Ivey Files

December 4, 2008

More 1L Blues

I started a thread called 1L Blues a while back, because I thought it would give other aspiring law school students something useful and realistic to chew on.

Here's another unhappy camper (maybe he'll become a happier camper?) with some interesting things to say:

To be quite honest, I have not been happy at all with my law school experience. We are reading and discussing "big" cases in our nation's history (Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, etc.), but the material leaves me cold. If anything, it feels stifling and a bit underwhelming. There are roughly 70 people in my Legal Methods section (out of a class of ~380), and I feel like I'm in a room full of pedants, people whose only goal is to correct my mistakes. I can't imagine dealing with these people and this material for three years, let alone some number of years afterwards.

All the grim realities of the legal profession seem to have reared their ugly heads. I feel like I'm taking a huge risk by spending three years and $130,000 to stay the course on school. If I had to summarize my feelings: I see why they have to pay people to do this work.

In thinking about it and speaking others, the main argument in favor of staying seems to be that finishing at [top law school] would be a valuable enough credential to allow me to do other things. The counter-point to this is that looking at the numbers, both debt and recruiting statistics, the main thing this degree is going to prepare me to do is work as a lawyer, with other possible initial opportunities in lobbying, policy, or government work. If I want to do something else, why not spend the time and money directing myself toward that goal?

While I've known this information in the abstract, being immersed in the environment and material has thrown everything into stark relief. I wish I could have come to this realization sooner, but I'd rather have it now than later. If I was 18 and just starting school, I'd tell myself that I probably just have cold feet. But at 26, I trust my judgment enough to realize that something else is going on here.

But I don't trust myself enough to operate in a vacuum. Is this a normal reaction? Is it something I'll get over? Is it something I should get over?

After polling as many good people as I could get a hold of, the general recommendation seemed to be that I should stick things out for a year and a summer and see where I stand then. Although this is contrary to my initial reaction, hearing the same advice from a number of people did pound the point home. I can't really believe that [top law school] is somehow conspiring with the people I know to keep me here.

Worst case, [top law school] has gave me enough money that firm work over the summer (assuming I'm diligent with the funds) comes pretty close to clearing out my debt for the year. I also had some people advise me to keep my eyes open for the area of law that interests me (not product liability suits from the 1800s) and be proactive in making sure I found opportunities to get work in that area. I have no idea if that area of the law is going to pop up for me, but I feel like after a year, I should have more information to make a better decision. Plus, it's a horrible time to reenter the job market in financial services.

I think too that if I left prior to completing the first year, there would always be some nagging doubt about whether or not I would have enjoyed it. Like you suggested, there is apparently a big disparity between legal study and legal practice, and the former may not have a lot of bearing on the latter. After making the initial decision to apply to law school, I know that I didn't really examine that decision again during the application process. It's hard to keep yourself motivated unless you are working toward a fixed goal. And once the results are in, the visiting, financial aid, and deciding processes take on a life of their own. This has actually been a good chance to sit down and reflect a bit on what I want to get out of this experience. Whatever that is, if a year goes by and it looks like I can't do it, then will be the time to reexamine.

Sounds as if this 1L is thinking about things sensibly. I'm curious to hear reactions from others. Thoughts? Please comment.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).

I'm also a 1L preparing for finals very soon. I think that this gentleman is thinking soundly, but his predicament is utterly unfamiliar to me. In particular, though I expected my classroom experience to be much more intense, I haven't experienced competitiveness at all. Only one of my professors uses the Socratic method heavily, and he does so in a humorous way. I feel that I will enjoy working with my classmates once we make it to the real world. I really don't feel there's a gunner in my 1L class at all.

I would like to believe that my comfort level is partially of my own making. Against many people's advice, I turned down scholarships at several top-10 schools in favor of my home state's university. I did so partially to avoid "elite" students who would stop at nothing to claw their way to the top. I decided to trade prestige and future professorship for sanity and confidence. Of course, I don't have a job yet, and a lower-ranked school will do me no favors. But during my law school search, I realized that I have never been willing to push others down to get ahead, and a great GPA and LSAT didn't give me a reason to become that kind of person.

Jerks are at every school, and certainly plenty of people love and thrive in the atmosphere of all of the top schools. Elite schools invite competition, however. I've found enjoyment, rigor, and a full scholarship at a good-not-great public school. Though I've strayed from Mr. 1L's conundrum, I wonder if he would be facing the same decision if he were in an environment where the students and professors were constructively challenging each other about the material?

I remember feeling much like you do and hearing much of the same advice from other students, friends, and family. The first semester is exhausting. You usually have no idea where you stand in the class and among your peers. At this moment you are running a mental race with yourself and, in case you haven't figured it out, you can't outrun yourself. But you'll continue to try to do that in your first year because law school is a competition.

My advice; relax. Exams are 70% controlling your nerves. All of your thoughts may change when you get your first round of grades. You may see that your hard work and tolerating your classmates has paid off. If your grades aren't up to snuff, then you have a decision to make. Regardless of where you go to law school, if you have lukewarm grades in the first year you are likely to have a tough road to hoe in finding a internship or summer associate position in this economy. Failure to get that coveted internship or summer associate position sinks you further into the abyss. Make your decisions after you get this first round of grades; you'll have all the information you need by that time to make the right decision.

By the time you finish that terrible first year you won't leave no matter how much you hate it. You will feel too obligated to "stick it out" as you have undoubtedly heard from the unwise. Deciding after you get your first round of grades will give you enough information to decide if you should continue on or leave and go to journalism school, or wherever your dreams take you. The people telling you to give it a full year don't realize that after the first year you are 33% done and it is easy to rationalize, however irrational it may be, that the hard part is over (which is only 25% true) and you are close enough to the half way point to stick around and finish. Of course, some of us have a trait that makes it hard to walk away from things no matter how bad they get. Stubbornness is a common trait among the legal type and if this describes you, you'll make an excellent advocate.

I do have many friends who are attorneys who don't like the legal profession. They feel trapped under the debt and obligated to practice. They hate it. Alternatively, I have friends who love being a lawyer and think everyone should go to law school (this, I haven't figured out yet).

The time for you to reflect on your future is sooner rather than later. As for me, well, I should have made leaving law school my 2008 New Year's Resolution, but I don't have enough "quit" in me to do that and now I am half way finished. School has gotten better, or at least more tolerable, in the second year but is it is still annoying. And those classmates you complained about will only increase in their annoyance as time passes, unless your prayers are answered and they indeed fail out.

P.S. Anna, you're the best!

C. Brock