Further detail: The writer is confident she can get her old job or another much like it back. Reply:I was hoping you could spare a word of advice for a 1L who has spent winter break absolutely freaking out. I am seriously considering quitting law school, and don't know where to turn.
I'm a 1L at [top 15ish law school]. I'm 30 (old for a law student...not old for the earth). Before law school, I [had a real job] and made quite a good salary. I went back to law school for a few (potentially poor) reasons: I worked/traveled for work all the time, disliked my job, and had already advanced as far as I could go by age 28. [My career options in my field were] limited to either 90-hour work weeks doing really great work, or 60-hour work weeks making back-door deals with corrupt city bureaucrats. Neither was manageable. I also have an insatiable love for learning. My happiest days were spent writing my thesis in undergrad. Back then, I dreamed of a PhD, but the job prospects scared me off.
So, I went to law school. I was so completely freaked out by the debt load (which I will carry by myself, as my mother is a part-time [academic] and has no retirement plan) that I deferred for a year to save money (and in that year, [my law school] raised tuition. Awesome). In the end, I told myself that the degree would pay for the opportunity and actual costs. The placement statistics on the school's website gave me comfort and I took the plunge.
But now I'm fearing I've made a huge mistake. As an older student, I can't read for 20 hours a day like my peers - I get tired! I'm not as quick or as analytical as many, and not as driven as others. I have a wonderful relationship with a live-in partner, an amazing (though impoverished) family and a gang of swell friends. I refuse to give up these relationships for law school, and that means less studying than the kids who literally sleep in the library most nights. That said, I absolutely read everything assigned and have performed adequately (B+/A- on midterms) so far. I also won [a 1L competition]. BUT, though I do enjoy the classes and the readings, I don't expect to be in the top 10% of my class and probably not even in the top 40%.
So here is my dilemma - I want a career that will fulfill my desire to serve. I'm a people person to the core, and I love feeling like I'm making a positive difference in people's lives. I also want to be able to provide for my mom as she ages and maybe start a family of my own in the next decade. I don't want to work myself to death (been there, done that), but I do want to be able to live semi-comfortably.
I recently discovered that the stats up on [my law school’s] site are basically lies. I've met 10 (!) totally unemployed recent alums, all who passed the bar first try and did everything right (top 50% of class). I've met a dozen more who took the public interest route and are making way less than half of my previous salary. All these folks are 25 and miserable and staring at almost 200K in debt with no way to pay it. I'm afraid I'll be right there with them, except I'll be in my mid-30's, which I fear will make me even less employable.
I need someone to be honest with me. I'm seriously considering quitting [my law school] if my first semester grades are not good. I'd probably look into something more practical (though, law school was my 'practical' choice. Ugh.) like becoming a nurse or a physician assistant. A secondary option is to transfer to [second-tier law school] night school and see if they'll still give me that full scholarship they offered last year. I don't want to double down on a bad bet and end up with a law degree making 40K, working all the time and owing 200K in debt.
So, am I crazy to have these thoughts? Should I just stick with it and hope for the best? A lot of people tell me to consider how badly I want to be a lawyer, but I've worked long enough to know that you don't really know how much you want to be in a given profession until you've done it for a year.
Here are my thoughts. Obviously I don't know you, so everything I say needs to be taken with that in mind. What I want to say to you first is that I really do mean the things that I write on my blog, and that, given what I've written there, you seem to me [insert a dozen epistemological caveats here] to be the kind of person who would be a good candidate to drop out of law school after the first semester.
First, you don't strike me as the kind of person who would find being a big firm lawyer anything other than a truly miserable experience. You want to serve people, but that kind of job is all about servicing the needs of big corporate clients. You don't want to spend 90 hours a week doing really great work in your present field (I certainly don't blame you at all -- I think that kind of lifestyle is insane no matter how great the work may be), but as an associate at a big firm you would be spending a comparable amount of time doing really horrible work that you will despise with every bone in your body. Much of it will be utterly routine paper pushing that you won't be able to believe someone is being billed $400 for you to perform. Meanwhile you will be paid about one-tenth of that per hour actually worked.
Second getting and keep a big firm job for long enough to pay off most or all of your law school debt will be tricky. About 35% of [your school's] grads are currently getting such jobs. But only about half those people, at best, will still be in them five years down the road. So the odds of an average grad [from your school] getting and keeping a big law job for long enough to get rid of most of their debt load are not good -- maybe 15%.
If your first semester grades are in the middle of the pack you can cut that percentage by a lot. But in any case you would, I think, be truly unhappy if you "won" the big firm lottery, and based on your email you don't strike me as the kind of person who would be OK with being miserable for the sake of a high paying high status but basically wretched job.
What about alternatives to big law? The problem, as you probably know, is that the kinds of jobs people such as yourself are actually suited for -- cause lawyering, broadly defined -- are if anything even more difficult to get than big firm jobs, and on top of that pay ridiculous salaries that will keep you in a state of indentured servitude to the government for a decade (That's a best case scenario. IBR could be eliminated next year if Romney is president). If you went to law school in part to have a decent level of economic security while helping to support your mother, these jobs aren't viable choices (That said, I suspect you would be ten times better off in public interest law than at a big firm, even with the massive economic disadvantages of the former).
What else is there between Big Law and cause lawyering, i.e., public interest/government? Not much these days. Working for a small firm basically combines many of the disadvantages of Big Law with those of public interest work, without most of the advantages of either. As for all those other things you can do with a law degree besides working for a firm or in public interest, those fall into two categories: essentially imaginary jobs vaguely pictured by clueless law professors when burbling nonsense to their anxiety-ridden students, and jobs you could have gotten without going to law school in the first place and incurring $200,000 in debt.
If I were you (I'm not; I don't know you; take all this with a grain of salt etc etc), I'd drop out, go get my old job or something like it back, then investigate whether something like nursing or being a physician assistant would make more sense for you than law school while saving some money and planning the next step in your life.
This is yet another example of why transparency, while only a first step, remains a crucial first step. Yes, lots of people who shouldn't will continue to go to law school even if much better information about the relationship between their investment and the probable return on it is made available to them. But lots won't. I very much doubt that this writer would have dumped her unsatisfying $100K per year job to take on $200K of high interest non-dischargeable debt if she had had such information (her law school's web site remains festooned with seriously misleading employment and salary statistics).
What will the proportion eventually be between potential law students in these two categories? There's one way to find out.