Law school (and beyond) worries
August 31, 2011 5:23 PM   Subscribe

I am a rising 2L at a T6 school. My first year grades were really bad, and I'm trying to figure out my future. Many snowflake extras inside.

So, I'm fortunate enough to have gotten a really good scholarship that's not contingent on my grades (pretty much rock bottom of the curve). I was also fortunate enough to get a firm job my 1L summer, which I used to pay off some of my loans. Worst case scenario (i.e. no job), I'll be graduating $48k in debt (no undergrad debt b/c I went to a public uni).

I initially went to law school with the plan of going into the government and working on public policy (big politics buff), but didn't really figure out the details beyond "a law degree would be helpful". I'm still not really sure what such work would entail, or whether I would enjoy it/be any good at it. Consequently, I figure it's a good idea to have other legal careers options available.

Except that 1) I'm not sure I like the other legal jobs (didn't really enjoy the firm, and felt like an idiot a lot; firm didn't invite me back) and 2) I feel like my grades may block off my options.

In the case of (1) I'm not sure if I feel that way b/c my grades have created a bad association with the law, or b/c I actually don't like the work of a lawyer. Either way, I've been unmotivated (but I did manage to get 2 callbacks from firms - I interview well). For (2) I've hired a tutor to help me improve, but I'm worried I'll screw up again (low grades have shaken my confidence).

Sorry for the length, but this has been causing me considerable stress; I've even had nightmares everyday for the past couple of weeks, and I've never had that happen before. Pretty much any advice is welcome ("drop out and do x instead"; stay and do y", etc). Thank you all so much!
posted by anonymous to Education (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want to be a lawyer? If the answer is no, you have no business in law school.
posted by ultrapotato at 5:31 PM on August 31, 2011

I don't think ultrapotato's comment is fair. Lots of sorts of professional training can be used in other fields. You can get an engineering degree and end up doing something entirely different. You can get a math PhD and not be a math professor. You don't have to want to follow the particular professional path for it to be a worthwhile thing to do. You might just want the skills that law school gives you and leverage them in some non-traditional domain. That said, all the infrastructure of law school is there to get you traditional law jobs. If you think you want something else you're going to have to seek it out on your own. But if wherever you end up doesn't necessarily always hire lawyers, I suspect they might not be quite as worked up about grades as law firms might be, since they need easy ways to differentiate among a ton of applicants.
posted by heresiarch at 5:37 PM on August 31, 2011

Between bad grades and a no-offer 1L summer, there is clearly something that doesn't agree with you about this process.

You need to figure out why you got bad grades. Issue-spotting exams are not intuitive for a lot of people (they weren't for me, I'll say), but the methodology is very amenable to learning if you go back through your exams, model (high grade) exams, compare your outlines to those of classmates who did better than you, etc. Spend a couple of days in the library doing this.

You need a similar exercise for why you were no-offered. It takes a lot to get no-offered from a 1L summer job, because the commitment in the offer is so low on the firm's behalf. Be rigorous in assessing this, becuase the demands of a summer associate position are not essentially dissimilar to the demands of any other high-quality entry level legal workplace.

If at the end of this assessment you can't get yourself down to a discreet list of errors in studying, exam-writing, and workplace application and interaction, which you are able and willing to fix, you ought to consider dropping out. The world is full of T6 grads who wasted their law school years and continue to throw good time after bad.

On preview, one important gloss to ultra potato's threshhold question is that many of those miserable, wasting-the-best-years-of-their lives T6ers did, and in most cases still do, desperately want to be lawyers. Wanting it is simply not enough -- you have to be able and willing to do it in one of the fairly few ways it can be competently done, and not everyone is suited to it.
posted by MattD at 5:39 PM on August 31, 2011

You can get an engineering degree and end up doing something entirely different. You can get a math PhD and not be a math professor.

This is kinda true. What's different is the economics; you pay out of pocket and endure fairly crappy conditions early on with the expectation of the professional pay / lifestyle. If you want something else that doesn't need a professional degree, it's probably not time and money well spent.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:03 PM on August 31, 2011

Have you considered small firm/solo practice? If you think there's a chance you might like being a lawyer, just not at biglaw, it might be worth doing some informational interviews with some local solos. Life is very different as a solo from life in biglaw (and nobody will ever care about your grades once you pass the bar, if you're a solo!)
Law school is not being a lawyer. I know lots of people who enjoy one and not the other. Some people hate both. Some people love both. It's hard to know, especially since being a summer associate is not being a lawyer either -- at least, not like being at a small firm or hanging out your own shingle.
There is no shame in dropping out of law school. There's an entire cottage industry in rehoming lawyers or former law students who have decided law is not for them. Better to decide before you go $50K in debt and waste another couple of years. But don't write law off entirely based on not doing well in law school or not liking your associateship. (My worst grade 1L year -- and thus probably my entire law school career -- was in Contracts. Do you know what I do all day? Write and review contracts. I love it and I'm good at it. I was just terrible in class/with my K prof/on that particular exam.)
posted by katemonster at 6:09 PM on August 31, 2011

