit) and I start as in-house counsel at an insurance company next month. Others in my class are working for the government. Hell, you don't even have to practice law. A girl in my class landed a residence life position at UT Austin; she isn't even taking the bar. Another guy is going back to his finance job, though he's obviously a rather unique case. But even inside BigLaw, you can do things which don't actually involve much in the way of legal practice. A good chunk of their recruiting staff will have a JD, even if they never bill a client for a single hour. Granted, a lot of those people have gotten laid off in the past nine months, but such positions do in fact exist.

Bottom line here: talk to your CSO. If they're worth a damn--and they aren't all worth a damn, but you should ask anyways--they'll have a huge list of things you can do with a law degree that don't involve working for a law firm. I've listed one or two here, but they'll be able to actually identify and put you in contact with such opportunities. Even better, they should have a list of law alumni who would probably love to talk to you about your options. That's what those lists are for. Use them.

Beyond that though, you haven't given us any indication of what you'd do instead of law school. Landing any job, let alone an interesting one, isn't exactly as easy as falling off a log these days, and not having an advanced degree will not make things easier. If you've got something to fall back on, that's one thing, but dropping out of professional school to hit the job market on your own strikes me as a spectacularly bad idea.
posted by valkyryn at 6:51 PM on July 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a friend in law school who took a year off after 2L year, uncertain if he'd return. He got a SA gig on both ends, which sounded pretty great. He worked in a non-law job for that year. He decided he didn't like it, came back and graduated. A T10 should let you do this. If you've got good enough grades you might be able to pull this off. It gives you flexibility without commitment. It turned out to be the right decision for him to come back and he doesn't regret it.
posted by allen.spaulding at 7:15 PM on July 9, 2009

another lawyer here, seconding the World Famous and milpede. If you're having doubts and would rather do something else, quit now. Hating law school doesn't mean you'll hate being a lawyer, but plotting a career that doesn't require your law degree is a big sign to me that you shouldn't bother getting it.

It's true law school has pretty much nothing in common with the practice of law; yes, you can take a rewarding low-paying job and survive. But I know very few lawyers who make six figures (and I went to a top tier law school) in the first ten years of practice and I know quite a few new lawyers (even from top tier law schools) who can't find lawyer jobs at all right now. Hell, most of the lawyers I know who stuck it for a few years out to pay down their loans and move on to something that suits them better can't get hired anywhere else and are finding that their skills are not as transferable as people assure them and that their legal work history and top-tier law degree don't mean shit to people outside the profession.

You can also memail me if you want to have a conversation about it.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:22 PM on July 9, 2009

You can also look into advocacy and public policy, whether directly from the legislature or by working for a nonprofit and/or lobbying for something you believe in.

Few advocacy or public policy jobs pay enough to support $200k in debt, and there are cheaper ways into many of those jobs.
posted by salvia at 10:57 PM on July 9, 2009

Transfer to a cheaper law school, it'll be fun there too

Take a year off and figure out what it is that you want to do or join the peace corps or something

Figure out the requirements for LARP at your school do your best to snag one of the super-competitive qualifying positions

Seriously, though, transfer to a cheaper school
posted by kathrineg at 8:17 AM on July 10, 2009

Perhaps these may be helpful:

Law school: the big lie


The idea of showing up at the same office and doing this same work for years on end is scaring me.

"The sad truth is that there are only a tiny number of fun and interesting jobs available to recent college graduates, and because they are so highly desired and so few in number, you are shut out of them unless you have an Ivy League degree, preferably from HarvardPrincetonYale. Rich parents with important connections also helps. Otherwise, the job you get will be boring. You might as well do something boring that has a decent future ahead of it."
posted by renovatio1 at 9:56 PM on July 10, 2009

I dropped out of the U of Chicago Law School after my first year, swearing I'd never go back to law school as long as I lived. I did OK but went to a different law school and redid my first year starting more than a decade later. Email me if you want. If you're a smart enough person to be in a top tier law school, you'll have plenty of opportunities whether you get out or stay in. Just make a good decision and don't spend a lot of time second guessing yourself.
posted by Mr. Justice at 8:24 PM on July 11, 2009

Okay, for the record, the "Big Lie" essay that renovatio1 links to perhaps overstates things a tad. The author is indeed correct that if you don't go to a top school your chances of landing a prestigious, well-paying job are pretty damned low, but the curve isn't quite that steep: 1/3 of the students in my top-25 law school get jobs with BigLaw on a regular basis.

Furthermore, the idea that law professors "only work six hours a week" just shows ignorance of what they do with their time. True, they don't bill hours, but law professors are some of the busiest people you're likely to meet. Bitterness has overcome perspective.

Also, the median income for new attorneys is more like $60k, not $30k. Which is not a fantastic living, but doesn't condemn you to a life of poverty either, and is a decent living compared to the rest of the country. Even if your income does wind up maxing out between $60-90k annually, half the country earns less than $40k, so that's quite something.

Finally, and most importantly, the author completely ignores one of the most important benefits of being a lawyer: lawyers are white collar workers. Lawyers work with their minds, not their hands, which is something a lot of people would like to do. Work is done in largely pleasant environments with almost no chance of workplace injury. Most work is done during daylight hours. The current round of (arguably inevitable) layoffs aside, job security tends to be pretty good. Most Americans would sacrifice their left kidney for a job like that, even if it didn't pay six figures a year.

So yes, most lawyers are middle class at best. But these days, that's something increasingly rare and not to be sneered at. Is law school a "big lie"? Well parts of it certainly are. But that doesn't mean that there's no truth there. Is it a guarantee of easy living? Certainly not. But that doesn't mean that it's worthless, and just because you don't win the BigLaw lottery doesn't mean your future is shot.
posted by valkyryn at 7:08 PM on July 14, 2009

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