• Tue, Mar 29 2011

I Regret Everything: Not Finishing Law School

When I was 19 and applying to graduate schools, I thought I knew everything. While I’d always loved writing, law school seemed the most appealing thing to do with the next three years of my life, armed with a political science degree and what I thought were rock-solid convictions. Nevermind that I knew very little about the law.

At the ripe age of 20 I arrived in Greenwich Village to attend NYU Law School, and promptly found out that even though I’d done pretty well in college, save for a very up and down pass-fail astronomy class, law school was, well, hard. Impossible, even. It was unlike any other kind of education I’d had before and when faced with that challenge, I reacted by running away. Not literally, but I was just discovering the heady freedom of living alone in a big city, not one attached to a big city whose public transportation stopped running at midnight. I could walk to Brownies (RIP) to see Elliott Smith (RIP). I could wear my Meow Mix (RIP) t-shirt proclaiming “Don’t Fuck With the Ladies.” I could do all sorts of things that had nothing to do with going to law school or the difficulty facing me there.

I started to slide by, not going to classes when I hadn’t read the reading assignments, telling myself I’d “make up for it later.” Except later was always filled with concerts or other reading that felt more urgent. I was discovering who I was in a way I hadn’t been able to do within the confines of my admittedly big college town (Berkeley, California), and New York City had so many more exciting things to do than labor over information that seemed to go in one ear and out the other.

I wound up falling into credit card debt because I was buying so many CDs, familiarizing myself with the entire Kill Rock Stars and other indie band catalogs. But that is not the part I regret; making friends with and becoming fans of musicians like Mary Lou Lord and Elizabeth Elmore of Sarge and The Reputation, and thus becoming friends of their fans, was extremely important to me. I was shirking my studying but I was also building the foundation for the life I would later want to live; I named my 2010 erotica anthology Fast Girls after the Sarge song of the same name, and was granted the right to use the song in the book trailer (you can watch it here).

But the part I do regret, and think about every time I log in to Sallie Mae’s website, is that I never paused long enough to allow myself the room to truly grasp that I could exit gracefully, and to the tune of much less than the eventual $150,000 (approximately) tuition and board, plus interest, that I will wind up paying, or just get through it. I chose to leave after having what I’d consider a nervous breakdown after three years with most of my credits, but no degree. I have until 2033 to pay off those loans, and by my estimations will have racked up between $250,000 and $300,000 for a degree I do not have. Or I should have toughed it out, bucked up, even if I knew I didn’t want to take the bar, even if I got Cs, even if the only class I really liked was intellectual property, where we learned about things like negotiating how many seconds’ worth of credit a screenwriter gets on film.

Now every single time I meet a lawyer, or pick up a book by a former lawyer or law school graduate (they are omnipresent), I feel like a failure. I also can’t help but think that by leaving and never returning, I have set a poor precedent (legal term!) for myself of quitting being the easy way out. It’s not, and it never truly is. That’s not to say I wish I were a lawyer; as much as I envy my lawyer friends’ salaries, I love the fact that I don’t have to wear a suit, don’t have to watch what I say, and can openly express my thoughts and feelings. I’ve had to carve out a career and learn things like how to run a reading series by doing them. There is no grad school for becoming an adult magazine editor/sex and erotica writer/cupcake blogger or whatever it is that I currently do. Still, though, not having that degree will always haunt me. I can’t shake the notion that anyone with a graduate degree is somehow smarter or better equipped to take on the world.

So if you learn anything from my story, it’s that: a) if you want to go to law school, make sure you know what you’re signing up for and b) if you’re in graduate school or on a career path that is clearly not a good fit, get out while you can. And you always can, even if it doesn’t feel like you have any other options. You always have options; sometimes you just have to make them.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and reading series host. She has edited over 38 anthologies, including Surrender, Gotta Have It, Fast Girls and Orgasmic, and offers up daily food porn at Cupcakes Take the Cake.

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  • Camille

    Thank you for this post. I finished LS last year despite knowing deep down that I wouldn’t stick around in the profession unless I completely overhauled my personality. I’m now transitioning to a different field but it took me a few months to come to terms with the decision to walk away from law without feeling like a failure. All in all, I’m glad I went to LS and don’t envy my friends who entered practice (and who will make damn good lawyers). Still, I wish there was more support for (youngish) people who change paths in life so thank you for sharing your experience in such a balanced and supportive way.

