For most incoming 2Ls seeking to enter private practice, the 2L OCI window will zoom on by bearing zero gifts. Unfortunately, that is the nature of how 2L OCI works, as the vast majority of law students do not land post-graduate employment from it even though it is the single greatest employment opportunity in law school. Initially bummed, many law students come to find the silver lining. If 2L OCI has never been the predominant way by which law students obtained post-graduate employment, the important thing is to just keep trucking forward and work on obtaining a legal job closer to graduation. Although this is a commendable perspective to hold, in today’s legal market it no longer applies to everybody. In the past, law students operated under different circumstances that generally avoided potentially calamitous financial results if trucking forward didn’t work out. Today, however, with high student debt loads awaiting many law graduates and diminishing employment prospects in the legal field, there is a need to adapt and explore options that previous generations would never consider.
This all starts with a problem, the problem of a lack of information. Most students that strike out at 2L OCI or do not even participate due to low credentials do not understand that the hunt for post-graduate employment will get even harder going forward. Unlike the big firms at 2L OCI, most other potential legal sources of employment post-graduation are not as concerned about grades and school rank. Although top students at top schools may still often have an edge, generally speaking the student that finds an “in” somewhere will get the nod to return after graduation. This greatly expands the competition pool for an already meager amount of available jobs. In addition, unless the student who struck out at 2L OCI has entered law school with zero or minimal debt upon graduation, his or her weak situation is compounded by the fact that of the jobs that are available, the vast majority will be relatively low paying in relation to the 7 years of education. The problem: low paying jobs do not service high interest student debt. Even if government debt programs that cap the maximum debt payments each month are included in the discussion, assuming no private loans are in the picture, knowing that the student debt will be an everlasting burden on a student each and every month starting six months after graduation is a tough pill to swallow. Because financial independence is at the heart of almost every student’s decision to enter law school, post-2L OCI is the point in time where the scale for what makes financial sense may begin to weigh in another direction. As a result, it would be wise to consider all options on the table after a 2L OCI strike out, including whether to stay in law school. Several general factors are integral to this discussion, but ultimately it all boils down to a relatively simple formula: whether a student’s debt load is outweighed by the student’s likelihood of success in obtaining post-graduate employment that is able to service that debt.
1. Debt Load Upon Graduation
Unlike the interest rates on student loans as recently as a decade ago, today’s student loan interest rates are nothing short of egregious. Even with the 2013 “relief” that lowered Stafford loans to 5.4% (from 6.8%) and GradPLUS loans to 6.4% (from 7.9%), these interest rates are so high that they quickly begin to accumulate on even relatively modest loan amounts. Often, students like to conveniently ignore looking at their student debt numbers while in law school, no one can blame them. However, ignoring the money that is piling up does not make it go away. The average law student accrues something on the order of a few hundred dollars each month while in law school, in interest. Under these conditions, even the most die-hard dream of practicing law can erode under the financial pressure of meeting that monthly student loan payment if the right post-graduate employment opportunity is not achieved. This is why the re-evaluation analysis involves tangible factors, not the value of hypothetically living a rich and meaningful mental life as a result of obtaining a JD. For all the comfort and happiness that may bring, it will not make the money needed for someone to support themselves grow on trees.
2. Likelihood of Success
Although any multitude of factors may be present in each individual student’s particular set of circumstances, there are three general factors that can be extracted across the board and should aid in this analysis. These three factors are 1) the strength of the desire to practice law, 2) any powerful connections and 3) a certain level of motivation.
A. Desire to Practice
The most obvious factor is the strength of a student’s desire to practice law. What may not be so obvious is what that actually means. For example, imagine a student that enrolled in law school on a whim and a student that wanted to be a lawyer ever since he or she was 5 years old. It would not be unreasonable to assume the latter student has a much greater desire to practice law, right? Not exactly. No student can measure his or her desire to practice law without prior experience in the field either through direct employment or as a result of being directly involved with the lawyer work of any close family members. If that experience is not present, the fact the latter student has “wished” to be a lawyer has no actual bearing on what he or she will truly want to do in life (or at least not resent doing). This line of reasoning is exactly the reason many adults lament their career choices later on in life, including many law graduates.
