The Truth About Law School…

Recently, a friend asked me if I liked law school. He is looking to pursue a career in a very narrow field where a law degree is certainly not required (he already has a Master’s in the area, as well as work experience), but could prove to be helpful. My response was basically this: The three years of law school were, and probably will always be, the worst three years of my life. (If we’re going for worst four years of my life, then tack on that year right after graduation where I (a) studied for the New York bar exam, (b) was umemployed for what felt like forever, and (c) finally gained employment working for a person who is one of the cruelest human beings I have ever met.)
However, I wanted to be a lawyer and I do really love my work. I could not be where I am today, or get where I want to go, without having gone to law school. Of course, not all of law school was a terrible experience. I enjoyed much of what I learned; I had some truly amazing professors (and some total crackpots); I made some great friends. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Do I have doubts about where I chose to go to school? Sometimes… but usually only when I’m down to living on $18 for two weeks and cursing myself for not going to one of the schools that offered me a free ride; but in the end, I think I chose the right place for me. But did I actually enjoy law school? There were fleeting moments, but for the most part it was a completely soul-crushing experience.
I was fortunate to never have to work very hard to do well in high school and college. I just sort of absorbed everything I needed. I wouldn’t say I did nothing… I did the work that was required of me, but I rarely found it difficult. (Except I just never really got the hang of Abstract Algebra… or Abstract Algebra II for that matter. I still managed to get a B and B+, respectively, though.) School just came very naturally to me. I excelled at standardized testing, which made me eligible to go to schools that may have otherwise been beyond my reach. But until law school, I hardly ever had to study or put in any sort of extra work. I just did what I did and that was enough.
Showing up to law school without ever learning how to study? Yeah, that makes law school incredibly difficult.
I felt like I somehow ended up in this neverland between two types of classmates: those who never learned to study but didn’t need to in order to do well in law school (people whose “absorption” skills were more advanced than mine), and those who had studied and had to work very hard to get excellent grades in college and high scores on their LSATs and were able to carry over that ability to study into law school. And then there was me. Who, quite possibly, still has never gotten the hang of studying. I put so much work into my classes and while I felt like I “got it,” my grades often suggested otherwise. I did well in paper classes and clinics, but I just never “got” how to take a law school exam. I studied so hard for those exams; I studied with friends and explained the concepts to them… and then all my friends would do better than me on the exam. They would thank me for my help, and assume that I did just as well if not better. (In fact, one clinic professor even expressed some disbelief at my average grades, considering the level of actual legal work I was able to turn out even as a student.) But I knew that I hadn’t done well in those classes; I knew that my GPA was in the lower half of the class. For someone who had always been in the top 5% or so, that was devastating. I took being average, or slightly below average as the case sometimes was, as failure.
It’s ridiculous, the way that the top law firms go about hiring new associates. The interviews take place the summer after your first year of law school, when all you’ve taken at that point are the bare bones basics. You haven’t taken any specialized classes; you haven’t had the time to explore what kinds of law you want to practice. Sure, those interviews are just for a summer position after you complete your second year of law school, but I know very few people who were not extended an offer at that point. Your first year grades determine your career path. Simple as that.
Maybe I’m just bitter that I wasn’t chosen for a summer associate position at a big law firm and that’s why I find the whole process insane. But it’s funny… I never wanted to work at a big law firm; it’s just that that is how people determine who in law school is “smart” and who isn’t. “Did you hear so-and-so is going to be working at XYZ firm?” “Wow, really! I had no idea he was so smart!” I had always been one of the smart ones. As dramatic as it sounds, it was as though I had lost part of my identity. Here I was, feeling terrible about myself for not getting a job I didn’t really want.
But, it is insane. I mean, I know many perfectly capable lawyers out there who didn’t get hired by a big firm right after their first year. That first year is a huge adjustment for a lot of people, and the classes you take your first year don’t test your capability as an attorney, but just lay a bare foundation upon which to build your knowledge and skills in the field. The fact that some people may be faster at laying that foundation doesn’t mean that they build a better house. I’m good at what I do. Very good. Only, because I didn’t have the best grades, it took me a long time to see that. Sure, I’d had employers and clinic professors and moot court coaches tell me how impressed they were by me, but all I could think was “yeah, well if I was good at this, I’d be getting As,” or “yeah, well if I was good at this, then a big firm would have hired me and I wouldn’t constantly be looking for employment.”
This field is a tough field to get into. I knew that from the get-go, on some level, but I never realized just how hard until I was going through it. All first year, you worry about getting good grades and finding a summer job. All 1L summer, you worry about whether you are going to get hired by a Big Firm. If you get hired by a Big Firm, the worrying basically stops there (except maybe that last week your 2L summer when you wonder if you’ll get an offer, but yeah… you probably will). If you don’t get hired by a Big Firm, you spend all 2L year applying for jobs for the following summer. You try to get a firm job, because it could turn into an offer and then you can stop there. Or, you go the fellowship or public interest route so you can feel good about and really enjoy the work you do. But those jobs don’t turn into offers. So you take your public interest internship (or, if you’re lucky like me, you find one that pays, albeit $10 and hour which pales in comparison to the $40+ an hour made by your peers at Big Firm). But then you spend all third year scrambling to find employment for after graduation. Cover letters, resumes, interviews, travel. Fellowships, clerkships, big firms, government work. (That $10 an hour you made burns out really fast; note how your friends who made $30K for the summer do not have to spend all of it on heavyweight paper and plane tickets for 15 minute interviews.) Summer rolls around and not only are you worried about the bar exam, but you are still worried about finding employment. You get desperate. You apply to anything and everything.
(Then, if you’re like me, you settle for a job that turns out to consist of working for a complete asshole who overworks and underpays you; abuses employees, co-workers, and opposing counsel; belittles clients and mishandles their money; and is an all-around world-class jerk. So you quit, without anything lined up, and start from square one. Only this time, your school loans have kicked in. Damn did I get lucky falling into my current job so soon after that!)
So yeah, law school and finding a career in this field? Kicks. Your. Ass. It will crush your soul. It will drain every ounce of self-esteem from you. It will make you doubt every move you make for years and years. It will leave you anxious and depressed, stressed beyond belief. And I have found that this doesn’t change once you finally do get that job… it takes time to start to really feel worthwhile again. Basically, what it comes down to is this: if you aren’t sure this is what you want to do, stay the hell away.
But if the law is something that moves you, that calls out to you in a way you’ve never experienced with anything else… go to law school. Getting through it is beyond hell, but the reward of doing something you truly love to do is worth it. Now that I am on the other side, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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5 Comments

