Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When law school hurts

Law school can hurt. As commenters have noted, law school and legal practice are associated with high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, and mental illness. Those disorders can shorten your life--in addition to making the years miserable for you and your loved ones. Law school can also be particularly hurtful for students on the academic margin, those who are struggling to make sense of our arcane classes and approaches.

If you find yourself in one of these categories, I encourage you to take a leave of absence from law school. Talk to the associate dean who usually counsels students on these issues, or to another sympathetic faculty member. Arrange at least to take some time off from law school. Your particular situation, when combined with the more general pressures of debt and the job market, makes law school a particularly bad bet for you.

I've posted some thoughts before about withdrawing from law school: The first of those posts gives some general guidelines and the second discusses sunk costs.  You may also be interested in these posts examining the financial risks of law school:  Risky decisions and Some rules for risky times.  Meanwhile, here is some specific advice for students who are hurting academically, psychologically, or physically after their first or second year:

Academic Difficulty.  In more golden times, I could sometimes encourage students in this category to persevere. If a student was strongly committed to law practice and had addressed the source of academic difficulty, perseverance was possible. But today's legal market is far too cruel for students at an academic disadvantage. The bar exam is harder today than it used to be; students in academic difficulty almost always struggle with this obstacle.  Even when students with poor transcripts pass the bar, they face overwhelming challenges in finding jobs.

If you're experiencing academic problems, remember that law school and the bar focus on a very narrow slice of intelligence.  You undoubtedly have talents and intelligence that you can apply in other fields: If you were admitted to law school, you already have a history of achievement.  Ironically, you might even make a terrific lawyer--law school and bar success don't match practice success.  But at this point in time, the system requires law school and bar success just to enter the field.  If you're struggling with law school--even if you're not technically on academic probation--you would be much better off investing time and money in other fields.

Lots of people leave law school and succeed in other ventures. One of the most successful in that group is Les Wexner, Chairman of the Limited Brands Corporation and a multi-billionaire. Wexner left law school  because he found it boring--not because of any academic difficulty. But keep him and many other law-school-leavers in mind if law school doesn't fit your brain. (Yes, I know this is an anecdote--but it's a darned good one, don't you think?)

Physical and Psychological Harm.  My mother was an alcoholic (even though she wasn't a lawyer--she just hung out with a lot of us), and over the years I've talked to students who suffered from anorexia, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism, substance abuse, and a host of other disorders.  These conditions cause real hardship, both for the sufferer and for loved ones. They can also lead you into serious scrapes with the law and permanently bar you from law practice and other careers.

There are treatments for these health conditions, but law school doesn't give you enough space to focus on recovery. And if you're struggling with any of these challenges while attending law school, you're not getting the best pay-off for the dollars you're investing.  You will be much better off if you take a leave of absence, address health issues, and then re-evaluate whether law is for you.

If you're unsure about your mental or physical health, talk to your family and close friends.  They often notice changes in your mental or physical state before you will (or before you're willing to acknowledge those changes to yourself). My Dad and I confronted Mom several times before she acknowledged her alcoholism; you will hear similar stories from others. So listen to your family and friends if their gripes are a little more pointed than "you don't have time for me any more."

*   *   *
The bottom line is that law school costs too much--and is too financially risky--to combine with other types of risk. If law school is hurting you in any of the above ways, please give yourself a break and take some time off to consider options. Even if you ultimately return to law school, you'll be happier, healthier, and more likely to benefit from your remaining classes. Meanwhile, law schools shouldn't be making money off your misery.


  1. First? OMG. First! Yaaaaa!

    Shout out to Fordham Law, in all its mediocrity!

  2. This documentary might be helpful:

  3. Try stress. That is the main problem for me. I always have to worry and my big worry is about how hard it is to get/ keep a job. My advice if you have stress and can get out of law, do it early and swallow the debt. Go into something with steadier work prospects. Stress shortens my life and frankly wrecks what should be a happy life.

  4. This is great advice. So many of us who failed to figure out hide-the-ball in time and were pulverized by first year grades, nevertheless persisted, lucked into a job, and found legal practice to be extremely rewarding.

    Yet we cannot urge persistence on the kids today. Tuitions have risen too high, and jobs have dried up. It reminds me of Paul Campos's article yesterday about how the wisdom of the boomer era is now a recipe for self-destruction.

    For instance, it used to be a cliche, right up there with versatility, that even if you were rejected by big law, you had a good shot at a legal aid or public defender job-- because those offices always had openings due to high turnover and low pay. Now those jobs have become extremely desirable (due to loan forgiveness programs), extremely rare (due to public sector austerity), and have exceedingly low turnover (due to actual honest-to-god pensions).


  5. Wouldn't taking a leave of absence be job-seeking poison? After all, if law school is too stressful for you, life as an attorney is going to be difficult.

  6. This is the stupidest article I've ever read on this blog. When it gets hard you should just quit? Who the hell gives that kind of advice?

    You should withdraw ONLY IF you get bad grades. Anything else, grow some balls.

