Poor 1L Grades? Consider Walking Away. Now.

If you are a 1L, you are probably waiting impatiently for your first semester grades. If they are poor, and you are attending a non-prestige law school, you should seriously consider getting out of a losing game, now.

There is plenty of “hey, you can make a comeback from poor grades” advice out there, all of it worth reading, if you already know that you simply must get a law degree or you will be throwing away your dream of practicing law. If you cannot imagine yourself not becoming a lawyer, keep on stepping up to the plate. And good luck.

A Numbers Game Most People Lose

But maybe you went to law school because you didn’t quite know what else to do, or because you thought it was a path to financial security, or because you loved Legally Blonde, or whatever. Whatever your reasons for being in law school, you might get your grades back and find yourself freaking out. That’s when you should calm down and reassess whether you should continue in law school.

The real question is this: do you want to be a hundred thousand dollars (or more) in debt and not be able to find a law job? Yes, you can give yourself a better shot at it than others. You can hang out a shingle. But do you really want to? As Sam Glover pointed out, way too many new lawyers are doing that when they just don’t have the drive to be successful at it.

Just as 90 out of every 100 of your law school classmates will not be in the top 10 percent of your class, many, many members of your class will not find law jobs. Poor grades at a non-prestige law school make finding a job that much tougher. And your legal education will not get you a shot at many non-law jobs that will pay enough to cover your loans in addition to other expenses. That’s just a fact—you will be “underqualified” for law jobs because of your grades and school, but a law degree isn’t really worth much to employers not looking to hire a lawyer. Most potential employers will suspect that if they do hire you, you will always be looking for a law job.

Smart Law Students Do the Math

Yes, you worked hard first semester. You don’t want to disappoint your family or significant other. Yes, grades don’t measure the ability to be a good lawyer. Yes, lots of successful lawyers didn’t get top grades. And, yes, if you decide to walk away now you will be in the hole for a semester of tuition, room, board, etc. That’s a lot better than being in the hole for a six figure sum that is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. A debt that large that you cannot (or struggle desperately to) pay off can cripple your financial future and make it impossible for you to buy a home, raise a family, or even retire some day. Call it the the dark side of the power of compounding interest.

The toughest question is about your level of commitment to doing work that only lawyers can do. Here’s part of a very wise comment from Eric Cooperstein in response to Randall Ryder’s post on overcoming poor grades:

I don’t think someone has to “hate” law school to decide to stop going. The day-to-day practice of law may not bear very much resemblance to law school, but if you find you don’t enjoy reading cases, picking them apart, or writing about them, then you really have to think about whether you have sufficient passion about the law to overcome the struggle of earning an income sufficient to repay the $100k+ in debt that you’ve incurred.

So seriously consider withdrawing from school. Check with your school—the law school I attended allows withdrawal “without notation on record or financial penalty” until January 30. Your school might not send out grades until it’s too late for penalty-free withdrawal.

Even if all you’ve learned in law school so far is that you hate studying law, that’s a positive, if you realize that you don’t want to continue. (This may be true even if you got good grades.) Leave school. Go pursue something you love. But start thinking about this, now. Before it’s too late.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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  • Seth D. Schraier

    This article is right on the money in some regards, but I disagree with the overall message.

    I graduated from a Tier 3 law school, and my first semester grades put me in the bottom 30%of my class. I started at a small firm right out of law school, but left to move back down to New York City. For a long time I couldn’t land a job in a law school, and wound up bartending full time at Cipriani Wall Street. The whole time I was bartending I would apply to lawyer job postings without any luck. And so, partially due to necessity but also because I still ultimately wanted to be a practicing lawyer, I opened my own firm.

    Since doing so, I have discovered how rewarding it is, and ultimately how much easier it is than I originally imagined to run my own firm. To put things in perspective, when I first joined Lawyerist and the LAB, back in August, I had one client and was still bartending full time. And now? I have more than 25 retained clients, and had so many clients by October I was able to quit bartending. That’s a 25x increase in clients in 4 months.

