One Thing You Need To Do So You Don't End Up Regretting Law School

by Rachel Kramer Bussel
Jovo Jovanovic

Twenty years ago, I decided to attend law school at NYU, one of the top schools in the country — and I've regretted it ever since.

I grew up admiring the likes of lawyers like William Kunstler, a self-described “radical lawyer” who defended the likes of the Chicago Seven, and Sarah Weddington, who argued the important Roe v. Wade decision before the Supreme Court, which legalized abortion in the U.S. In high school, I volunteered for local politicians, majored in political science and women's studies in college, and assumed that a legal career would help me further my goals of effecting feminist social change. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do, save for the lofty, free-form “change the world.”

What I didn't look into enough was what the actual work of being a lawyer would entail on a daily basis. I was so smitten with my cobbled together, starry-eyed ideas that I didn't pause and map out an actual career path for myself. Did I want to argue in front of a court? Did I want to be a judge? Did I want to do legal research? Those were barely even questions I asked myself. I knew NYU had a loan forgiveness program if you worked at a pro bono job for a set number of years, and that was enough for me.

Before heading to NYU, school had always been pretty easy for me. I wasn't valedictorian, but I did well in most classes without too much agony. I was nerdy, and actually liked studying. Even in college, where I managed a double major in three years, I wasn't overly burdened and still managed to go out with friends, have fun and read recreationally. I naively assumed law school would be a similar amount of work. I was wrong.

When I got to law school, I was in for the shock of my life. From the very first weeks, the material felt over my head. It was interesting, sure, but required every ounce of brainpower I had, plus seemingly endless hours in the library, just to have a minimum understanding of how the concepts worked. Some of it made sense, but the parts that didn't I just pushed aside, figuring I could catch up at a later time. Spoiler alert: You can't just “catch up."

Plus, I had just moved from a college town, Berkeley, California, where the BART train stops running at midnight, to New York, the city that never sleeps. I was living in a dorm on Mercer Street, right in Greenwich Village, within walking distance of cool bars and clubs and stores and galleries every time I walked out the door. There was so much temptation everywhere I looked—concerts, readings, art, culture galore—that spending my time locked inside the law library didn't seem appealing in comparison to going to hear Sleater-Kinney play or checking out an Annie Leibowitz photo exhibit. I studied Time Out New York far more closely than I did any of my textbooks.

The farther behind I fell in school, the easier it was to find other distractions. I didn't know how to go to my professors and say, “I need help.” Instead, I foolishly told myself I could figure it all out on my own. My peers seemed to have no problem with keeping up, which only made me feel more dumb about how lost I felt when I was in class. This led to a cycle of me not doing the reading, skipping class because I didn't want to be called on, falling farther behind on the reading, and so on. My confusion built on itself to the point that when I did venture into class, I had only a foggy idea of what my professors were talking about.

Along with my issues keeping up in school, as I started to learn about exactly how the law worked, my utopian dreams about it started to fade away. I got a part-time job working for a lawyer to help cover my expenses, and quickly found that the research I was being asked to do in the law library never seemed to have an end point. One question would lead to another and another and another, ad infinitum. Even when I successfully completed a project, I never felt a sense of being proud of my work; instead, it seemed like I picked an arbitrary ending point that was acceptable, rather than reached a true conclusion.

I should have known I was in trouble after I didn't get hired at any law firms the summer after my first year, like my peers. Instead, I worked as a temp job as an administrative assistant, traveling in a suit from New York to New Jersey every day by bus to earn $12 an hour. I got through it, but when I returned, the gulf between where my classmates were heading and where I was only seemed larger.

I stayed in law school for three years, even though it was more than clear by the second that I was in over my head. I had lived in easy-to-find apartments in Berkeley, but was clueless about looking for housing in New York, not to mention that I didn't have any money saved. My whole life seemed tied up with law school, and I was convinced I could tough it out.

Looking back, I can see all kinds of ways I could have asked for help, or at least, muddled through and passed my classes enough to leave with a degree. Instead of grappling with the problem at hand, I devoted myself to going to writing a zine, going to concerts, anything to distract myself from how behind I kept falling in school. Even though this happened almost 20 years ago, thinking back to that time brings tears to my eyes. I lived in a state of panic and fear for most of the three years I stayed in school, especially my final two years.

Yes, even though the problems cropped up early, I somehow still skated by enough in the first two years to still be enrolled in the third. But instead of spending my many hours in the law library studying, I did things like learn HTML so I could build a website for my favorite singer. I had no frame of reference for how to go about resetting my life, so instead I just let it stagnate.

Eventually, in my third year, things came to a head. I got incompletes in my classes because I stopped showing up. I was terrified to talk to the administration, but when I finally did, we agreed that I would officially take a leave of absence. I never wound up returning to finish my degree.

I did manage to find a job and an apartment. Neither were the greatest, but eventually, one temp job led to a permanent job, and I started writing on the side. Those publications bolstered my courage to apply for a job as a magazine editor a few years after I'd left law school. I got that job, and have been making a living with words ever since.

I'm of two minds about what I should have done back then: drop out early, or stick with it. I chose the worst of all possible outcomes. Not only did I have to pay off three years of massive student loans (I believe the total when I left was around $160,000, so with interest I likely paid about twice that), but also live with that feeling of failure.

Practically every day, I hear about someone who's a lawyer turned writer, or a lawyer turned actor, or a lawyer turned entrepreneur. In my head, all of them managed to do something that I didn't.  

In retrospect, I regret dropping out—not because I wish I were a lawyer, but because the specter of failure has haunted me ever since. That's not to say I wish I were a lawyer; I love writing, and am incredibly grateful I get to do it for a living. But I hate that I have what feels like a giant black mark on my record. Only in the last few years, when I finally paid off my student loans, with some final help from an inheritance, have I started to forgive myself.

If you take away anything from my story, it shouldn't be: don't go to law school. There are so many lawyers doing amazing things who I admire (watch public service lawyer Haben Girma's TEDx talk for one example). Instead, I'd say learn about the legal profession before you apply. Talk to lawyers and law students about what it's really like—whether they're happy, whether they find their work meaningful.

If you do decide to go to law school, make sure it's something you're genuinely interested in and can envision yourself doing. Sure, you may change your mind—that's okay too. But if you want to be spared paying off hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans for a degree you're not using (or perhaps never even earned), invest a little research into law school beforehand. I promise, it will be worth it.