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.