Deciphering Your Doubts

Is the law your calling? Here are some tips for deciding if you’re on the right career path.

Student Lawyer
American Bar Association
December 2010

By G.M. Filisko

Many law students experience that moment when they think: “How did I get here? Is law school really for me?” If these thoughts have crossed your mind, it would be good to evaluate whether you are just frustrated or finally vocalizing true feelings about law school.

How can you sort through such complicated questions? Are there people who can help? If you decide law school is not for you, how can you walk away with your head held high? Here, we offer tips to help you decipher whether your doubts are simply a reaction to the common stresses of law school or signs the law may not be right for you.

Find your true calling
“For most people, the first year of law school is not a vacation on the beach,” says Steven Roy Goodman, a lawyer, educational consultant, career planner, and founder of Top Colleges in Washington, D.C. “Law school is hard, and it causes a little bit of pain in the short run. The question is how much pain is OK.”

Doubts bubble up in different ways and in response to different triggers. “It usually comes up in one of two contexts,” says Tracy McGaugh, a professor at Touro College-Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in Central Islip, New York, who has been an academic advisor and served on the admissions committee at two law schools. “It is not unusual for a lot of students to question the decision to be in law school – but not to really struggle with it. The ones who rally struggle with it do so because they are either having an emotional or an academic issue.”

These issues may trigger the fear of failure. “There are two points at which it usually arises – at the beginning of the second semester when students get grades and in the fall of their second year after the first round of on-campus interviewing,” says Mina Jones Jefferson, assistant dean and director of the Center for Professional Development at the University of Cincinnati College of Law in Ohio. “Usually law students are highly accomplished people used to doing well. Once they are ranked, they may not know how to manage that feedback. Or all of a sudden, based on on-campus interviews, students assume they will never get a job and maybe they should not have gone to law school. Part of it is probably also fear. They think, ‘I am a fraud. I knew I was no good.'”

If you have doubts, start by recalling why you chose to go to law school. “Many, many law students did not use the right process when they decided to go to law school,” says Deborah Schneider, a San Francisco-based career strategist and author of Should You Really Be a Lawyer? The Guide to Smart Career Choices Before, During, and After Law School. “You have to ask whether you had the right information and the right reasons to go to law school, or did you go in with zero information about what law school or the practice of law was or what area of the law you wanted to practice in?”

Be honest. If you went to law school to make a financial killing or because you were pushed by someone else, these reasons may not be enough. “The only motivation I think is not appropriate to go to law school is to make a lot of money,” says McGaugh. “It is too much psychological pressure and too much of a life and personal change just for money. Those students will probably find themselves in trouble pretty early. The other students who run into trouble are those who came to law school because someone else wanted them to. Those reasons will never be motivation enough. If you do not want to practice law in your core, law school is just too high a price to pay.”

Also think about what you love doing and whether the law meshes with these passions. “Look inside and think about what you enjoy doing,” says Stephen Seckler, president of Seckler Legal Coaching, a marketing consultancy in Newton, Massachusetts. “Speak with practicing lawyers about how they spend their time, and do a reality check of what it might be like to become a lawyer so you are not trying to make the decision based on the fact that you are not having a great time in law school. Sometimes people who do not have a great time in law school end up having successful legal careers.”

Gain valuable experience and follow your passion
Johanna Erin Jacobson had doubts. But she completed her law degree and practiced for two years before leaving to pursue her passion – photography.

“I had been told my whole life I would make a great lawyer,” says the owner and principal photographer at Ambientimage in Los Angeles. “I was convinced it was the career for me.”

About four months into law school, Jacobson began to question this decision in part because she felt her arbitrator-like personality did not suit the ultra-competitive atmosphere of law school. “It is hard to put my finger on it, but you just feel like you are being taken down a path that is further and further from what you thought it would be,” she recalls. “It was also hard not having any idea how you were doing. It was very shocking to get my grades back and find I was at the top of my class. I thought for sure I was at the bottom.”

Jacobson began to explore her options. She studied abroad in the Netherlands and then landed an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. She eventually graduated and practiced law for two years. “I worked at a fantastic firm, loved and respected the people, and the work we did was quite interesting – and it still was not what I expected or wanted,” says Jacobson. “I thought, ‘If I already have it good and it is not what I thought it was, it is not going to change drastically.”

Get advice and test the waters
If you are having doubts, seek advice from administrators. “At every law school, students can go to the dean of students,” says McGaugh. “If you say, ‘I am really struggling and do not know if I should be here,’ the dean will have ideas about a strategy to get through the semester or leave in a way that does not jeopardize your future. The dean also almost always knows of psychotherapists who specialize in dealing with law students or lawyers.”

Be careful, however, about who you consult. “You may create confirmation bias, in which you seek information that confirms only what you want to hear,” says Schneider. “When I was struggling, I talked only to administrators and attorneys who said, ‘Stay in; it is a good degree to have.’ It is more important to talk to lawyers in all practice areas and professionals in other careers that might interest you.”

If you are questioning law school because you are struggling academically, Jefferson advocates working within the profession. “I am a big proponent of doing something law-related your first summer,” she says. “That may begin to reinforce the reason you have gone to law school. You can also see that you did learn something despite what your grades suggest. It does self-esteem a world of good to see that the practice of law is very different from law school.”