  7. The stress is enormous. 1. There are clients that make your life miserable. Some because they have mental health issues and some because they are under stress. Did law school teach you the warning signs of a bad client? 2. There is personal financial stress. You can be busting your rump for a client and simply not get paid. Once the problem is over it is like the problem never existed to them. 3. Other attorneys are jerks. Just look at this message board. There is no professionalism. 4. Attorneys are not held in high regard. This is particularly true as it comes to judges. They are partisan hacks anymore with complete disdain for the attorneys in front of them.

  8. Any chance we can get those obnoxious "first post" messages deleted?

  9. If you take a leave of absence after your first year, can you still do OCI when you come back for 2L?

  10. 8:02, I'm pretty sure you can do OCI, but I would check with your particular CSO.

    And, 7:05, a leave of absence (for whatever reason) need not be job-seeking poison. I think anyone taking a leave during these times could legitimately tell later employers, "I wasn't sure about the cost/benefit ratio of a law degree and I wanted to take some time to explore the workplace and build some of my other skills." Even better if you can back that up with some relevant work during your year off. That work does NOT have to be law-related, although that's one option to consider. Even a low-level office or sales job will teach you something about another industry and give you a chance to evaluate law v. other options.

    Another path is to try to get a job with some sort of start-up and learn as much as you can about the business/management side. That can be useful background in all sorts of ways.

  11. You can explain that to employers...if they actually give you an interview.

  12. "You should withdraw ONLY IF you get bad grades. Anything else, grow some balls."

    Stay classy 7:09.

  13. @7:09
    "You got to know when to hold'em
    Know when to fold'em
    And know when to run...."

  14. Law schools generally do not consider the mental health of their students. Law schools seem to universally accept a job at a large law firm as a good outcome for a student no matter the circumstances. There is no consideration of the fact that a school will encourage hundreds of students who have possibly never worked a real 40 hour per week job and have very probably never supported themselves to strive for jobs that will routinely work them 60, 70, or 80+ hours a week. These will often be jobs that the student needs to keep for several years to pay off his or her loans.

    Students certainly don't do themselves any favors. I attended school with students that "needed" 3 weeks of winter vacation, all of summer, a spring break, etc. to "recharge." Yet these same students were killing themselves to get into positions that will never allow this kind of break from work. Certainly, there are students for which the large law firm life will be a great fit, but these students are a very small subset. I went through law school starting in my upper 20s and with several years of work experience, but I am sure I would have been just as clueless about the demands of working life had I gone the K-JD route like many of these students, so it was difficult to watch my classmates setting themselves up for several unhappy years to come.

  15. DJM @ 8:18,

    So, you are promoting taking a leave of absence due to stress but then telling employers it was because of something other than stress AND not mentioning it was because of stress?

    The job killer aspect is because of the reason for the leave of absence. As someone said above, if you can't handle the stresses of law school, you can forget about the stresses of being a lawyer. That, indeed, would kill your chances at a job if you were honest about the reason for your leave.

  16. @7:09 a.m.:

    "You should withdraw ONLY IF you get bad grades. Anything else, grow some balls."

    I agree totally. That is, if by "bad grades" you mean " grades below the 90th percentile at most schools," and by "balls" you mean "another two years of debt at 7.5% that isn't dischargeable in bankruptcy."

    Also, by "I agree totally," I meant "you're a gigantic asshole."

  17. Here's another fantastic reason to leave.

    You look at your school's full-time, JD-required employment measure, as well as possibly the breakdown of the types of jobs that measure represents here. If you even wonder whether your grades will make you eligible for full-time, JD-required employment, you should quit.

    Some professor over at Paul Caron's blog tried to tell me that accumulating $100,000 in debt to make only $2,000 to $8,000 more than one could have with a BA/BS was still a good deal, because of IBR (and of course the unquantifiable richness that a JD brings to one's life). I guess being the unwitting accomplice to fucking the taxpayer for an extra $2,000 to $8,000 a year was okay in that guy's mind, but I promise you - no one is inherently better off (or better than you) just for having gone to law school.

  18. "You should withdraw ONLY IF you get bad grades. Anything else, grow some balls."

    So what are bad grades? And does the tier of the school matter?

  19. Law schools graduate about twice as many students are there are law jobs.

    By third year, nearly half of law students will suffer from major depression.

    If people who get crushed by law school leave, the numbers would start to work.

  20. Perhaps DJM is slyly pushing the ultimate sorting mechanism that will solve everything AND keep law prof's flush with cash!

  21. One thing I noticed in law school was that many of the students who were struggling (academically or emotionally) tended to feel pressured by their families to obtain a JD. Some of these kids would not have been in law school at all but for the prodding of their parents. I imagine it's even worse for this type of student today, given the terrible job market and draconian debt regime he/she is facing. Combined with the fact that many clueless non-lawyers simply cannot grasp that a JD is neither prestigious nor a guarantee of six-figure annual earnings.

