Law school graduates are common among the leading ranks of politicians, business leaders and many other fields — but what about law school dropouts?
President Theodore Roosevelt left Columbia Law School after a year to run for the New York state legislature. Journalist Diane Sawyer lasted only a semester at the University of Louisville School of Law. Comedian Demetri Martin left New York University School of Law after two years, saying it felt like a “waste” of time once he had found his passion for stand-up comedy.
They all landed on their feet. But the thousands of other law students who drop out each year likely feel more regretful, even if they find new and gratifying pursuits.
Before investing time, money, and energy into law school, think about the following reasons why many law students drop out and how you can avoid making a costly misstep.
— Unanticipated hardship
— Unmet expectations
— Wrong fit
Because law students tend to be ambitious and competitive, they often fall prey to optimism bias, the common tendency to exaggerate one’s own capabilities and minimize potential risks. They might look at a long to-do list and think: “No problem, I’ll get it done. I always manage somehow.”
Sadly, optimism bias can have harsher consequences than a frantic cramming session or a poor grade on a slapdash paper. Many students enter law school assuming they will easily rise to the top of their class and have their pick of opportunities. They are in for a rude awakening. Performing well in law school is a lot harder than it is in college.
To avoid such sour grapes, enter law school with realistic expectations. Find a niche — an activity or discipline or social group — that boosts your confidence. Learn from your mistakes and treat underperformance as a learning opportunity rather than a personal judgment.
Unfortunately, optimism bias extends to risks as well. Too many people enter law school with unrealistic hopes for how they can juggle costs, time commitments and other responsibilities. Part-time students often imagine they can squeeze in studying during nights and weekends. Students with financial hardships fail to budget realistically. Other students may fail to foresee the impact of law school on their health and personal relationships.
Bottom-ranked and unaccredited law schools have very high dropout reasons for similar reasons. Students often enter such schools unprepared and uninformed about the challenges ahead and unable to finish the program. Sadly, such schools profit from tuition-paying students who fail to graduate.
Before law school starts, game out potential risks and contingencies and make plans to mitigate them. Anticipate what may get in the way of completing your law degree and how to manage those challenges without quitting.
The practice of law can be dry and dull compared to its media portrayal in legal dramas. The study of law can feel even more tedious and less rewarding. Many law students face frequent gut checks about whether they knew what they were getting into, perhaps on a late-night slog through a dense judicial decision about a 19th-century contract.
Before giving up, disappointed law students should think through alternate paths realistically. Most careers have a hard learning curve, and the grass is rarely as green as it seems. Furthermore, law school graduates have a wide range of career options.
Use your time in law school to explore resources, talk to professors, and do volunteer work before coming to any fixed conclusions about what lawyers do. Many have found careers that balance their values and priorities in ways they could never have imagined as law students.
Finally, many law students leave due to a crisis of faith. They feel out of place. They look around at their classmates and see natural lawyers, while they feel like frauds. Perhaps they feel a case of self-doubt or impostor syndrome, or perhaps they just feel ostracized or out of step with their peers.
Such doubts are unavoidable, but you can prepare for them. Keep in mind is that law school is designed to make you feel uncomfortable, like any difficult practice. From the Socratic method used in first-year lectures to the intimidating textbooks to the awkwardness of legal writing, legal education reinforces a whole new mindset. If it hurts your brain or your ego, commiserate with your classmates, take a break from campus or find an engrossing campus activity unrelated to law.
But before giving up, remember that every lawyer once felt like a misfit and sometimes still does.
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