“Remember how you told me to follow my heart? And that you’d support me no matter what? Well, I have something to tell you. I’m dropping out of law school.”
It happens every year around the holidays (if not sooner). Law students drop the bomb on their parents. And then watch them deflate with the news. You see, parents never imagine their children pitching disability claims on midnight cable. Their child will be an Atticus Finch, an exemplar of integrity and compassion who defends human rights. That way, they can beam with pride when they tell old acquaintances, “My son is a lawyer.”
With this news, they’re mumbling, “$40,000 down the drain.” Sure, they may inquire about their baby’s future plans, but the conversation will quickly pivot to, “Maybe you haven’t given it a chance?” Or, “You can’t do much with an English degree.” And who can blame parents? From the outside, the law seems like a stable and respectable profession. And wouldn’t you panic at the prospect of your child moving back home?
For dropouts, there is usually no going back. Their first semester grades for contracts or procedures may not be released, but they know the jig is up. At the surface, they’ll lament how they don’t want to waste their lives protecting criminals and setting up tax shelters. They’ll gripe about their bleak job prospects and six-figure debts. They’ll finger cutthroat classmates and pretentious profs, who are always looking to one-up each other. Of course, they’ll blame “the system,” a catch-all for that archaic curriculum that doesn’t teach them anything relevant and evaluates them strictly on rote memorization.
“I want to have a life,” they’ll sob. “It’s just not worth it.”
Strip away all that noble gloss and here’s why they’re really dropping out. Law school asks them to do more than they’ve ever done before. Their classes are packed with smart people who glided through school on natural talent. But law school has a funny way of humbling those who aren’t truly serious from the start. Law school is predicated on disciplining and teaching yourself. Using trial-and-error, students must differentiate what’s key from what’s tertiary. When it comes to the language, thought processes, and intricacies inherent to law, consider first semester the equivalent to learning a new language and mastering two centuries worth of philosophy. Students can’t cram the night before. And the workload and pace is designed to wear down even the best and brightest.
Often, it is resolve as much as brainpower that determines who makes it.
Still, dropping out is humiliating. These students head to campus with pomp and circumstance. And they return beaten and bewildered. If they attended an elite school – where attrition is almost unheard of – they are a pitiful anomaly. If they enrolled in a lower tier school – where the dropout rate can run from 20%-40% – they’re reminded how those schools that rejected them were right: They really weren’t good enough.
That isn’t to say that law school dropouts will be relegated to earning their Series 6 or running an IHOP. In fact, many leaders in government, entertainment, sports, and business dropped out of law school. They may not have been good enough (or patient or engaged enough, in many cases), but they went on to become celebrated (and often wealthy) difference makers in the processes.
So if you’re thinking of leaving law school – but worried about what people will think – just know there are plenty of second and third acts in life. As these 20 law school dropouts show, there is life beyond case books.
(Go to next page for 20 of the most famous law school dropouts)