Sorry to hear it, OP. Law school, and being a lawyer, are not for everyone. You may find that you do better with the 2L curriculum as you get to choose your own grades. No one particularly likes CivPro. I agree with MattD that you should try to identify why you didn't do well--I know some really smart people who didn't do as well in law school as they "should have" because they were not particularly good at regurgitating black letter law and issue spotting on the single three-hour exam that determined their grade. Don't let your performance determine your worth.

That said, if it hurts when you hit your head against the wall, you might consider stopping. I'm going to guess that if you would graduate with $48K in debt, and you've paid off some of your 1L tuition with your 1L summer pay, you maybe have $10K in debt left so far. If you stay one more semester, maybe you're at about $18-20K in debt. That's not great, but workable if you end up paying it back over 30 years. You might give it another try for this coming semester.

It's a tough call. I hated every second of law school, but it does get better along the way. Feel free to drop a line if you want to discuss.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:10 PM on August 31, 2011

You need to figure out what you want to do. Spend more time on that.

Look, mediocre grades would be better than lousy grades, and good grades would be better than mediocre grades. But your big problem is that you vaguely want to do something in government and policy, you've gone through 1L and 1L summer, and you still have no idea what that is.

Talk to people. Lots of people. Find out what they do. Talk to people in think tanks, government organizations and agencies, nonprofit organizations, and anything else you can think of remotely in that area. Ask them what they do. Also ask them how they got into it, what they like and dislike about it, and whether they have any advice for you in terms of what you want to be looking for.

Have you talked to your career center? Christ, your law school should have already told you this.

You're at Chicago or Michigan or NYU, so bottom line, yeah, you're going to be able to get a legal job if you want one. If you don't want to be a lawyer, it might or might not be worth continuing. But that's a side issue. You need to address the heart of your problem, which is actually gathering information about this government stuff you claim to want to do.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:13 PM on August 31, 2011

You said you want to do policy/government stuff, right? My suggestion is to get involved now. Law school is a great time to do this. Work on campaigns for promising candidates, attend political events, join student political groups. Show up, volunteer, write articles. Connect with your state bar association group that's involved with government. Fairly quickly, you will get to know people because you'll see the same faces popping up at all the events and the same names on all the mailing lists.

You don't need good grades to do any of this. Use this time to make connections that will open up paths for you other than law firms.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:26 PM on August 31, 2011

I think you really need to figure out whether you want to do government/public policy work. You say "I'm still not really sure what such work would entail, or whether I would enjoy it/be any good at it. " This is the time for you to figure it out! Shadow some lawyers, do informational interviews, get internships. If you find that you do like that sort of work, then that's a good reason to continue law school and you'll probably find it much easier to focus on law school work once you have a post-graduation goal in sight. If you find that you don't like the government/policy work, and you also don't seem to like any other area of law, then you should seriously consider stopping law school now so you don't rack up more debt.

Also, another reason to get some experience in government/policy settings now is that if you want to get a job doing government/policy work after law school you should be setting yourself up now with clinics and summer positions and internships during the semester. You need experience to get most policy jobs -- you have to show that you know what you're doing and you're committed. It's not too late for you to start amassing that experience, but you should get on it.

It might be worth dropping by your university's counseling office. They've probably developed something of an expertise in worthing with anxious law students...
posted by zahava at 6:48 PM on August 31, 2011

You're at Chicago or Michigan or NYU, so bottom line, yeah, you're going to be able to get a legal job if you want one.

That's not true right now. In June I graduated from a law school in that tier. I'd estimate 35% of my class are now starting biglaw/clerkships, 40% wound up in low-paying public interest and small/new boutique firms (many of them reluctantly), and 25% are still scrabbling for any traction whatsoever (eg, they still have no plans, or they're going to be doing the same RA job they did last summer and the summer before). Our let's-all-keep-in-touch group calls itself Buyer's Remorse. The situation will be better in two years, but god only knows how much.

Now is simply not the time to have faith that the job market will catch you when you fall. If you have no specific enthusiasm for the law itself and no indication yet that you'll be good at legal work, then save yourself the money and join a public policy program or something instead. The ornamental JD made a lot more sense in 2007 than it does at a moment when 10k's of unemployed JD's are about to come flooding into every related industry, including government.

