Associate Advice, Education / Schools, Job Searches, Law Schools

Cut Your Losses, or Finish Law School? An ATL Debate

Martin Luther dropped out of law school - and so can you.

At what point should you give up on your dream of becoming a lawyer? It’s a question on many people’s minds lately. Whether they were laid off during the recession and haven’t been able to get back in, or if they’ve just graduated law school to the triumphant sounds of crickets, people are wondering when it’s time to stop throwing good money (and effort) after bad.

It’s a question some people start asking before they even graduate from law school. With the school year getting underway, returning law students are once again wondering whether or not they made the right choice when they matriculated to law school in the first place.

Earlier this week, Lat received this question from a 2L at a top-eight law school:

Hi David. I’ve got a dilemma and it’s really eating me up and I was wondering if you could give me some advice. Here are the salient points:

* I’m at [redacted] — an awesome school.
* It’s a crappy economy and I don’t anticipate getting a job anytime soon.
* My 1L grades are A-, B+, B, B, B-, B-, B-, B-.
* I’m not sure I really want to spend my life being a lawyer. It seems like such a boring profession.
* I think I would be really happy being a public interest attorney, like working at the DA’s office or on Capitol Hill. I get excited about those jobs — but they pay nothing and are super-hard to get.
* I’m about $70K in debt — so I’ve invested so much!

People tell me that a JD is a great credential to get. I just don’t know if it’s worth it to finish the degree. It’s so darn expensive. Realistically, if I stay the course I’ll graduate with $170K in debt. If I don’t finish, I’ll never have the degree and the prospects that come with it.

I feel that long-term, over a 40-year career, it could be good to have the law degree — it’s from [redacted], not from a lower-ranked school.

Should I finish law school or walk away?

Mwahahaha — David isn’t here, Mrs. Torrance.

Just kidding. Lat is here, and he will answer your question in a second. But first, let Elie explain why you should run, now…


Obviously, I think you were kind of a dumbass to go to law school in the first place. How could you look at the legal-job landscape in the fall of 2009 and not be prepared for the difficult recruiting environment awaiting you in 2010 (and beyond)? But whatever, that milk has been spilled; now that you recognize it’s turning sour, what should you do?

You list a number of reasons why you might not want to leave law school at this point, but I guess this really all comes down to one issue you didn’t bring up: you don’t want to be called a “quitter.” You’ve probably never quit anything in your life. Winners never quit and quitters never win. Rocky didn’t quit, right?

Well, here some other famous people who probably should have quit before the end: Napoleon, Muhammad Ali, and Jesus Christ. You get my point? People who stick it out to the bitter end sometimes end up famous, but end up suffering excruciating pain. Do you like pain and suffering? No? Then leave law school. (Al Gore did — he quit law school, then quit trying to become president — and only then did he become interesting.)

This is actually the best time to leave if you are going to do it. After this, there is no turning back. By Christmas, God willing, you’ll have a job or a lead on a job. You’ll start thinking about a fat paycheck. You’ll start telling yourself that the worst is behind you. You’ll be almost halfway through. You’ll be locked in, buddy.

And not just for another couple of years. What’s going to happen next? You’ll go through all this legal education, graduate, and then not take the bar? Or take the bar, but then not use your law license to do anything legal? Of course not. After you graduate from law school, you are going to spend years trying to make it look like it wasn’t a dumb thing to put yourself through in the first place. You’ll spend at least five or six more years trying to somehow make law school look like a good decision.

Or you could leave now. One year lost, $70K down the drain. It stings, and it stinks, but think of it like you just moved to Vegas for a year and gambled away your life savings. You can recover from this. But if you stick it out, like I did, you might just find yourself a big, bitter, aging man, one who walks around popping balloons because he can’t stand the sight of happiness.

Close the book, buddy, and start writing a new one.


Since I am the defender of going to law school, I’ll take my appropriate place in this debate. I agree with Elie that the position you’re currently in is less than fabulous, but it could be worse. You’re at an excellent law school, and your grades, while not stellar, are fine. You should be able to land yourself a job, especially if the economy continues to pick up (a big “if,” admittedly). It might not be at a Vault or Am Law 10 firm — you might end up at a midsize or smaller firm — and it might take a lot of networking and shoe leather. But let’s face it: you are in a better position than so many others, thanks to your top 10 law school (which has cachet, a great alumni network, etc.).

Getting a legal education is like building a house. If you quit a third of the way through, what does that leave you with? What are you going to do with four walls but no roof?

Elie criticizes the conventional wisdom — “you don’t want to be called a ‘quitter'” — but the conventional wisdom is conventional, and wise, for a reason. Every year, thousands of law students confront the very same dilemma you now face. The vast majority of them conduct the same cost-benefit analysis, and they decide to stick it out.

Why? Well, a few reasons. There are several possible outcomes given your situation:

1. You land a job in private practice after graduation, end up liking it, and live happily ever after.

2. You land a job in private practice after graduation, do it for a while to gain experience and pay off your loans, leave it for something you like better — e.g., the public-interest / government jobs you mentioned — and live happily ever after.

3. You go into public interest or government work directly after graduation, take advantage of your law school’s loan repayment assistance program, and live happily ever after.

4. You try law for a while, whether in the private or public sector, and then leave it after a few years (perhaps because you find it “boring,” as you noted in your question). You bounce around for a bit, but you eventually find a satisfying career outside the legal profession that still draws on your legal background and the skills you developed as a lawyer, and you live happily ever after.

(In the past month, I’ve met several ex-attorneys who enjoy their jobs — a diplomat, the director of a public interest organization, a lobbyist — and whose legal backgrounds helped them land these positions. For examples of different paths you can take that don’t involve the practice of law but value a legal education, check out our career alternatives for attorneys.)

5. President Obama, in his second term, pushes through the student loan bailout, leaving you with a valuable professional degree and erasing all your debt. You live happily ever after.

6. You try law for a while, but then abandon it to drive a cupcake truck. Cupcakes are delicious, so you live happily ever after.

Okay, I realize I’m being a bit glib. But my main point is that you really aren’t as screwed as you seem to think. The future holds so many possibilities, as I’ve just outlined — but many of these possibilities either require or strongly encourage a law degree.

So hang in there. And do let us know how it turns out for you and where you end up after graduation (or after dropping out). Regardless of whether your tale ends up being cautionary or inspiring, it’s one that our readers would like to hear.

Good luck!

The ATL editors have given their perspectives. Readers, what do you think?

Should this 2L at a top law school stay in school or drop out?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
(hidden for your protection)

comments sponsored by

Show all comments