Drop Out After 1L?

I don't know if you've ever had this question before, because my "dropping out" is a bit different from others' experiences.  I'm taking a class and doing an internship now.  The class ends in a week.  But I am very depressed.  I am at a Tier 2 with slightly below median grades, no Moot Court or journal.  For me, my disappointment isn't only about jobs.  I seem to have some trouble making good friends here, and Moot Court or journal would have been a good way for me to make a fresh start.  (I did make the second round of Moot Court; my grades were a bit low to have a good shot at a journal.)  Almost everyone I know seems to have high grades, Law Review, etc.  So I'm faced with the prospect of two years of depression because I will be reminded every day that I was one of the losers of 1L.  I can't take it.  And then...of course, there is the very precarious job situation, more so for me. 

I went to a top undergrad, I'm very bright but not always the best student, and I'm pretty much ashamed of my situation.  I have no motivation for the next two years.  And I don't have that much hope either.  It really seems like if you weren't one of the "winners" after 1L, you have NO SHOT of ever being one.

Weird thing is, I find some of law interesting.  But I don't know if I want to be a second-class citizen for the next two years.  Advice?

One thing I know for certain: you are not the only 1L who feels this way, and anyone who has been out of law school for a while still remembers the anxiety of that first year. (More advice for unhappy 1Ls at My International Summer Internship Was a Bust, 1L Blues, and More 1L Blues.)

I figured that crowd-sourcing a reply would be more helpful than offering just one person's thoughts (mine), so I ran your email past some trusted law school graduates to see what advice they would share. Here's what they said:

  • This is one of the reasons it's so essential that law schools *knock it off* with the pretense of not being professional schools.  [See here and here. - Anna] What this student needs is a very careful assessment of what the next 15 years look like professionally if he slogs through and graduates, and then he needs to decide if that's a life to embrace. Seems like for somebody like this, it boils down to whether he enjoys the mechanics of law practice -- the reading, writing, contract review, depositions, etc., regardless of the underlying subject matter.  Some do, God bless 'em.  But if he can't get straight on that question, then dropping out is a far better option.
  • This reminds me of many interactions with clients... they talk about what they perceive as the immediate problem, but they gloss over the ultimate goal.  There's nothing in his message about what he actually wants to do with his life other than saying, "I find some of law interesting".  Before he decides what to do, he needs to get a grasp of why he is in law school at all... what he wants to do with his life. Is there a particular career path that requires a law degree, or did he go to law school by default or some other reason?  You can't give guidance without knowing more about what he wants to accomplish.
  • He needs to figure out what kind of lawyer he wants to be, and work backwards from there to see how it's possible.
  • Strikes me as someone who would be unhappy in this profession, and dropping out may be the best thing he ever does.  He has a soul, God bless him.
  • There were a number of folks in our class who did not have stellar numbers as 1Ls, but tailored the remainder of their law school classes and activities to achieving certain goals. (I specifically recall one classmate who chose his 2L and 3L classes based solely on the ease of grading - he's a partner at Cravath now.) So it's doable, with the right motivation.
  • I'd really stress the "figure out what you want to do with your law degree" part. However, er, varied my career has been, when I have been working on stuff that had some intrinsic interest to me -- environmental / resource stuff -- I've done a lot better as a lawyer than otherwise. Secondly, he ought to be reminded that if "everyone" he knows has great grades -- and I assume grades aren't actually posted on the wall somewhere -- some of the everyone he knows are liars.
  • Does he want to be a lawyer? If so, learn the virtue of enduring a temporary difficulty in order to achieve the good end you desire. The question is, is he going to endure the difficulty of law school just so he can endure a career he doesn't really want?
  • Anna, have you ever read this: http://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Johnny-Bunko-Career-Guide/dp/1594482918. Good advice, the lot of it.
  • He needs to separate out his various problems. Self-worth shouldn't be about having top grades - there are many other ways to distinguish yourself in law school. Making friends has nothing to do with having good grades. If he thinks he can't make friends because he has bad grades, he needs to take a step back and separate the two. Assuming this guy ends up doing all the thinking he needs to do and deciding to stay in law school, then he needs to join some extracurriculars that will help him build a social network and support group so he doesn't feel so isolated. I wouldn't have survived my 1L year without my activities and the friends that I made there. Heaven knows my best friends weren't from my section.

    I also think this guy could benefit from a long talk with someone in his OCS office, and possibly with a therapist. He sounds like he might actually be clinically depressed - the hopelessness and self-flagellation here, as well as the sense that he thinks there's no way for things to get better lead me to believe that he needs some professional help. If he'd come to me when I was an OCS counselor saying these things I would have sent him to student counseling right quick.

    I'm sure we all have stories of people who didn't do well 1L year who did much better once they started taking classes they enjoyed more and writing papers. I also know lots of people who didn't do very well grade-wise who ended up with great careers because of tenacity, flexibility, or a variety of other traits. I'm fond of telling students about a contemporary of mine who had a C average and ended up with a federal district clerkship because of a willingness to go to a geographic location no one else wanted to go to. 1L year is not the only thing that determines the rest of your life, unless you let it drag you down.
  • This person isn't having career selection problems, he's having general depression problems, and frankly, sounds like he could use some professional help.
  • He's not the only one out there with this sort of problem. Depression in graduate school students is very common and on the rise.
  • [From a JD/MD:] I do not think there is enough information about his circumstances to determine whether he is clinically depressed or not. He may be situationally depressed, and possibly appropriately so. I also wonder whether he is simply immature, even though he is a college graduate. He does not discuss the reasons for his poorer-than-expected performance as a 1L.

    The last thing one should do is stay in a position in which there is no passion. As professionals, we know that the work can be hard and not always rewarding, the distractions and nuisances are ongoing, and the responsibilities can be great. Without passion for one's profession, such a situation would be untenable.
  • I agree he needs to figure out what to do with his life and get some perspective.  He seems too tied up in the "rat race" mentality that is forged at many law schools, where the standards, goals, and sense of worth are all defined by other equally immature young people who don't know what life is like after graduation.

    That said, the self-absorption, self-pity, sadness, and sense of hopelessness suggest serious depression to me that should be treated in ways that go beyond career and educational counseling.
  • It this guy's perspective qualifies as anything vaguely clinical then half my law school class, including yours truly, missed out on some psych treatment.

Lots of great advice there, also for prospective law school students. It does sound as if this person is stuck in spiraling mode, and that's a tough (and counter-productive) place to be. I hope hearing from all these people who have been there makes it easier to become unstuck. Figuring out the right questions to ask oneself is important, too.

Note also how important it is to have a sense of what you hope to get out of law school, ideally before you go. Hoping to figure that out once you're there is not the most realistic plan. (On that subject, see the links I included in the first bullet point.)

I also invite you to read Cary Tennis's most recent advice column over at Salon.com ("Do I really want to go to law school?"). I'm a big fan of Cary's (I have praised him on my blog before), but I find myself wondering whether his advice in this instance is a bit too optimistic. The comments to the column are very interesting and worth reading too (at Salon comments are called "letters," so look for the "letters" section).

If any readers have advice to share, please leave a comment! We'd also love to hear from current law students, and readers from other disciplines.


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).