Agreed, incidentally, that no matter which way you're leaning, you should meet with your career services people. They'll be able to offer suggestions, programs, and contacts that are tailored to your interests and needs. They're good at what they do.
posted by foursentences at 6:52 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

you have no specific enthusiasm for the law itself and no indication yet that you'll be good at legal work, then save yourself the money and join a public policy program or something instead. The ornamental JD made a lot more sense in 2007 than it does at a moment when 10k's of unemployed JD's are about to come flooding into every related industry, including government.

This is exactly what I came into the thread to say. I graduated from a T1 law school 10 years ago, firmly in the middle of my class. I wanted to do public policy work. My meandering path to my fabulous public policy job included years of unemployment (coupled with unpaid legal work), public interest work, and a stereotypically hellish law firm job which I suspected I would hate going in. Nothing is sufficient compensation for working at a law firm when you don't like the firm or the type of work attorneys do. Nothing.

If you already know you don't like being an attorney; if you already know you want a job that does not require a law license; do not finish law school. At least, that's what I would have done, if I had known in my second year how things were going to shake down. It's not nearly as transferable a degree as you might think. For anything other than interns, many policy organizations skip over new attorneys or law graduates without years of experience in a practice area closely related to our projects. Many policy groups go directly to people with public policy degrees and academics with substantial research experience, or attorneys with twenty years and a notable contribution to the mission. Even among people who used to be lawyers, lawyers have a bad reputation for being unable to contribute meaningfully to projects which are not sexy amicus briefs.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:13 PM on August 31, 2011

I can't really sugarcoat this, because the economy sucks and law firms/government agencies/nonprofits are not taking a whole lot of chances with inexperienced associates. You need to cut your losses and drop out.

But, come back to it later. Pursue a nonlegal career in government/public policy, and when you have a few years of work history, the financial security to take on the additional risk of obtaining a professional education, and a better sense of what you want to do with your law degree, by all means you should embrace the opportunity to pick up where you left off.

Opportunity cost is the key term here. You may end up with "only" $50k in debt (it's a travesty that, these days, this is considered not so bad) but you are also losing the chance to earn a solid income. I also have relatively low law school debt but what really killed me was losing a 70k/year job and losing the ability to contribute to and grow a retirement fund during my mid-20s. I got very lucky by doing well in law school, landing a big-firm job, and having ingratiated myself into the firm by the time the recession hit. But your T6 is not going to open doors all by itself, and no employer can afford to take a chance on someone at the bottom of their class. It's just bad timing all around.
posted by moammargaret at 7:25 PM on August 31, 2011

Why are your grades bad? Do you know? If you could dramatically improve your grades, would that change anything for you? MeMail me, especially if you're in NY.
posted by prefpara at 7:30 PM on August 31, 2011

You're at Chicago or Michigan or NYU, so bottom line, yeah, you're going to be able to get a legal job if you want one.

Just caught this... not remotely true. DANGEROUSLY FALSE.
posted by prefpara at 7:32 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Talk with your student affairs/financial aid office about taking a leave of absence right away.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:07 PM on August 31, 2011

I graduated from a lower ranked school (than Chicago) in an oversaturated legal market in 2009. This was after the collapse, and things then were about the same as they are now. Everyone who wanted a legal job eventually found one. By "legal job" I don't mean "their choice of any," and by "wanted" I don't mean "vaguely wished for but didn't put in the legwork," and by "eventually" I don't mean "within two months of graduation," as should be obvious.

This requires actual commitment and ability to sell that commitment. But the OP is getting callbacks during 2L OCI even while having these poor grades - I think it's safe to say the OP will be able to find some kind of legal job, sometime after graduating, should he or she really want to.

Unless you want a job with an elite law firm right after law school (or an elite clerkship), grades matter much, much less than everyone thinks they do - and everything else matters much, much more.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:09 PM on August 31, 2011

Pursue a nonlegal career in government/public policy, and when you have a few years of work history, the financial security to take on the additional risk of obtaining a professional education, and a better sense of what you want to do with your law degree, by all means you should embrace the opportunity to pick up where you left off.

This is excellent advice. I've worked in the nonprofit/public policy sector for going on a decade now (including being part of the hiring process for various positions) and a law degree can be very helpful, but it is no guarantee of work. Yes, there are fellowships and entry-level jobs for people fresh out of law school but they are 1) low-paying 2) growing scarce, at least right now and 3) really competitive. Every place I've ever worked that hires younger lawyers asks for transcripts if the work you are doing is law-related. Because these jobs are competitive, they can and are very choosy. I've worked at places where not everybody comes from a T14 school, but all of them have good grades, law review, and pretty frequently some form of clerkship.

