Most of the time, my job centers around trying to help people stay in law school—and how to succeed there—not how to get out. Recently, though, I worked with a student who I found myself advising to ditch the law altogether. I actually told this person, “If there’s anything else you can do, any other career path, even if it means starting a new career, do that instead.” Pretty harsh, I know. It was a tough conversation to have for both of us. So, how did we get to this point?
Well, first of all this student had multiple strikes against law school as a career path: they had attended a school that was not accredited by the ABA,—and failed out after the first year. They had no guarantees that they would be readmitted and there was a potentially lengthy and fruitless petition process ahead. The reasons they failed out of law school were not the kinds of things that can be remedied easily. And finally, it was unclear whether they were even in it for the right reasons.
If any of these sound familiar, or if you’re considering throwing in the towel, consider these points:
Are you attending or considering an unaccredited law school?
The law schools that have been accredited by the ABA will typically do a better job of preparing you to become a lawyer. They can be more competitive about hiring sought-after, highly qualified professors. They likely have more funding and support, and the governing body of legal professionals (the ABA) has marked them with a stamp of approval. If you’re attending an unaccredited school, I’m not saying you can’t succeed. You can. I’ve seen some students do very well at these institutions, pass the bar, and go on to practice law and have great careers. It is possible—it’s just harder.
The road to success may be a tougher one. Your climb may involve more uphill stretches. Furthermore, there aren’t any guarantees. If your school does not have a rigorous application process and basically accepts everyone who applies, or if its retention rates plummet after the first semester or year, you should think about whether you want to take those kinds of risks. If you’re not sure, ask to see your school’s stats of dropouts (and fail-outs) between orientation and graduation. Check to see how many students actually get a diploma in the end and how many are left with huge tuition bills and nothing to show for it. Make sure that you’re willing to try to beat those odds.
What kinds of bar passage rates does your school have?
Your law school should be able to tell you how many graduating 3Ls pass the bar on their first try. Does passing the bar on your first attempt make you a better, smarter or more qualified lawyer than if you pass on your second, third, or fourth? No. Plenty of great lawyers took the bar more than once. What these kinds of stats can tell you, though, is how prepared each class of students was in general.
People fail the bar for all kinds of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with academics (lack of time, family obligations, injury, illness, etc.). But if your school’s bar passage rates are low, you should ask yourself how you feel about paying for and sitting through the bar multiple times if necessary, because that may be a reality for you.
If your grades were bad, is the reason something fixable?
I would never counsel a student to run far away from law school unless I knew their situation both academically and personally. The student I mentioned above had obviously not been able to hack it on their final exams because they ended up failing out of school. I took a look at these exams, and I assigned new hypos to write out so I could see fresh samples of their work. When I say that the problems were not of the type that are easily fixable, I mean that there were some big gaps in the fundamental basics that any student needs to pass law school classes. Despite discussing and reworking hypos, the writing just wasn’t up to snuff. And, even with more practice, it wasn’t getting any better.
Just like the bar exam, you can fail a law school class for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the culprit is a learning disability or some kind of problem in your personal life. Maybe you need some resource that you’re not getting. Maybe you’re working really hard, but just not on the right kinds of tasks, or maybe not with enough focus. These things can be overcome. The student I mentioned above was not one of these students. Despite hard work over time, there was no improvement.
Law school isn’t rocket science, but it does take some ability to take lots of information, synthesize it, identify patterns, organize facts, and write concisely and coherently under time pressure. If you have trouble in these areas, it’s not just law school that will be tough, passing the bar, and later being a lawyer will be excruciating. Ask yourself if your struggles are the kind that can be overcome. If you’re not sure, seek out help and talk to someone who will give you an honest assessment of your weaknesses and strengths.
Do you actually want to be a lawyer?
I will never forget a particular bar student who came to us after failing the exam multiple times (I think it was 5 or 6 times). We were trying to decide whether to work together and what kind of guidance she would need and she just didn’t seem interested or motivated. I asked her whether she thought she would enjoy life as a lawyer and she said no. It turns out, the only reason she was taking the bar multiple times was to make her parents happy since they had paid for law school. She had some emotional hang-ups about not letting them down, but deep inside, she had no desire to ever practice law. It turns out, she wanted to be an interior designer—something she actually had quite a knack for.
Long story short, we didn’t work together in the end and I encouraged her to find a life she could feel passionate about and fulfilled by—-maybe that would end up involving the law, and maybe it wouldn’t. Everyone is different, but I hear these kinds of stories all the time. The brutal truth is that a lot of lawyers are unhappy practicing law. I even heard about a guy who ditched the bar to open a snow cone stand in Thailand. Hey, there are a lot of ways to find happiness!
Getting through law school, graduating, taking and passing the bar—they’re all pretty big hurdles and it requires a lot of commitment and drive to surmount each one. If you don’t even have that, it will be pretty tough to put in the hard work necessary. So ask yourself, what do you need to live your best life possible? What do you really want?
What is your idea of success? Not anyone else’s. Yours.
Sometimes I talk to incoming 1Ls who have no idea what being a lawyer is actually like. They see the glamorous outfits on TV shows like The Good Wife and Suits and they think, “I want that.” I want that gorgeous office, that fast-paced exciting lifestyle, and that kind of respect. The problem is that these sorts of jobs are relatively hard to come by—most lawyers have a very different life than what you see on TV. This is good because it means that there are a lot of ways you can use your degree and carve out a niche for yourself. That said, a lot of lawyers are deeply unhappy too.
I do know several attorneys who really seem to have found their place in life. They actually enjoy the grueling hours. They love combative discussions and deal well with crushing responsibility. They want nothing more than to work their fingers to the bone in the hopes of making partner some day. Maybe you tell yourself now that these things sound appealing, or that it will all be worth it in the end. Maybe it will be worth it. It’s definitely possible.
But maybe go out and talk to some actual lawyers and see what your options are. Do you care about the money? Do you want prestige? Does your ideal life involve any modicum free time or flexibility? What’s the real reason you’re putting yourself through all of this? There are tons of career avenues for a J.D. or Esq., so make sure you’re gearing up for the kind of lifestyle that matches with your own personal definition of success.
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