For those of you who took a peek at your grades and realized you are a stellar law student...just go away…you don’t need to read this. But if your grades were not so stellar, stay tuned.
You’re probably feeling pretty bad about yourself and about your whole law school experience right now. Please know up front that we feel for you and wish that everyone could be in the top echelons of their class. But that isn’t how it works. Before you give up and decide to quit, though, you need to sit down with yourself and have a good talk. You have a few factors you need to consider before you make that big decision:
- Everyone’s a Scholar. For possibly the first time in your life, you’re competing against people who are actually as smart as you. If you’ve made it to law school you were not the skateboarding dude who never showed up for classes during your undergrad. It’s more difficult to shine in a class full of overachievers. You may have to step up your game. Are you willing to do this?
- It’s Not a Level Playing Field. If you’re the first person in your family to attend law school you’re still in the learning curve. You have to learn the jargon, how to think like a lawyer, and how to write like one. If you were fabulous at geometric theorems, you can probably convert that knowledge to lawyerly writing. If you were a lit major, you probably want to find someone who can help you adjust your writing and thinking. Good legal writing does not feel like good writing to a lot of Liberal Arts majors. Those lucky enough to come from lawyerly families have been using the lingo and been regaled with stories from law school since their birth; additionally they probably got help on their law school homework. It may take you the next semester to catch up with those who had advantage; but don’t expect to really catch up to everyone. If you can live with this – you’re probably okay to stay.
- Money Matters. You walked into law school with your clothes on your back, a decent scholarship, and a hefty student loan. Your savings account was small or practically non-existent. Don’t assume your more successful classmates are in the same boat. Many of those with financial advantage will surpass you grade-wise because their largess will allow them to afford study aids that will leave you forever in the dust. For starters, they could afford that prep class that raised their LSAT score. Now they are using their resources to purchase hornbooks, E & E books, and other review materials that you can’t afford. These resources let them skate ahead of you. This means you have a more difficult time studying on the level that they have at their fingertips. Of course, this results in them walking away with the CALI. Of course, you need to learn to live with this and hope you’re successful enough to provide this advantage to your own kids should you choose to continue on your path.
- Your Personal Sh*$ Gets In the Way. If you suffer from anxiety, chaotic family, high maintenance partners, poor health, or simple procrastination - the insanity that is called finals will be your nemesis. If you can’t get this under control, you may want to take a semester off and get whatever it is that’s out of control under control. Or quit. You can pick up some other type of graduate school that doesn’t require you to march on under a similar deluge of requirements.
Hopefully, this list of what can (and often) goes wrong in law school will help you to quit hating yourself so you can move on to the very important task of figuring out your next step.
With the new semester looming and your low grades at your back, you have two basic options, both of which take you on vastly divergent (yet perfectly acceptable) paths. You can; 1) figure it out, tough it out, get back out there and take some names or 2) cut your losses and leave. If you talk to anyone about your predicament at the school they will almost certainly tell you to tough it out and something along the lines of “We don’t admit anyone who doesn’t have the ability to do this.” While that is very kind and somewhat reassuring, staying may not actually be in your best interest. So how do you decide? Before you do anything there are a few steps you should take:
- Talk to all professors who gave you low grades (anything below a B: including a B-). You don’t really know what garnered the bad grade until you ask the person who gave it to you. Many students truly understand the subject matter but had problems with the required format. Subject matter brilliance can still earn you a low grade if you can’t adhere to the requisite format. If your professor has a difficult time articulating why you did poorly, it’s probably a format issue. Look for a remediation class (many law schools offer these) that can help you become familiar with how to write to the required formats. Get examples of successful answers and get practice writing them. This will take help from a professor who is willing to help you succeed. If it was a lack of subject matter knowledge then you really need to examine your willingness to study.
- Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self. Closely examine what your exam experience was like. If you glanced at the question then looked back at the clock to realize that 15 minutes had already passed, there’s a good chance you are experiencing some test anxiety but not recognizing it as such. Whether you’ve always had anxiety or never had it before, law school tends to bring it out in people. The first step is recognizing it. The tough part is fixing it. Some students have suggested St. John’s Wort, a good stiff drink, a sexual pregame, or some excellent therapy. You really have to find a way to beat anxiety when your final is the sole determinant of your grade.
- Seek out additional resources. There may be resources for you to take of advantage of should you decide to stay for the next semester. Talk to Student Services, talk to the Librarian, talk to your professors. Everyone’s job on that campus is to produce successful law students and I can guarantee that there are resources on campus that can help you, many of which you are probably unaware of or unsure how to access. Note: searching the school website is not enough. Student Services is expert at shoring up students who need some extra support. Everyone in campus administration is willing and able to help you become a more successful student if you will just talk to them.
- Keep your personal business to yourself. You are in a highly competitive environment. Never forget this. If you’re stumbling but choosing to stay, don’t confide in your fellow students. Not even upperclassmen. Firstly, it’s not their job to help you, and even if they really like you and want to help they’re too busy trying not to drown themselves. They don’t have even the emotional energy to listen to your problems, much less the time or knowledge to help resolve them. Secondly, you’ve tainted their image of you. At most schools student provide you with the recommendations and job leads that help you land your first job and latch on to subsequent opportunities. Moving past your first semester bad grades must remain invisible to your peers if you want to optimize your future opportunities.
- You have a scholarship/grant combination that allows you to attend school at little or no cost. Most students who commit to adopting strategies to improve do so, and it’s a risk worth taking if you aren’t putting yourself into debt to take it;
- You really want to be a lawyer and are committed to seeking the help you need and using it. Remember that even the person at the very bottom of your graduating class will still be a lawyer. The first person in the class and the last person in the class get the same J.D.; they just won’t get the same job opportunities. If being a lawyer is vital to your life dream, don’t give up over a bad first semester. (Or do, and figure out how to be more successful later.)
- After talking to your professors, you realize you had a solid grasp of the material but simply failed to provide exactly what the professor was looking for in the answer to that all-important final. The law is ambiguous and subjective but the professor will grade your final as if the law were clear and objective. A correct answer will receive a lower grade than the correct answer your professor was hoping to see. You’d be shocked at how often this happens. Join a study group that discusses potential answers; or
- You know what the problem was and it was temporary. Say someone important to you died that semester, you had a health problem that is on the mend, or you’ve realized you have panic attacks during every final but have figured out how to deal with it. If you had a problem that you found the solution to, your next semester will be better.
- You just hate law school. This seems like it’s not that important but the thing is, it really is. Law school is an all-consuming, immersive experience and if you hate it, you will hate your life not only for the next 3 years but also your career as a lawyer;
- You have a very honest talk with yourself and “future you” is just not okay with putting in all the work and suffering that it will take in order to step up your lawyerly game. This is a perfectly legitimate choice; don’t feel bad about being honest with yourself and what you are willing (or not willing) to do to attain a law degree. Law school is grueling, and a law degree is most definitely not necessary in order to live a good and valuable life. Find something else that you are willing to work for, something you enjoy spending your time on, or any sort of project you are able and willing to bring something to. You only get one life, spend it on something at which you can succeed and thrive; or
- After speaking to professors and analyzing your past semester, you really don’t know what went wrong. You won’t know for sure, but if you have no clue you need to seriously consider if this is the right work for you. Not everyone is cut out to be a lawyer (some of you are too intelligent and some of you….aren’t). Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is very uncomfortable for both the peg and the hole.
If you decide to stay, congratulations! Now schedule some appointments with your professors and Student Services and get back to work. If you decide to go; congratulations! You went through an important learning experience and are now free to explore some other options. Either way, you win.