    I think that the the article is correct in that if a law student doesn’t really have any drive to be a lawyer, then yes, this is the time to get out. But if you do want to be a lawyer, poor first semester grades from a lower tiered school doesn’t mean a death sentence for being a lawyer, especially if you have the interpersonal skills to be able to market yourself. Heck, if I had done better that first semester, who I might be at a big firm now, completely miserable. And that time spent bartending helped to improve those interpersonal skills.

    My point ultimately is this : even if law school is miserable, and you do poorly in terms of your grades, if you do have that drive to be a lawyer, you WILL be a lawyer, and may very well be happy doing it too.

    • JohnAllison

      Seth,

      You are right on the money!

      Go to school if you want to be a lawyer. If you want to be a good lawyer, focus on the skills that will make you a good lawyer. Those don’t necessarily translate into good grades, but so what? Focus on building the skills and making the contacts during your three years of school. Those things will serve you better than a single minute sitting in a classroom. The skills transcend grades and silly law school competition. You will thrive regardless of whether or not employers are hiring.

      If your reason for going to law school is anything but being a lawyer, leave, right now, seriously. Don’t wait for grades to come in. $15k plus living expenses is cheap!

      I love being a lawyer!

  • Both points are great. I entered law school to find a way to put my poli sci/German degree to use and discoved first semester that my lazy habit of not laying out a step-by-step process to my thinking meant that my grades fell below what was required to keep my scholarship. If I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed my classes first semester, I should have considered leaving. However, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer once I got the taste of it. Luckily, my professors were very approachable and spent time with me going over my exams. My contracts professor gave me the best advice: don’t write like you’re talking to a legal expert, write like you’re explaining legal estoppel to your grandmother. That time spent going over my old grades paid off the second time around and I was able to pull up my grades enough to get my scholarship back and eventually graduate with honors. However, if you haven’t discovered a passion for the law and you have no plan on how to change your approach to exams that will pull you out of your hole, cut your losses.

  • I think this post should be called “if you don’t like law school or don’t want to practice law, then drop out.” Some of the people I went to law school with that got the worst grades have had the most success in finding jobs and practicing law. Grades don’t measure your ability to network, your drive, or your passion for practicing law.

    I don’t think there is nearly enough discussion in this post about other factors to consider, besides grades, if you are contemplating dropping out.

    • JohnAllison

      Randall,

      I think this leads into the ongoing discussion about what law schools are supposed to do. I contend there is plenty of work out there for the number of lawyers, even new ones, in the market, but the broader skills of being a lawyer are not taught on a wide enough scale in law schools.

      I would just love to see a class on the basics. Bring me a divorce packet, a will, a small claim, consumer law suit, a personal injury suit, a bankruptcy, an adoption, child custody petition. If I had to do three of each of those, in law school I think I would have a much better understanding of what it is to be an attorney and could file their first case the day they are sworn in.

      • Absolutely. I have written multiple posts on Lawyerist on the importance of acquiring practical experience during law school. Most schools offer at least clinics, if not skills-based classes. That said, until those classes are required, students need to take the initiative to acquire those skills.

  • Seth D. Schraier

    I think that the better time to truly reevaluate whether law school is for you, even though more expensive and time consuming than dropping out after your first semester, is after your 2L fall semester. By that time, you should have had the opportunity to work in a real law practice environment dealing with real cases. Whether it was an unpaid internship your first summer in some government office or in a clinical internship or externship, you should have been able to work in at least 2 different law practice environments as a law clerk, instead of just reading how hundred year old cases. Now, if after working in a law environment you still are unsure whether the practice of law is for you, then perhaps now is the best time to cut your losses.

    In contrast to the OP, I hated almost every aspect of my first year of law school. Much of it had to do with the specific subjects and case topics covered in your first year of law school. I got very little enjoyment reading hours of case law on contracts or property law. But a funny thing happened once I started working in a real world environment: I actually enjoyed reading those cases and doing the work! When you know that your research and effort is being utilized for real cases with real people, your entire attitude changes. I had no problem sitting and reading hours of cases for my internship, because at the end of the day, my work was going to serve a purpose, as opposed to reading cases for the purpose of having to regurgitate all the information on a final exam, and nothing more.

