Above the Law

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Mansfield J. Park weighs in on whether law students should stay in the game or quit while they’re ahead.

Sorry for the tease, but I want to start with Silicon Valley, then get to the sex change. I promise this will all vaguely make sense, in a “isn’t life complex but interconnected, but not in a vapid Crash kind of way?”

In Silicon Valley, I am told, there’s a saying: Fail fast.

Which really means: Fail fast, succeed faster.

The vast majority of startups there fail, so failing fast gets you on to the next project and, just maybe, closer to success. Your own country or whatever. Success is not inevitable in the startup world, but it’s more likely if you quit a failing venture to move on to something better.

Silicon Valley startup life is pretty different from law school. Law students are not known for their appetite for risk. Still, many of the 50,000 or so new law students could take the “fail fast” advice to heart.

According to recent reports and analyses, both here at ATL and elsewhere, just under half of graduating law students will not have a job. (Or, more specifically, a job that requires a law degree.)

Assuming most of these people are paying full sticker price, that’s a $200,000 and three-year investment (not even including the opportunity cost of not working those three years) for a return of, in essence, nothing. I do not think there is any evidence that recent law grads working non-legal jobs have better jobs than they did or would have before law school.

Worse, most of these graduating law students knew what they were in for, or should have.

The most recent vintages of law school grads started law school in 2010 when ATL and other law school scam blogs were stating these ugly truths. Even some law profs understand this now. (Although, to nit pick for a second, these law profs are still drawing salaries on the backs of their students who won’t have jobs come cap and gown time.)

But, while there’s a slowdown in applications, I don’t really see any evidence that the people who do go to law school are quitting when they find out their grades suck. (That is a set of numbers someone should track. Looking at you, U.S. News.)

If you have employment numbers from your school (assuming they’re not lying to you), and you get your grades back from 1L year and your grades are not kind of awesome, why are you continuing to stay in law school?

Failing fast means looking at your 1L grades and really being able to face reality, however ugly it might be.

To be clear, that “ugly reality” may vary from school to school. Obviously if you’re at a top tier law school, then being in the top 25% of your class or something (don’t quote me on that) may be enough to get a job good enough to pay your loans down.

And if you’re at a TTT, you may consider leaving if you’re not in the top 5%. Or something. Check out the specifics elsewhere. But you need to know the numbers.

Since you will know based on your first year grades if you are likely to graduate unemployed or underemployed, it is rational to drop out and start making some money by working. (All of this of course makes it important to have the right study skills in law school, but no more on that here.)

I may suck at math, but I am pretty sure that one-third of $200,000 in law school loans is less than $200,000 in law school loans.

Here, the adage “fail fast” means: look hard at your grades at the end of 1L year. If your grades are not awesome or very good and, based on available statics, clearly good enough to get you a decently paying job after law school, you need to leave for your own good.

But so many students just won’t quit. (Just like the wonderful people who offer such positive feedback in the comments on this site.)

Why is that?

We grow up with that old saying: “winners never quit and quitters never win.” Whoever coined this phrase was clearly not familiar with the sunk cost fallacy.

This is generally a great attitude to have but it doesn’t apply to every context. Churchill’s whole “Never, never, never, never give up” thing was meant for students at Harrow during the Blitz. Not law students facing a life of permanently crippling debt.

I don’t mean to blame the students who go on to graduate. There is the whole fundamental attribution bias — thinking that, if I were one of these students, I would totally drop out.

Probably not true. I am not a special snowflake or glowworm, and neither are you.

You reading this (if you are not a current law school student with decent but not outstanding grades) would be subject to the same pressures as the students I’m talking about. It is easy for those of us not in that situation to judge. There are a host of psychological factors and pressures that would make most of us make the same decision to stay in school despite mediocre grades.

So what do I hear from my tutoring students? I give them the same speech I give here–you had one bad semester. I will do my best to help you get better grades, but if your grades are still not good enough, by which I mean stellar this semester, you need to think hard about dropping out. (The exceptions are if (1) you’re on scholarship (2) you have a guaranteed job lined up, or (3) your parents are paying).

The answer I sometimes get in return is some variation of “yeah, but I always wanted to go to law school, and I know it’s tough out there, but I’ll work much harder than my classmates, and I’ll network like crazy, and I’ll get straight As my 2L and 3L years…”

I hate to say it, but a lot of this is delusional.

Your classmates all work really hard.

Everyone else who isn’t a troll on ATL will network and try to make connections, too.

And if you didn’t do well either semester your 1L year, you will not suddenly “get it” 2L or 3L year.

But again, these thoughts are all natural. If you do get bad, mediocre or even mildly good grades your 1L year, go ahead and have these thoughts.

And then drop out anyway.

* * *

So where does a sex change come into all of this?

The only person I know personally who dropped out of law school after the Great Legal Ragnarok of 2008 is a high school classmate who made a calculated decision in 2010 to leave law school after 1L year.

Also, this classmate used to be a boy in high school and now, isn’t. In my mind these things are connected.

I’d lost touch with Bobby after high school but reconnected while I was practicing law. Before deciding on law school, and before I started tutoring students, she asked me advice on which law school to go to: a Midwest public law school that offered a generous scholarship, or a comparably ranked private law school in a fun urban area but with no scholarship.

I gave her terrible advice. I suggested she go to the expensive but fun law school (which had professors in a specialty she wanted to study).

I feel some guilt that Bobby went to law school at all.

Worse, Bobby went to the “fun and expensive” law school. She got Bs. Aside from the Bs, she just did not enjoy it as much as she thought she would.

So on her blog (I’m not linking to it, and I don’t even know if she maintains it), she announced she was quitting law school. She went back to working in the field she was in before law school that paid reasonably well (boy am I paranoid about giving her personal details, right). I haven’t heard from her since. I assume she’s doing well because she is not a lawyer. My theory? Bobby grappled with obviously much harder issues of identity — facing whether she was a he or she at a young age. So, maybe quitting law school was not such a big deal for her.

Whereas my sense is that for many law students, especially recent college grads, quitting is just too hard. The law is part of their identities even before they figure out whether they are any good at it or even like it.

* * *

So, in sum: if in your 1L year you get straight Bs at a non-top tier law school, you should take a clue and accept that it wasn’t meant to be. Or, think about options: take a leave of absence, do law school part-time and work, etc.

But whatever you do, don’t just stay. Fail fast and move on with your life.

Two other thoughts.

First, doing 1L year and dropping out may be a “third way” through the David/Elie debate on whether or not to go to law school: If you have given very careful thought as to whether you want to go to law school (after tons of meditation, prayer, or peyote-assisted introspection), and you are still on the fence, maybe go for 1L year and leave after that if your grades are not awesome.

Second, a thought that I may develop in a later post is: Maybe the way to force the kinds of changes on law schools that we would like to see is if many law school students with bad job prospects dropped out after 1L year. Crappy law schools may close because their budgets would be devastated by large-scale drop outs by 1Ls.

Bobby, where ever you are, maybe you inspired the revolution.

Mansfield J. Park, a pseudonym, is a tutor and consultant to law students and recent graduates alike. Manny went to a top 10 college and top 10 law school, graduating in the top 10 percent but not in the (real) top 10. He clerked a couple of times, never on the 10th Circuit, and worked at a top 10 law firm (by the AmLaw A-List, not Vault) for many years, but not 10. His recent tutoring students have done awesomely, like in the top 10 at top 10 schools. Seriously. Of his favorite numbers, 10 is not even in the top 10. Manny hates numerologists. You can email him at mansfield.j.park[AT]gmail[dot]com or visit his site on doing well in law school, Law School Hacker.