My Decision to Leave Law School
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. -Oscar Wilde
Although admittedly this section does not pertain to the rest of the site, I do not have a personal webpage at the moment and I thought I would use a small bit of space here to describe a very tumultuous time in my life. Hopefully, this page will be scanned by popular search engines and other students who may be struggling will find it. Ever since I was 14, I dreamed of going to law school. From eighth grade on, I was active in speech, debate, and drama and I believed my love of public speaking would make a great asset in law school. At that point, I was definitely the argumentative type; I loved debating and won plenty of trophies for it. After I got into college, my resolution only grew stronger. But about the time I turned 20, I calmed down a bit. All those surging teenage hormones that had fueled my combative nature were subsiding. Sure, I still loved a good rough-and-tumble class discussion, but my desire to bicker with anyone who'd listen was gone. Enter my senior year. I had a difficult time and some of the expectations I had were obliterated. I thought my senior year of college would be great-- lots of fun, lots of good memories, lots of laughs-- you get the picture. Unfortunately, I had a tough run and faced criticism I believed to be patently unfair (mostly over my senior thesis). Yet again, this only strengthened my resolve to go to law school and show any and every naysayer I was going to be a brilliant legal mind who would set the world on fire with positive changes. I'd made a decent score on the LSAT, which surprised me because I am generally horrible with standardized tests. I was admitted to and offered scholarships by several fantastic universities. The school I ultimately chose was one I thought to be perfect for me: it had dozens of opportunities and it did not require me to pack up and move halfway across the country. I toured the school and found it to have very impressive features and resources. I signed on the dotted line, took out a loan, bought my books, and I was raring to go.
I finished my BA in July and started law school in August-- that was one of my biggest mistakes. I had only a fleeting break between two major milestones and believe me, I felt it. What I also felt was another shift in my hormones. I found myself becoming more mellow and feeling a true desire to have spiritual introspection. I was sick of walking around like the typical Ben Stiller film character: forever pissed off and hostile about everything. Moreover, I had enough bile floating around in my body about how poorly my senior year had played out that I probably could've burned a hole through my liver in no time flat. Sound like an exaggeration? Trust me, it's not. I talked to my favorite professor at the law school about how I'd been treated and he was the one person on Earth able to get through to me. His way of saying, "You have to get over this" allowed me to do just that. At the same time, I'd been reading through a couple of basic books about Buddhism. (I know, I know, law school does not afford one any occasion for leisure reading, but damn it, I made time.) I found the message soothing and the notion of mindfulness helped me a great deal. I started to become cognizant of my feelings and reactions-- and it surprised the hell out of me. When law school initially commenced, we had to sit through a full week of orientation classes. I know other universities have orientations that last a day or two, but ours lasted a full week. I remember looking at my school's calendar for August and noticing quite a disparity: the law students had to attend this week-long orientation while the graduate students only had to sit through a two-hour lecture one Friday afternoon. I recall joking to myself, "And I picked law school why?" But I was still buying and selling the image of law school. I was razzled and dazzled by all the freebies: free wine-and-dine, free food, free lectures, free ego adulation, free mugs, free stickers, free notebooks, free dayplanners, free "your product's name here" everything. Never mind the fact that tuition was an ungodly amount (think $800 per credit hour and you have 16 of those your first semester) and thus we should be receiving plenty of souvenirs, I was bewitched by it all.
After the first few weeks of school, my major fears were gone. For people who have not had the experience, it is impossible for me to adequately convey what a law class is like. You have probably heard of the Socratic method before and maybe you had a modified version of it in undergrad. But in law school, it can be one of the most terrifying events. You are sitting there, nervous and fearful, when suddenly the professor calls your name and asks you to recite your case brief or s/he asks you to work through a hypothetical* in front of the whole class (maybe as small as 20 people, maybe as large as 100). Some professors may call on students one after another by seating positions while others will use the true element of surprise and call on students at random. In any event, you always have to be prepared for class. Anyway, after the first few weeks, I had been called on in every class and fared well if I do say so myself. I was faster at briefing cases** and I felt like I was working more efficiently even though the work hours were still long and tedious. More distressing though was that I did not enjoy my studies. I was bored to tears and I wondered if I would ever be willing to actually go out in the world and practice law. After all, why get a JD and take a grueling bar exam if you never want to be a lawyer? Compounding my unhappiness was the dearth of friendship. Not everyone had this particular problem but I seemed to be persona non grata everywhere I went. Everyone had formed cliques and they weren't looking for a new member. Once we moved beyond the third week or so, my attempts at socializing with classmates outside of school failed miserably. Again, I know it sounds that I am exaggerating, but I had no friends. I was extremely lonely and I felt like an outcast. To give a brief example, I was meeting one of my oldest and dearest friends for a drink. He suggested I invite some people from the law school. I called twelve people; not one of them showed up and not one of them ever called to at least say, "Thanks for inviting me but I can't go." Perhaps that was for the better because the occasions at the beginning of the semester when I did go out with classmates were painful. These people were rude to everyone in the restaurant from the waiters and waitresses to the bartender and the other patrons. I loathe going out with snooty, disrespectful loudmouths so I chose to spend what little free time I had with my non-law school friends.
