Ivey Files

October 6, 2006

1L Blues

Every year around this time I receive phone calls from people -- some former clients, others total strangers -- who have just started law school and realize they have made a colossal mistake. Usually they're at fancy pants law schools, ones they feel lucky and privileged to be at. And they hate it. Everything about it. They hate the crazy amount of reading -- dry, boring reading. They hate the kinds of things they talk about in class, and the distinctive way that future lawyers are taught to analyze legal problems. Others tell me, just several weeks into their first year, that they'll do anything to hop over to the MBA side, because the jobs that those students are pursuing look more appealing.

Others wait until the summer after their first year to call me. They hated 1L, they confess, but they wanted to wait until their summer job -- at a real firm, with real lawyers, doing real legal work for real clients -- to see if they would like that better than law school. Sometimes, they hate what they see at the firms just as much: "I can't believe people do this all day long, year after year after year. I think I'll be an investment banker instead, as soon as I get out of law school." (At that point, I ask, gently but firmly, how he knows that industry and career any better than he thought he knew the law.) And these aren't people at Podunk Law School -- they're at Harvard, Columbia, etc.

If they were clients of mine when they originally applied to law school, I resist the urge to say "I told you so." And, invariably, I had told them so. I have the "why law?" conversation with a lot of people, but law school becomes this holy grail for many applicants, and once they've been accepted to a top school, they can't say no. I also see a lot of pre-law advisors -- many of whom have never practiced law -- contribute to the brainwashing.

What do I tell those unhappy 1L's? It depends. Some of them should drop out of law school, and out of the law. Most of them still don't have any idea what they'd rather be doing, though, and that's just one of the dangers of going to law school in the hopes that you'll figure out during those three years what the heck you really want to do. Some are in a real pickle if their resumes already look jumpy and scattered -- say, they started out pre-med, decided they hated that, then jumped over to law school, and realized they hated that too. If they drop out, they'll face some credibility problems when they announce, "Well, now I really want to do X!" The easier cases are the ones I tell to hang in there because there are aspects of their personality or their backgrounds that lead me to think that they'll actually enjoy certain kinds of legal practice even if they're hating law school; the two are very, very different beasts.

Some people stick it out through law school and then quit the law very soon after they start practicing. I have a friend who quit just weeks into her first job as a lawyer. Everyone told her she was crazy at the time, but over a decade later after calling it quits, she has had no regrets. Better that, she argues, than sticking around for however many years more, stuck in a miserable job as the courage to bail dwindles.

I do get happy calls too this time of year. I just heard from someone who told me she loves -- loves! -- Civ Pro as a 1L at Penn. That suggests to me that she's well suited for a litigation career (I hated Civ Pro and wrote off litigation on the spot. I went over to the transactional side). It's nice to hear when it's a good match.

On a side note: I've never -- not once -- received a call from a former MBA applicant telling me that business school was a huge mistake. An MBA may not always have been necessary to get where they wanted to go -- the top programs attract smart and ambitious people, the kind who are likely to be successful no matter what, so it still makes sense to think about whether the added value justifies the expense and opportunity cost in any given case. And of course there are limits to my sample size. Still, I find the contrast to my JD folks telling.

Hello,

I am seeking some advice on law school. I just completed my first 1L semester at the University of Miami. I did ok - a solid 3.0. However, I took a leave of absence when I came to the realization that I am most likely going to start at 40K a year as a lawyer in Miami. I can no longer justify to myself spending 150K to come out making 40K. I could make 40K now as a paralegal! I did not realize how inaccurate the school's advertized starting salary of 80,000 was. I have talked to lawyers from other tier two schools who are fighting for jobs that pay 40K and frankly it really scares me. However, I really enjoyed law school. It was hard work and I was completely exhausted by it all, but I liked the type of work I was doing. I am scared that if I leave law school I will be making a big mistake because everyone keeps telling me how wonderful it is to have a law degree, but for me it no longer seems to be such a great asset. It now reminds me of a pair of over priced jeans that no one is willing to buy in a yard sale. My outlook on what I could do with a JD greatly changed when I stopped looking at the schools pamphlets and into the actual reality of the profession. I would like to say I have something else lined up that I am going to do with my life but I don't really. The only other thing I have ever been passionate about is public policy, social justice and advocacy work. To be honest I really wanted to get my Masters in Public Admin but I was afraid that wouldn't pay very well, so I went the law school route because it seemed more stable, now I am realizing that due to the debt law school isn't stable at all. I have some time to make up my mind as to whether or not I should go back to school. I would really appreciate your advice! Cheers!

I am trying to get as much information that can help me succeed during at least the first two years of law school. The idea of camping in the library also does not appeal to me. If you have better strategy, please let me know. I am all ears.

My buddy has just received an offer from one of the top firms in his area and up to now he hasn't even cracked open his textbooks.

I go to a Top 20 law school and I don't agree with your buddy's assessment. Taking up permanent residence in the library might be a tactic relied upon by some but is hardly a prerequisite for success.

I keep hearing horror stories about law school and corporate lawyering. And that scares me at times and makes me think whether my decision to go to law school is a good one. I suppose I never really asked Anna about this. I have grilled people and read quite a lot about law school and legal profession. My buddy at a top 20 school told me that during the first year, at under no circumstances should I leave the law library other than for eat, sleep, and bathroom. He hated law school. However, I really liked my moral theology class and its discussions, and from what I read, at least most of the first year of law school is a lot like that, where students learn different legal doctrines (as opposed to religious ones), their intended purposes and applications, and argue whether certain actions violate these (or what constitutes a violation). But I could be wrong. About legal practice, I managed to spend quite a bit of time talking to a partner from a very large international law firm on the firm's regional office in Singapore. He said that in Asia there is a shortage of JD's. Most of the people that work there are LLB's and LLM's. Therefore, unlike in the US, most of the grunt, paper pushing works are done by (mostly fresh grads) LLB (bachelor of law) and the JD's get a piece of the real action. It is too expensive to make JD's do the grunt work, especially when cheaper, yet qualified labor is available. He said most of his tasks are to plan/strutcture deals (M&A or project developments) and negotiate (aka. fight) deals with opposing lawyers and bankers. Therefore, I think law school and legal career wouldn't be so bad. But of course, I have no basis to judge the truthfulness of this. He could just be trying to sell his firm and I could be mistaken about law school.