    Do you know why the saying goes “Your third year they bore you to death”? Because by that time, you want to be done with law school already and practicing law. Who wants to continue to sit and read hours of cases so you can show you know how to remember rules a few months after learning them, when there are cases out there that you can be working on?

    No, the best time to decide if you should be spending more time and money on law school is once you have had the time to actually work as a law clerk somewhere.

  • Thank you, Andy, for a provocative post. As always, of course, the appropriate response to the issues posed here are “it depends.”

    As a former career services person, I always hoped that students had done at least some minimal exploration of what lawyers actually do all day, however I have met hundreds of law students who never talked to a lawyer before enrolling. They might have benefited from considering:

    1. If a life of reading, writing, talking on the phone, and going to meetings to work on issues that may not be really important to you personally doesn’t seem like a good way to spend your life, look elsewhere.
    2. If you don’t care where the comma goes, look elsewhere. No client or malpractice insurer will want to hear “Gee, I wasn’t clear whether the statute said week days or calendar days, and I’m sorry that I’ve missed the deadline and permanently torpedoed your claim.”

    It would be grand if every law student knew that he or she really wanted to be a lawyer, but decisions made at age 23 often don’t control the lives of 30 year olds. Questions to address: Why did you decide to go to law school? How did you make the decision? When, if at all, if you decided to become a lawyer?

    To leave or not to leave? A tough question that should be addressed calmly, with advice from people who know and love you, and others who know and understand the legal market and what it means to be a lawyer. If the idea of $$$DEBT$$$$ keeps you up at night and gives you the shiverin’ fits, try to take it out of the equation for just a minute while considering all of the other aspects of the possibility of becoming a lawyer.

  • Kevin

    I somewhat agree with this post, but I think it undervalues the benefits of a legal education beyond just getting a JD. I went to law school for the wrong reasons, I’ll readily admit. I thought it would be the path to prosperity. By the end of 2L year I was thoroughly convinced of two things: I absolutely did not want to be a lawyer in a firm with more than a few lawyers, and I seriously doubted whether I wanted to practice at all; second, law school was absolutely the right choice for me. I got my license then shelved it (sorta), and I have since launched a nonprofit that aims to change how small businesses get financing, and I could not do that without my legal training. I would not have known the first thing about navigating the securities laws. Now I do. My legal education gave me the keys to our system of laws and government, taught me how to really think and analyse non-technical issues, and taught me how to navigate just about any problem as the law permeates almost everything to some extent. My legal education also helped me bridge the “geek gap” between the technical world I inhabited before and after undergrad and the “real world” of people that even geeks inhabit.

    I finished law school in the top 10% at a poorly-ranked 2T, and I can tell you that being in the top 10% means jack squat. I could trade 40 percentage points of my class rank in exchange for a latte and be in the same position I am in now. Many with worse grades than I have wound up at good firms with nice salaries, and it was because of what they did and how they did it, not their grades.

    So, my two cents: law school is mostly about getting the credentials to eventually become a lawyer. But law school is also about teaching you how things work; how to solve problems; how to find answers or find that there are no answers; how to maneuver in governments of any size; and where to find the tools so that you can tinker with the future, to make a better future for you and those around you, yourself. So, if you got lousy grades, and you really want to be a lawyer, then work your butt off, get bona fide legal work during the school year (even if unpaid), get legal work during the summer and fight to be relevant at your workplace, and you will have made huge progress in rendering your poor grades irrelevant.

    P.S. Law Review should be irrelevant, but it’s not.

  • Ronique Breaux jordan

    I wish I could give up the idea (s) of law and finance…I love the fields! The challenge of the combination makes the learning of and potential of passing on mom’s profession to one of my sons a reason to continue…learning the tech savvy ways of getting through cases..the early mornings, the web and podcasts..etc.