  • kel

    I went through a similar experience, but I don’t regret dropping out of law school. I regret going, because of the amount of debt I have since been burdened with, but dropping out of law school was the best decision I have ever made. I started talking about going to law school while still in undergrad. It made sense to me, because I was double majoring in history and political science. I graduated from college and I put it off. I put it off for three years, because I wanted to start working, save some money, get some life experience under my belt…basically anything to avoid going. Three years later I reached a point where I was fed up with my job and needed a change. My LSAT score was going to expire in a year, so I decided it was time for law school. In hindsight, I stopped wanting it shortly after graduating from college, but I’d been talking about it for so long that I figured it was just what I was supposed to do. I told myself if I got in, it was where I was supposed to be. Turns out that’s not actually how life works. Fortunately, I was so miserable that I figured out rather quickly that becoming a lawyer was not for me. A semester and a half of law school cost me $40,000 (which I will be paying back seemingly until I die), but for the first time in a long time, I knew something about my life definitively. I knew that I did not want to be a lawyer. Ever. I also learned that I need to listen to myself and not do things just because that’s what I’m “supposed to do.” It was an expensive but valuable lesson (though not as expensive as if I had stayed any longer). I don’t love the job I have now, but I am a lot happier than I was when I was in law school, and it allows me to pay my bills (*cough* Sallie Mae *cough*) while I figure out what I do want to do with my life. I know people judge me for quitting, but I don’t care. A law career was not for me, and I’m just thankful that I realized it before I spent three years and $150,000 working towards something that was never going to be what I wanted for my life.

  • L

    I regret graduating law school. I should have dropped out after 1st semester when I realized that life wasn’t for me. Now I’m 6 figures in a debt, in a shitty economy, and I hate what I do.

    • Elle

      I came on here to say the exact same thing. Well, almost.

      I regret graduating law school. Now I’m 6 figures in debt, in a shitty economy, and can’t find a job.
      There.

    • Sivan

      I concur wholeheartedly. Were it not for the (steadily rising) $140,000 in student loan debt, I wouldn’t regret the experience. But because of the debt coupled with my (ecstatic) knowledge that I will never practice law again, I regret my decision to see through an endeavor that I knew was not for me from the beginning.

  • MM

    I went through something similar last year when I dropped out of grad school for library science. It was so hard and I knew I’d never be able to hack it. I lost 600 dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot but feels like a lot to me. It made me feel like a failure and I still feel horrible when I see or meet librarians. I wish I’d investigated it a little more before plunging ahead and applying. That being said, I don’t regret dropping out because in my heart I knew it wasn’t right for me. I’m sure it’s tough having dropped out of law school but you’ve done so much in the erotica and cupcake communities you shouldn’t feel the least bit regretful.

    • hir

      I dropped out of grad school in library science as well. Everyone in my program was already working in a library or had worked in a library, I was neither and after looking for a library job for two years I decided that if I found one I could go back to school and have them pay for it, because it seems the worst thing you can do is graduate library school with no experience, and thus I choose not to graduate.

      I wish I had found this out before I started. I also don’t like meeting librarians anymore lol

  • maya

    For those of you out there and reading this who are kinda scared, I started law school at 19 and am about to graduate at 22 with a good job lined up. Law is not for everyone but it is for some of us…

  • Wow – this hits home.

    I’m in the middle of my first year of law school and I don’t know which I am: the person who has doubts and finishes or the person who should get out while they can. I go to law school in the big college town you were referring to but regret not moving to NYC everyday…maybe will regret it for the rest of my life. I stayed here because I am a Californian who felt alienated at times by my East Coast undergrad experience and hated Columbia when I visited (it seemed like the douchiest place on earth) and NYU didn’t offer me a scholarship and I was terrified of full debt…also my significant other is here. My head is half in law school and half everywhere else on the planet, some days I think I’ll love being a lawyer, I go to a good school and have a great scholarship and would be crazy to quit…other times I think if I stay and finish I’ll hate being a lawyer have so much debt and regret it for the rest of my life…damn.

  • Ana

    I think my law school is just right for me right now. I mean there are schools I would never attend. I truly believe law school is what you should not go into without doing deep investigation…about the campus life, programs, professors (liberal or conservative)…it is just so important to do this and not follow the damn US News reportings. I really don’t give a care whether the ranking of my law school is top tier or bottom 150…the law is the law. The feel of the atmosphere is what everybody should pay attention to (combined with affordibility) because the next three years of your life will be miserable doing otherwise. I know students who never even visited the campus before arriving for first day of classes…unless you are unlike many law students (rich n picky) this may be ok…but this is not the case for many. This is why law students feel like dropping out.