    P.S. I don't intend this as a boomer bashing post. :)

  22. I'd like to see a post on the "even when you win, you lose" aspect that most are pointing out about big firm life.

    For instance, you spend four years in undergrad and three more in law school accruing massive amounts of debt.

    A "successful" outcome is if you get a big firm job, which pays six figures in salary and will generally end for the vast majority of associates somewhere between two and seven years.

    Yes, $160,000 is a lot of money, and the raises are good while they last. But how much money can one expect to make (gross) in a five year career at a Biglaw shop? 800 grand? 900 grand?

    After you've:

    1. Lopped a huge chunk off in taxes

    2. Paid what we can assume is typically higher rent/mortgage payments (since to be making $160K, you're working in a big city with higher cost of living).

    3. Dressed the part, which means high end suits, high end shoes, constant dry cleaning bills, etc.

    4. Those that buy a car likely buy an expensive one that will likely be heavily depreciated by the end of the five year period.

    5. Paid back somewhere between $150,000 to a quarter million dollars in student loans.

    At the end, what is left for this 30 year old individual who was K-JD. How much money did they bank? What is the big payoff for them after three stressful years of law school and five more year of even more stressful biglaw practice?

    Is the payoff worth it even for the "winners?"

    As a graduate of a quasi-elite law school about a decade out, the classmates of mine who seem to have "won" were those who missed the brass ring and landed in mid-sized law firms in mid-sized cities. Still with the firm, having made partner. Yes, it isn't New York City, but it's employment and they live in affordable cities.

  23. 7:27,
    Very few associates wear suits in Biglaw and the partners could give less of a shit if you buy your clothes at Men's Wearhouse or Saks. No one makes you buy an expensive car either nor do they give a shit if you drive a Mercedes or a Honda Accord so long as it's not a rustbucket.

  24. I would think that if one we working in Manhattan, and living nearby, you wouldn't want/need a car at all?

  25. Crux,

    That is likely the case, but I think it misses the point.

    If you gross $900K in five years, but a quarter of that goes to state and local taxes, getting you down to 675K, and you are going to pay back your student loans so that you aren't unemployed with a mountain of debt, all of the sudden you're at $475K.

    Now, on that $475K spread over the five years of living expenses, even a few of the little luxuries of "looking the part" whether that's clothes, watches, food, eating out, dating, etc.

    How much of that do you really have banked at the end of that time period? And as you've been working very long hours, you don't always have much in the way of wonderful life experiences to show for it.

    I'm just wondering what the 30 year old phased out big law associate thinks when he or she looks back at the last decade of their life?

    Would they go to law school again? I'm sure some would. Maybe most.

    But I think a not-insignificant percentage even of these super achievers probably feel like law school was a waste and they'd do something differently if they could go back and change it all.

  26. @ 7:27 - I agree completely. Today's "I'm first, wheeee" validates the complete worthlessness of Fordam. Do these clowns high five at the clerk's office when they file a motion or do the Happy Snoopy Dance at a closing?

    Others who exhibit this juvenile behavior, please post your law school to help make the case re the jerk institution that's "training" you.

  27. Oops, that was 7:29, not 7:27.

  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. "So, you are promoting taking a leave of absence due to stress but then telling employers it was because of something other than stress AND not mentioning it was because of stress?"

    This was not addressed to me, but I'll answer it. Yes. Your mental health is none of an interviewer's business, unless perhaps you're applying to be an astronaut. You should go to an interview with prepared explanations for any big gaps in your resume. Emphasize the good truth and omit the bad (as long as the bad is not something one can find with a google search).

    If a law student were in my office for an interview and actually told me that he took a leave of absense because he couldn't handle the stress, I would break out of interview mode and gently advise him to come up with a better answer.

  30. Look, the point is that if you are the student for whom DJM's post is resonating, you never should have gone to law school in the first place. Why the hell should you worry about whether stress leave is going to kill your BigLaw interview? You don't belong in BigLaw. You will hate it, and it will grind you up. The loans from 1L are a sunk cost. Move on and deal with them.

    Cooley and Touro and their ilk aren't going to go quietly in the night. The ABA isn't going to close schools fast enough. Even the bottom 50% of the class at the top 20 schools is beyond redemption. It is up to individual law students to wake up and realize that they've been scammed hard and only they have the power to minimize the loss.

    I was lower half at a top 20 school. I turned down the mid-sized firm that picked me up through OCI. I've worked as a prosecutor and as an in-house counsel. I've made decent money. But with all that, if I could go back in a time machine and do it over, I'd of dropped out after 1L with absolutely no regrets. The law is no longer a profession, it is a God-forsaken wasteland.


  31. 8:06,
    I've banked a shit ton of it so far.

  32. For people wondering about how taking a leave will affect their career, there is at least one thread on TLS where V15 interviewers and others post. You can ask there.

    If you don't want to do that, just start a thread and see what people say.

    But, at the end of the day, you don't have a career when you don't have your mental or physical health. If you need a leave you should take it.

  33. 8:02PM here.

    Thanks DJM.

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