    Bring…it…on…

  • Andrew T. Dawson

    I have to say that poor grades alone should not be the lynch pin of whether or not law school is for you. My first semester grades were horrible. I felt like nobody understood me. Then I started taking the practical courses, and by the third year I was a student attorney at our clinic and performing an independent study on small firm management. In short my last year of law school looked nothing like first semester of 1L year. And I am thankful for that. However, if I had given up because of my grades, I wouldn’t be where I am now, struggling to get a solo practice off the ground (but on my own terms). I can see why someone would walk away from law school if their only goal is to get into one of these high profile firms that thinks grades are important. Me, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I walked in the door, so a bad grade on a Con Law test wasn’t going to throw me off track. I understand the point of this post, but there is another side: don’t let these academics who’ve never practiced law trick you into thinking you don’t have what it takes.

  • Lisa Espada

    What this post is really about is: who gets law firm jobs, particularly medium to large firm associate jobs. (high-paying jobs) Small firms, public interest and government jobs often go to applicants who have particular backgrounds or skills. It may be true that the supply exceeds the demand in a lot of areas, but I don’t think that someone who wants to be a lawyer should quit if they had a tough first year. One just needs to be realistic about the likelihood of getting a big firm job and making big bucks right out of school.

    • To Andy’s point, in this economy it doesn’t make sense for any lawyer or law firm to consider hiring someone from the bottom half of the class. You can get hundreds of applications for a free internship. Advertise a low-paying associate position for new graduates, and see what you get. You’d be silly not to start by considering the students who graduated with honors from a top law school.

  • My advice in this post is not, “quit if you have bad grades.” It is, “if you are unsure you are really into this whole lawyer thing, AND your grades stink, you should consider getting out now before you dig yourself in any deeper.” I also encourage those who are genuinely DRIVEN to work in the law to keep going.
    Also, grades matter, a lot, even outside BigLaw. Many government agencies, small law firms, and businesses look for applicants with good grades, and in this legal job market, they find them.

    • Andy,
      I would agree that grades matter within the first couple of years after law school, but honestly, once you get past the 3 – 5 year mark, I find that most employers care more about your experience than what your grades were in law school. That said, obviously your grades play a big part in what kind of experience or if you get any experience at all in those first few years after law school. But there are still ways around that if your grades were pretty bad from law school. For example, because of the state of the job market by January 2009, and only having about a year of post-grad law experience under my belt, I spent about a 8 months working as a pro-bono Assistant District Attorney in the King’s County District Attorney’s Office. Because it was unpaid (and I was basically living off of unemployment and my tax refund), at no point during my interview did they ask about my grades or want to see a transcript. By the time I left, I had real trial experience under my belt as an attorney without any of it depending on my grades from law school.

      And do you know the one job as an attorney where your law school grades have no bearing at all? Working as a solo practitioner. Clients don’t ask what your law school grades are. The only inquiry into my past that any client has made during a consultation has been the number of years or number of cases I have worked in the area of practice they need my services, whether it’s divorce, bankruptcy, or criminal defense. And I have to say, that the one thing that always impresses my clients when I go into my background, is when I tell them I worked as a prosecutor, even though it was unpaid, and only for 8 months.

      One more thing Andy; as I said in one of my posts above, I think that even if a 1L is not totally sure about whether they want to be a lawyer, the better determining factor is how they feel after they’ve worked for a bit in a real law office setting after their first year. Trust me, I had my doubts after my first year, given how much I hated my first year and my resulting grades. But after working on real cases, I knew for sure that I wanted to be an attorney.

  • While grades and a prestige school may give you an initial advantage, it’s more about creating your own opportunities, a drive to work hard and having good organization and social skills. Bottom line, as others posted, if you have the desire and interest to be a lawyer, stick with it. I hated the entire first year of law school and thought I made a mistake, but I stuck with it and now, 17 years out of law school, I enjoy being a lawyer every day. It’s hard, it has ups and downs, but I am glad I did what I did. Be attuned to what you really want and go for it.