Filed under Law School

5 responses to “The Truth About Law School…

  1. Dominique

    Stephanie:
    I don’t really read your blog often, but I came across it on one of those law student blogger websites.
    I couldn’t have put my law school experience any better than the way you just did. I graduated from GULC the year after you did, and I JUST found post-graduate employment. I really appreciate your post today, it made me feel a lot better about my situation which basically mirrors your own.
    I felt like if you went to GULC and talked about these things, you were basically outing yourself as stupid. So I kept all my frustrations bottled up, telling only my poor big firm boyfriend how much law school sucked for me.
    Thanks for being so honest.

  2. You and I were in at the same time. Check out the “Bartleby the Scrivener” category on my blog. I feel like we’re all writing the same sob story.
    It was the worst 3 years of my life but in a bitter way I wear it like a badge of pride and I’m immensely proud of finishing. I both hate and love my profession on the same day. Sometimes I suspect I like saying “I’m a lawyer” more than I like lawyering, but I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life anymore.
    Good grades are not necessarily an avenue into the Big Firms. They all interviewed me, and turned me down. It isn’t lost on me that everyone who made me an offer had never met me in person!!! (am not kidding)
    I feel bone-tired about starting the process over again. I really feel like I lack confidence during the interviews. The one thing I have on my side this time is that I’ve gained really great experience in a specific field-which is limiting in some ways, but also means I have something to talk about rather than “I don’t know what I really want to do for you, anything, pay off student loans…” *trail off*
    I wasn’t THAT bad. But almost.

  3. And yet, I know all of this… and still I am excited to begin it.
    Note: ask me about this in a year!

  4. I’m not worried about you, Kellie. I know you’ve witnessed it all and that you’ve had enough work experience in the area to be confident in deciding it’s what you want to do. So even though it’ll still be hell, I think that already knowing what you are working towards will definitely make things easier for you.

  5. guachin457

    Thanks for your inspiring words. They really meant a lot to me.
    It’s November and I also doubt myself a lot. I know it’s early to be worrying but I already envision that I will be practicing law in my mom’s basement.
    Somehow all those worries disappear when I go to court to intern with my county court judge. I watch attorneys in action and I get a huge thrill out of it. I realize not only that will I be able to do this when I graduate but I am actually excited about doing this, even if I have to struggle years, or decades.
    Even though my classmates laugh at my job, it definitely helps me realize that there is hope for a more interesting life after law school. I think volunteer work and jobs will end up being the only thing that helps me survive law school. I recommend getting away from law school as much as possible to still remain grounded in the real world and be around real people! Right now, I cannot imagine how depressing my life would be without it.