Many commenters have asked whether rising 2Ls and 3Ls should remain in law school. Would some students be better off leaving now rather than taking on more debt? I plan to make several posts on this important topic--and to draw significantly on crowd wisdom. I apologize that this post comes relatively late in the summer; there has been so much to unearth about law schools during the last two months. Ideally, all law students would review their options at the end of both the first and second year, giving more time to implement their plans. But if you're wondering whether to buy another year of law school, there's still time to weigh your options. Here are some steps to take right now. I’ll follow up with more posts, and will credit useful comments in that advice.
1. Confront the Issue. If you’ve wondered at all about leaving law school, confront the issue head-on. No one has locked you into a three-year contract. You can always choose to leave, and weighing that choice is healthy both psychologically and financially. Even if you decide to remain in law school, analyzing your options will clarify your commitment. You may decide to make less radical changes, such as electing different courses or pursuing a particular externship.
2. Don’t just leave, take a leave. Check with your school about options for taking a leave of absence. An approved leave gives you a guaranteed option to return. Even if you think you never want to set foot inside a law school again, why not give yourself some insurance? If the school is willing to grant a leave of absence, it’s better to line up that right-of-return.
In another post, I’ll offer some ideas for how to secure an approved leave if your school resists. For now, check on your school’s basic policy. Are you entitled to take a leave of absence? For how long? What paperwork is necessary? If you have a scholarship, how will a leave affect that scholarship? Can you keep the scholarship or do you forfeit it? If you lose the scholarship and decide to return, is there any chance of competing for new scholarship money?
3. Learn about your loan. If you have any educational debt, make an appointment right now with one of your school’s financial aid advisors. In a separate post, I’ll address the critical issue for many students: Can you afford to leave, or is your loan the only thing keeping you afloat? But first you need to know all of the specifics about your loan. Some of the questions you should ask:
- How much do I owe right now?
- If I stay in law school, how much will I owe at graduation? Get the most precise calculation you can. Remember that, in addition to rising tuition and living costs, law school loans are no longer subsidized. This is a good time to recalculate your loan numbers—whatever you decide to do.
- What are the grace periods for my loans? If you leave school, you will have start repaying your loans. But for most loans, there’s a grace period of six months before the first payment is due. Confirm with your counselor whether all of your loans have grace periods and, if so, how long those periods last.
- How does the grace period interact with our school’s calendar? Pin down exactly when your grace period will start (or already started) and when it will end.
- If I take a leave, use my grace period, and then return to school, do I get another grace period after graduation?
- If I take a leave, use my grace period, and can’t find full-time employment, will I qualify for loan deferment? How hard is that to arrange?
- What kind of repayment plans are available to me if I take a leave? These plans should be the same as ones available after graduation so, even if you decide to stay in school, you’ll be getting a head start on planning for repayment.
- If I take a leave, enter a repayment plan, and then return to law school, will I be able to change the repayment plan later?
4. Gather very specific career data. Make an appointment with a member of your Career Services Office. Explain that you know how difficult the job market is and that you’re trying to lay the best possible foundation for your own employment. Note that you’re considering whether a leave of absence might help you develop skills that will make you more marketable at graduation. Even if you’re thinking of leaving law school for good, talking about a leave of absence is a more constructive way to obtain information and explore options. Then ask for this information:
- A copy of the school’s full NALP report for 2011. If the school resists, explain that you are serious about planning for your career, and that you take personal responsibility for your future—you don’t expect anyone to hand you a job. But you can’t take that responsibility unless you have relevant data. Detailed information about the school’s recent graduates—the people most like you—is essential to assume the responsibility you want to take for your own career.
- Recommendations for jobs you could pursue while on leave. Are there law-related jobs that might help you lock in a job after graduation? Is there a law firm, government agency, or other employer that might hire a clerk who has finished 1-2 years of law school? Are there other positions (e.g., entry-level administrative, government, or corporate jobs) that you could pursue? Your CSO may not have suggestions for jobs like this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If you’re thinking about leaving law school, gather all the free advice you can get.
- A list of specific “alternative jobs” that recent graduates have obtained. This list will be helpful in three ways:
- You may qualify for some of these jobs now. Even if you have finished just one year of law school, you already have many of the skills that law schools say are valuable in the workplace. If employers do value these skills, then this list may give you employment leads. If employers don't really value law school skills, well, better to learn that now.
- You may realize that you are not interested in or qualified for any of these jobs—ever. For example, if most of your school’s alternative jobs are corporate jobs taken by JD/MBA graduates, and you’re not earning an MBA, then you can’t count on following that route. If the alternative jobs are baking cupcakes, and you’re allergic to gluten (or kitchens), that option’s not for you. Gaining this knowledge is important in deciding whether to stay in law school. On the one hand, if you have a realistic chance of obtaining a JD-required job (based on your personal record and recent outcomes for your school), you may recommit to staying in law school. On the other hand, if the prospects of a JD-required job are low—and you were counting on one of these alternative jobs—you may decide that earning a JD doesn't make sense.
- You may like some of these alternative jobs but, after talking to your career counselor (or doing informational interviews with some alternative employers), realize that the JD makes a difference in securing these jobs. Some employers are degree conscious: You may not learn any more with an additional year or two of law school, but the degree itself may matter. If that's the case, you'll have the information you need to calculate whether obtaining the JD makes sense for obtaining one of these jobs.
5. Look at the rules I suggested for 0Ls. Figure out whether you fall within one of the “don’t go” guidelines. I.e., are you enrolled at a school with an employment score below 50%? Is your projected debt more than your school’s reported median salary for 2011? Falling within one of these guidelines doesn’t necessarily mean you should withdraw, but you should at least make those calculations.
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Coming soon: How to use this information to plot next steps.