We at OTLSS, and scambloggers in general, tend to try to inform prospective law students about the pros and cons about attending law school. However, earning a JD takes at least three years for most people, so we should target not only prospective law students on making rational choices but also continuing law students.
It's that dreaded time for current 1L's at law schools across America, as the shock of being graded on a harsh curve finally strikes. Not only that, but there are other tricks that certain law schools have been guilty of playing, such as requiring spring semester tuition deposits before grades are given out in order to deter poorly-performing students from dropping out (as they don't know that they are performing poorly).
Once grades are revealed, however, and the shock sets in, certain rational courses of action are available for 1L's. Here are the conventional options that one will invariably take.
1) Stay the course and finish off the year.
2) Consider dropping out, cutting all ties, and trying to get as much of the second semester tuition deposit back as able.
3) Stay the course, but pave the way for transferring by lining up letters of recommendations to open up more options
There are merits to all three options, depending on where a 1L lands on the curve and which school they attend This post is intended for 1L's who need advice as well as a forum for others to offer their own.
1) Stay the course and finish off the year
This option is obviously what most 1L's decide to do, whether they are a full-ride student with no stipulations at Harvard (if such a sweet deal exists) to a bottom quarter student who is debt-financing their entire law school education at an expensive unranked law school (there are so many of these that it is unnecessary to point any fingers).
For the first hypothetical student, staying the course and finishing off the year is a no-brainer. A Harvard law degree for close to free is an easy decision.
The second hypothetical student will be addressed in 2).
Other students who should definitely stay the course are those who have secure employment prospects outside of law school and who are taking an amount of debt that they are comfortable with. Whether or not they should be comfortable with is besides the point, but to repeat an oft-quoted pearl of wisdom: a 1:1 ratio of starting annual income to total educational debt is ideal.
A more realistic example of someone who should stay the course is the following: someone with ties to a public defender's office (she worked there two years as a paralegal) attending a nearby local law school while living with her parents on a 75% tuition scholarship with a good standing stipulation.
It makes absolutely zero sense for her to do anything other than to finish law school there. She has an almost guaranteed in with the PD's office for employment (at the very least will be able to intern there 1L year, be a student practitioner the next year and accumulate trial experience), and will have very low out-of-pocket costs.
To be quite honest, these two situations, and everything in between (such as the quintessential student going to work at their father's law firm), are the only two where I would unconditionally tell someone to finish off the year without making much of an effort to open up other options. While it is always good to have more options to choose from, in some situations (however limited) it doesn't make sense to expend any energy creating options just to have ones you will end up not ever using.
2) Consider dropping out, cutting all ties, and trying to get as much of the second semester tuition deposit back as able
This is actually the most rational choice for many, if not most, of the median law students. When legal education is talked in the abstract, an undue emphasis is placed on top 10% of the class, Ivy league schools, law review, and Big Law firms.
More realistic would be to talk about the median law student finishing their first semester. Looking at the available data, the median law student after their first semester will look like this in 2.5 years:
*They are taking out six figures of toxic debt
*He or she is attending a law school that places between 45% and 55% of it's students in full-time long-term bar passage required jobs within 9 months of graduation (of course, some of these positions are graduates hanging their shingle)
*He or she is not on law review, does not have any financial aid, and ranks at around 50% of their class
A combination of optimism bias, inertia (which may include family pressure as well), and a refusal to take into consideration the sunk cost fallacy will prevent most of the median law students from taking the economically rational course of action after their first semester grades come in and find that they are at the median of the curve.
It's easy for us to point all of this out, but for a 1L who just has one semester's worth of grades, it is hard to see the full picture. It's not hard to find stories about people increasing their test performance and increasing their GPA, and it is true that many firms or agencies hiring rising 2L's as interns aren't going to put a lot of weight on grades. There will invariably be a lot of peer support to remain, and most professors would lend support for staying in as well and offer advice on how to do better in the Spring.
There has to be a point at which the odds of salvaging poor first semester grades are so remote, and the possibility of a good job outcome, even without regard to the heavy debt, where someone should definitely drop out, no questions asked.
Us scambloggers will probably differ at such a cutoff point, but erring in favor of staying in I would say bottom 1/3 should definitely do it, and the rest without a scholarship should at least consider it. Those remaining who feel like the extra semester's worth of tuition is worth another try at improving their standing could take another crack at it, but many of these would be best served by dropping out after the second semester (ultimately it may have made more sense to save the second semester's worth of tuition, but I digress).
A final type of person to drop out is the person who hated their first semester of law school and isn't sure if they want to be a lawyer or not. This type of person would be served best by dropping out. No questions asked. If they discover an urge to become an attorney, then the school would be more than happy to start collecting student loan money from that person a year or two later. Someone with a full-ride in this situation may be better served by staying with the condition that they put in extra out-of-class work in order to discern whether or not they want to work as a lawyer, if given the opportunity.
3) Stay the course, but pave the way for transferring by lining up letters of recommendations and querying other schools to open up more options
As a 1L, I considered this route after my first semester. In the end I decided my circumstances and career goals (low cost of attendance and wanting to work at a prosecutor's office) wouldn't be served by trading up to a "better" school, which would've caused me to borrow significantly without an appreciable gain in employment opportunities.
Opening up options to transfer is what most people should do, if not receiving significant scholarship money, if they are serious about becoming a lawyer. Since most law school tuition is so high, it is reasonable for someone who wants to become a lawyer to play the transfer game and move onto a school that would give them better odds for a good outcome. Or, alternatively, could use the threat of transferring to wring more money from the school.
Transferring has several disadvantages that should not be discounted, such as relatively poorer OCI chances compared to students who are already at that school, only being able to write on to law review, and losing out on contacts and friends that have already been developed. If the school one is considering transferring to does not have a statistically significant advantage in employment than the current one that they are at, transferring may not be worth it. Someone on law review at the first school may have appreciably better outcomes than the median student at a second, higher-placing law school.
Scholarship students who want Big Law may be served by transferring up, if the school has a strong enough Big Law firm placement rate. These students have saved a year's worth of tuition, and if the school they attend has juicy enough placement rates with BigLaw, they may have come out way ahead. I seem to remember LawProf musing about something similar a couple years ago on ITLSS.
If we can draw a conclusion to the rational choices available to current 1L's at this point in their law school career, it is one that we know already: that the current law school model is broken and needs some serious fixes. Perhaps for as many as 1/3 of all 1L's, the most rational choice is to drop out after the first semester, no questions asked. Of the remaining students in such a fantasy world, where people act in their own best interests, 1/4 or 1/3 would be best served by dropping out after the end of the Spring semester.
Making law graduates more "practice ready" and slightly discounting tuition are not serious solutions, and betray a belief that the current downturn in law school applications is only temporary. Recent LSAC data proves that assumption false, and we will see another year of a smaller incoming class.
If you know of any 1L's and you are have an inclination to give them a run-down of their options, and describe what a rational economic actor in their place would do, you may be able to save someone serious financial hardship and pain.