Law School Limits: When It Makes Sense to Drop Out of Harvard Law

Personal Finance
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With the cost of student loans rising,  and declines in the number of law school grads actually getting jobs that require the J.D., when does it make sense to go to law school? Once you’ve gotten into law school, when does it make sense to dropout? We speak with Jesse Horowitz, who started at Harvard Law in fall of 2010, only to drop out one year later.

Why did you decide to go to law school?

JH: In a way, it was a continuation of a liberal arts education. I had applied to law school at the same time as I was applying for jobs (in the fall of 2009), and I didn’t see anything that was a better option at the time. The content was interesting, and though I knew from the start that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, it was a great place to hang out with smart people, and to find good opportunities. My goal was to end up in finance.

That’s pretty interesting – you started with no intention of being a lawyer. Law school was just a strategy to finding something more in-line with your goals? 

JH: My alternatives to going to law school wouldn’t have provided me with as much access to high quality opportunities. I considered an Econ Phd, and it’s possible there were one year Masters programs that could have been a good fit. While at HLS, I met someone who had worked at Bridgewater, and I interviewed for and received an internship there after my first year in law school. I enjoyed my internship, and decided to stay on full-time rather than return to law school.

What were you thinking at the end of the the internship? Were you conflicted about the decision between returning to school and staying at Bridgewater?

JH: Not really. By that point, I had a decent understanding of my option set coming out of law school if I didn’t want to go to a big law firm. I could join a bank or consulting firm, and global macro seemed way more interesting than those other options. So HLS served it’s purpose in helping me find more interesting opportunities.

How did you know you didn’t want to be a lawyer?

JH: Of the elite job options, lawyers have the least autonomy. They are service providers to services providers. You can see it in the way deals are structured, lawyers are at the bottom of the pile. It may be an elite pile, but they are at the bottom nonetheless. Some buyside investor is leading the deal, and an investment banker/advisor works for him. Finally, there are the lawyers who review the document after everyone is done with them at 3am.

You can see this behavior at law firm receptions – the parties firms throw for law students to show them how much fun their firm is. Most of the lawyers are busy responding to emails on their Blackberries. The only people having fun are tax lawyers and IP (intellectual property) lawyers. They have interesting work, and have more control over their schedules.

So what would you tell someone who’s considering law school today?

It’s hard to know what your buying with the law school experience, and marketing that law schools do makes them total conspirators in the system.

I was talking with a friend of mine at NYU law school, the #6 ranked school according to US News, and he was saying that 25% of them are having trouble finding law firm job offers. Unless you go to Harvard, Stanford or Yale, you cannot coast and assume you will get a job. It is an intensely hierarchical system where you can lock in a lot of advantage by going to a higher ranked school. The advantages are locked in because firms will interview at higher ranked schools first, which means those spots get filled up early.

The class action lawsuits against various law schools for false claims on employment statistics make it clear that we are over-producing law students. We somehow have this notion that going to law school will guarantee employment, and this simply isn’t true.