Loneliness and isolation are bad enough but writing pieces you feel are soulless and wrong is something else altogether. No offense meant to anyone but I hated legal research and writing. In fact if a word beyond "hate" existed, it would be applicable here. Legal research is dull, time-consuming, and terribly monotonous. The images you see on TV or in movies of lawyers buried under piles of books is true; the images you see of lawyers having a ball in libraries and uncovering cases in powerful "Eureka!" moments are dubious at best. Research often consists of combing through book after book and this is no simple process. During our research classes, we were taught many different ways to find relevant case law because you never know ahead of time what resource might yield the best returns. During my high school and college years, I found that I study and prepare work the best when I am at home. I turn off all electronic distractions, spread my books and notes out, and devise a plan of action from there. The vast majority of my peers, however, preferred to study in the law library. Whether they needed resources from the library or not, they would rent a study carrel and stay there from 7 or 8 in the morning until 6 or 7 in the evening. (The night owls would close the library down, staying there until midnight or 1am.) I could not do this. The library made me uncomfortable and I had a hard time focusing. I finally found a niche upstairs, out of the way, and by a decent-sized window. The romance was short-lived because I spent too much of my time peering out wondering what I was doing in a situation I detested. Back to the process: legal writing is not my preferred style. I have a BA in liberal arts. I studied things like English, art history, humanities, philosophy, and literature. When I sit down to write a paper, I take the process very seriously and I am passionate about leaving a part of myself in all of my work. I could never be a speechwriter for the president for that reason-- I want my work to be credited to me and to reflect me-- not someone else and not a system. But writing is a system in law school and one I couldn't handle. That writing is all about breaking things down into a formula (or a paradigm if you want to be fancy) and making your analysis of an issue comport with said formula. You write plenty of case briefs and plenty of memos. If you hate them, you'd better rethink law because during your first few years of employment at a law firm, you'll be writing loads of legal memos for the senior attorneys. And filing briefs with courts will likely be a staple of your career as well if you plan to do trial law. The goal is not to compose the next Candide, the goal is to draft a "your-name-is-unimportant" product from which a colleague can prepare his course of action. Thanks but no thanks. I'll take research papers, reaction papers, essay tests, and thesis writing over that method any day.
What was the final nail in my law coffin? A couple of days before Halloween, I had a headache I couldn't get rid of and I was completely lethargic. The first day of November, I woke up feeling as though I'd been hit by a truck and then run over by a slow-moving train. I was bed-bound for two weeks on doctor's orders. I caught a hellish strain of the flu and it wiped me out. Everything ached, I had a high fever, nausea, upset stomach, dizziness, typical flu anguish. I missed my classes and though I tried to keep up with my reading, it's impossible to fully comprehend case law when you're battling a 103 degree fever and you barely know your own name. I found myself reading the same sentence twenty times and I decided to throw in the towel. After I came back to school still weak and pale, I realized how miserable I was and how my joie de vivre was gone. A couple of my professors commented on how peaked I looked and, whether I realized it or not, I was just waiting for something to push me off the edge. It didn't take long. I was resistant to doing my homework and I felt swamped. There was no way I could catch up on my readings from my absence and I was handed back one of the writing assignments I'd turned in earlier. I worked as hard as I could on it and firmly believed I would earn an A or a B. Wrong. I made one of the lowest grades in the class, barely passing. Sure, the professor said my arguments were good but I hadn't stayed with the paradigm. Then I read the handout he gave us with exemplary memos in it. I cannot express to you my shock. The writing quality was horrible. A number of basic spelling and grammar mistakes had been made and in terms of style, well, there was no style. So articulateness and panache mattered not-- it was all about selling one's soul to the formula and I'm not going to play Faust to legal writing Mephistopheles. I took some time to think about what I should do and to be as sure as possible that leaving law school was right. I concluded that it was. I can't say that it would be the best thing for anyone else in similar circumstances, but for me it was. As soon as I withdrew I felt better. The color started to come back to my face. My energy level (slowly) started to return. My will to get up and face the day returned. When I slept it was quality rest, not a collapse from sheer exhaustion. I don't find myself waking at all hours of the night, paranoid I will oversleep and miss school. My life is getting back to normal and I am recovering not only from the illness but from the entire law school debacle. I wish nothing but the best for those still hanging in there and nothing but the best for those like me who choose a different path.
*FYI, law school is full of hypotheticals. You will take exams with hypothetical fact patterns, your textbooks will have notes with hypos in them, your professors will ask you to work hypos in front of the class on the spot with no warning whatsoever, you will have to write legal memos and conduct legal research based on hypos. In other words, if you don't like working with fact patterns that have no direct bearing on your life (or anyone else's for that matter) at the time, reconsider going to law school.
**Again, if you've not had the experience, briefing cases is another thing you will do ad nauseam in law school. You read a case and identify aspects like the facts, the procedural history, the issue(s), the applicable rules of law, the contentions of the parties, the application of the law/holding of the court, and the conclusion. Sound like fun? After doing this for almost an entire semester, I was ready to poke my own eyes out.
If you find yourself having a similar experience and would like to contact me via this website, please feel free.