Jacobson also thinks off-campus work can help clarify your interests – even if it is not legal work. “If there is something else you are really struggling with, as I was with photography, do that in the summer to get an idea of what it is really about,” she suggests.

Also consider whether you are turned off by the first-year drill of core courses. “When you get into more electives and the ability to do clinical and other work, sometimes students enjoy law school more,” says Seckler. “It is like singing lessons. It is a lot more fun to perform than to practice your singing skills. But you do not get on stage unless your practice.”

Finally, consider whether you are unhappy because you do not gel with your fellow students. “Law school can be very cliquish – just like high school,” contends Alexis Moore, a law student in Sacramento, California. “I found my fellow students did not want to share notes or information for fear that someone would get better grades.”

If your research still leaves you unsure, think back to the question of whether you are experiencing short-term or deep, long-standing pain. “If the problem is that you are sleep deprived and questioning your ability, you might want to hang in there because everybody is,” says McGaugh. “That does not mean law school is not for you. There will be natural highs and lows, particularly in your first year. If they can ride those out, the vast majority of students will be fine. To me, it crosses the line when it starts to jeopardize your physical or mental health.”

Avoid common decision mistakes
As you work though your decision, beware what Schneider says is flawed decision-making. “I struggled with the decision to stay in law school every day,” she explains. “I stayed for a bunch of bad reasons, which was a result of a flawed decision-making process. One of bad reasons was that I did not want to look like a quitter or a failure. Another was that I did not know what I would do if I dropped out. I also thought that since I had already invested one semester or one year in law school, I might as well stick it out. In my case, those were not the right reasons, and I did not bother exploring those reasons and other things that were better for me.”

Schneider explains the flaws students can encounter in the decision-making process:

The sunk-cost fallacy — “This is the idea that you have already sunk the money into one semester or one year of law school,” she says. “But you are not going to get that semester or year back by sinking two more years into something that is not right for you.”

Decision paralysis — “This is when you are faced with a lot of choices and become paralyzed into making no choice at all,” says Schneider. “So you stay in law school by default.”

Regret aversion — “This is the fear of regretting the decision of dropping out,” says Schneider. “It is important to look at your reasoning for dropping out.”

Should money factor into your decision? Yes and no. Martha Sortland, who left law school in 2009 just three weeks into her first semester at the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis, dropped out quickly in part to avoid incurring more debt for something to which she was not committed.

Others, however, downplay its importance. “The JD is such a versatile degree that I hesitate to say it is always worth the cost to everyone, but it is a valuable degree to have,” says McGaugh. “I graduated in 1994 and still write student loans checks every month. I consider that the cost of having the life I have, and I would not trade it. When students say, ‘What about the crushing debt?’ I tell them that it is absolutely a consideration and you have to decide whether the cost will be offset by what you are going to get in return for it.

“I have never talked to a student who was thinking about leaving because of the cost,” adds McGaugh. “That seems to be a secondary concern. The bigger concerns seem to be, ‘Can I handle it psychologically, and is it really what I want to do with my life?’ Then students will throw in as an afterthought, ‘And it is a lot of money to spend if I am not sure.'”

At least one factor in your decision should be how leaving school will affect your ability to return if you later realize the law is your true calling. “If they are not jeopardizing their mental health, I always encourage students to at least finish a semester and see how they feel then,” says McGaugh. “It becomes a pretty serious issue when students are about to do something that will foreclose their opportunity to get a legal education in the future.”

Sometimes it’s time to go
The business world is flush with successful people who chucked law school or the practice of the law. Some realized right away law school was not a good fit. Others came to that conclusion over time and completed their law degree anyway. Despite the turmoil they faced, most are glad they took the time to work through their doubts and are now pursuing fulfilling careers.

“While it was a tough process,” says Sortland, associate director of marketing and communications for YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, “it was also one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

Sortland admits to applying to law school because she did not know what else to do. “My father is a successful lawyer, and I knew deep down I did not have the necessary passion,” she explains. “But I kept going through the application process because it felt good to have the security of school in a tough economy.”

Second thoughts arose swiftly. “I knew within the first few days I had made the wrong choice,” Sortland recalls. “I knew it more than just the typical anxiety and stress, yet a lot of people told me, ‘This is normal; everyone goes through it.’ But I knew that gut feeling. It was a realization that I had not been honest with myself.”

What followed were an agonizing few weeks in which Sortland saw a counselor and a psychiatrist, who gave her sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs and chalked up her concerns to stress. The turning point came when an assistant dean suggested that Sortland consult the school’s career counselor. “I thought, ‘Fine. I will talk to him and then do what I feel is right,'” she recalls. “But he was so nonjudgmental. He had me do a Myers-Briggs personality test, which basically confirmed I was not cut out for the legal world. It was a really great affirmation that, ‘I am not crazy. I just really do not belong here.'”

Leave without closing doors
“Sometimes it is better to withdraw or take a leave of absence before you have taken exams or done something that makes it harder if you want to go back,” McGaugh says. “At least leave in a way that preserves your ability to come back or pursue another field of study. Once you have a slate of Fs on your exams, it will be harder to get into another graduate program or return to law school.”

Finally, most people advise against getting too hung up on the F word – failure. “Sometimes, you have to know when to quit,” says Sortland. “It takes a lot of courage and strength to know when to throw in the towel. It is not a cowardly decision when you are looking out for your best interests. I am still proud of my LSAT scores and the law school I got into, but, hey, whatever, it did not work out.”

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