There is a greater societal role at cause here to explain this happening, but it would be nice if prospective law students applied enough logic to spot the issue with this inherently flawed reasoning. Instead of imagining being a lawyer early on in life and actively filling in the decision tree with confirmation bias or simply proceeding ignorant to important information, the exact opposite should occur. A decision should be reached only when the student is informed of all material information pertaining to enrollment in law school and the practice of law. If the decision still stands, shoot for the stars. In reality, outside of the rare exception, prospective law students and current law students are far removed from the actual practice of law. Most do not come to understand what actually happens in practice until they have some real experience under their belts post-graduation (easy-going internships during law school do not count for much). Does that mean any student engaged in this analysis, who does not fall into the rare exception, should ignore their current attitude towards law school? Not necessarily. A current student may certainly have an inclination about the practice of law based on his or her attitude towards the law itself or through the small glimpse of practice gained from any experience gained during school. However, the weight of this incomplete desire should be relaxed accordingly.
For purposes of this analysis, it is not the number of connections that matters but the strength of those connections. Simply knowing lawyers that may in the future remember the student when a currently non-existent legal job opens up does not really help. It is about as good as wagering the legal market suddenly rebounds. If a student is engaged in this analysis, hypothetical situations don’t have much merit. Unless a student has the type of connection that can guarantee the student a job post-graduation, it is hard to consider this factor anything other than negligible. In addition, even having a lawyer that can guarantee post-graduation employment has to be examined. For the few that this concerns, the fact a job may be guaranteed does not cancel the need to examine whether this job and its potential career trajectory is worth it in relation to any potential alternate career opportunities and debt owed post-graduation.
The motivation factor is a measure consisting of two parts: a student’s motivation to hustle hard and hope for the best because leaving law school is not an option, and a student’s motivation to leave law school and hustle hard to pursue alternate careers. Outside of having a powerful in at a high paying and career-building legal job through a connection, this factor is the most important to consider relative to a student’s potential debt load upon graduation. Obviously, there is a big difference with respect to what is more realistic between an individual that had an alternate career already and a K-JD student. The real question posed here goes to the particular circumstances of the K-JD types. Assuming no or limited prior work experience, a student must ask one simple question: deep down inside, what was the real reason for going to law school? If a big part of that answer is the belief law school would secure at least a middle class lifestyle, this prompts the need for a lot of reflection. The bigger the debt load, the harder it’ll be to justify just “hoping” it all works out when the alternate is to cut at least half the debt out of the picture and start looking for entry-level positions. Students with a Bachelor of Arts sometimes have the toughest time looking themselves in the mirror at this stage in time because many of them enrolled in law school precisely because their college degree provided little value. Law school was supposed to be the second chance. There might be little motivation to leave and try something else when they have nothing to fall back on in exchange. However, these are also often the same students that jumped the gun on law school. Perhaps now is the time to really research the opportunities that are out there, even if the job market is miserable. It’s not like the legal job market is any better.
At the end of the day, people have trouble walking away from something they started. It is easy to justify continuing based on how much has already been invested into the initial decision already. This is known as the sunk cost fallacy. A student cannot fall into this trap, this analysis is not about what has been invested already, but how much worse things can become. The real tradeoff for a law student looking to enter private practice post-2L OCI is between 1) abandoning law school to keep the student debt manageable enough to where other pursuits are still viable and 2) staying in law school to rack up the debt in the hopes not only employment is secured but the money it provides either now or in the near future can service the debt owed. On paper, both are unfortunate options. Which decision makes more sense must be viewed in light of all these factors and any personal circumstances particular to each student. Ultimately, the decision to stay or leave should be met with 100% confidence and knowledge of the consequences that may come as a result. For that to be the case, what matters is that these options are on the table and a prudent student engages in this analysis before it really is too late to turn back around and reverse course.