That said, once you build up work experience, people in policy shops like to hire lawyers, even for non-legal or only very tangentially-related legal work. Not always practicing, but with the letters J and D after their names. But the key there is other work experience to show that you are bringing something to the table other than three years of law school. Those people are thick on the ground right now, but if you are willing to go entry-level in a policy shop, you can gain that experience, see if you like it and then make a decision about your path later.

The other thing to be aware of is right now, a lot of places are focusing on hiring in two sectors: field and development. Field touches on policy since if you are advocating for something and need to work with your field folks, you have to have a grasp on it (though most of the research will be handled by policy/legal teams and the writing about it in-depth by a combination of policy and communications people. How are your writing skills? An entry-level communications gig would probably give you a pretty good taste of life in the world of policy with a bit of substance to it, particularly is you prove yourself on the job--if you can meet the challenges, you'll be rewarded with more substantive work).

There can also be some leeriness regarding hiring people with law degrees in non-law related jobs. Every place I've interviewed, I get the question "So, why aren't you practicing?" It's not uncommon, but those hiring want to make sure you aren't going to depart for greener biglaw pastures should the opportunity arise.

I would also say to be wary of just jumping into an MPA/MPP program. Think tanks and the like tend to hire there (for low to mid level positions), but most advocacy groups and other policy shops tend to go for lawyers first, at least for people doing any kind of research or policy work. I know very few people in the progressive nonprofit community out here who have an MPP or MPA degree, and most of them tend to work on the development or other more administrative/big picture managerial roles rather than policy side of things, at least in terms of groups doing legislative advocacy--urban development or things like that probably will look to people with a master's focusing on whatever their particular area of interest is.

(I should also note that this is DC- and progressive-policy-organization-specific--things could be different in other geographic areas or sectors.)
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 8:31 PM on August 31, 2011

As a 2L at a T6 with poor grades, the odds are that you are neither dim nor even dim relative to your peers. You just don't "get" analysis and the essential knack of being able to write the answer to your exam questions before you even see the question. Until you do, no amount of cramming is going to change your class standings. If the verb "to parse" isn't part of your intellectual DNA this is darned hard, but it's the price of admission and you need to apply your people skills ("interview well") to wheedling the secret handshake out of one of your classmates. If you think low grades are demoralizing, you're going to feel depraved if you have to retake the bar.

Now, assuming you can get your ticket punched, do you want to do the type of work that requires you to actually apply these skills? Did you meet any ERISA or '40 Act lawyers at your firm? Do you think you could get off on the latest commercial law case on perfection of security interests in derivative instruments? Ever look at what's involved in law and motion practice or, shudder, discovery? Or take "public policy." Read Dodd-Frank and get a flavor out of how you'd enjoy being a staffer drafting legislation. All of this is intellectually challenging, high-skill work that can be rewarding and very well paid if you're good at it and eat it for breakfast. Otherwise, you'll be underpaid, overworked, alienated and a candidate for high blood pressure, depression and substance abuse.

If you look into your soul and decide that no, you don't really want to practice law, the question is simply one of how much you can dazzle a prospective non-legal employer with the line "I want to bring my keen legal skills acquired at this prestigious institution to bear on [________]." That may do you some good if you can say it with a straight face, but you need to be ready with an answer to the question, "but what can you actually do?

For that, you should ask yourself, "if I walked away know, what am I employable as?", followed by "and exactly how is a JD going to get me more money with a better employer in two years than I can get now?"
posted by technocrat at 8:44 PM on August 31, 2011

going into the government and working on public policy (big politics buff)

Okay, so what exactly would be your dream job then? And what is the path to get there? I think your next question shouldn't be "lawyers, what do I do about law school?" but "government types, what's the path to becoming [one of Senator X's staff members]?" or whatever it is you want to do.

My perception as someone who works in public policy is that there are some distinct roles, but in general, your people skills and strategic sensibilities are more important than grades. Policy and politics require particular skillsets, and you get them mostly by practice and by watching people who are skilled (though it helps to be naturally confident and personable).

So I'd say, get focused on your actual goal (if you're not already), start networking, and in the informational interviews, ask people in the field you want to be in this same question. I just quickly checked the bios of the first two political/agency "rising stars" that came to mind, and one had a law degree and one did not. What they have in common, though, is amazing people skills, super-high energy, and decades of networking their way toward the center of things.

You'd likely end up with almost the same debt for public policy school, but the networking and peer connections might be a bit more useful to you, and you might be more interested and have more fun. But you might lose a year or two just changing programs, and you'd lose some flexibility in the work you could do. You could stay where you are and gain some of those connections and experiences by doing a lot of networking, volunteering on well-chosen campaigns or on the cause you ultimately want to specialize in, and taking classes at the public policy school there. That's probably what I'd do. But that might be bad advice because I'm not even sure the precise position you want, so network and ask those people.
posted by salvia at 9:40 PM on August 31, 2011

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