Nah: Foregoing a Prestigious Legal Education

By: Douglas Spencer

The Decision

My struggle with whether to give up my seat at Columbia Law and remove myself from consideration at Harvard Law is about as #FirstWorldProblems as it gets. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s my reality. I was painstakingly disciplined to get to this point: a year of research, months of self-study, a couple weeks of rewriting essays, and many trips to explore law school campuses while either working or being an overinvolved student. I made many sacrifices (mainly sleep). I wanted it that bad – until a little more than a week ago when I realized that I actually didn’t. I withdrew from Columbia and kindly asked Harvard to no longer consider me for admission this cycle.  

Bear with me. This ordeal was like my “The Decision” moment, but instead of choosing a team, I chose free agency (shout out to LeBron for bringing one back to Cleveland). I know that I’m not King James. I don’t have the luxury of pronouncing my major moves via ESPN specials or flying to South Beach to consult D Wade before I make them either. Nevertheless, there was a core group of individuals who listened to me talk through my thoughts on this dilemma and provided their opinions. There was also tons of prayer mixed in, too. And then there was my mom who had to learn of both my wrestling and final decision over Facebook and FaceTime; I definitely killed the vibe of her last two days in the Bahamas when I told her (sorry, Ma). Today is the 1 weekaversary of my decision to forgo law school in the fall. Regardless of what is written below, some will think I’m crazy for turning down an opportunity few get the chance to experience. That’s fine. I haven’t second-guessed my choice in the short, but seemingly long, week that has followed.

The Backdrop

I was fortunate enough to be accepted as one of 88 individuals out of more than 1,200 applicants into the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Law Program. The summer prior to their first year of law school (1L year), interns are provided with paid internships at top law firms from Palo Alto to New York and many cities in between. In addition, interns enjoy networking events, legal writing training, mock law school exams, and more. Arguably, there is no better prep for law school itself or the legal profession. As of last Monday, I had completed three of ten weeks in the program: one week of orientation and two weeks at a Big Law firm.

Golden Handcuffs

Law school is a huge financial investment. If you don’t come from an upper-class background or receive a full-ride, choosing to attend law school is a commitment that can’t be taken lightly. Many of the top-ranked schools have a generous loan forgiveness plan for those who are willing to dedicate themselves to years of public interest work. Sparing the details, after ten years of governmental or non-profit legal employment, most forgive 100 percent of your loans. Ten years is a long time to wait for financial freedom. Even for people like me who receive partial scholarship offers to these schools, the options for repaying your debt are limited. For this reason, law students generally aim for positions at big law firms where the starting salaries just increased to $180,000 a year. In other words, if you don’t want to be broke and want to realistically have a chance at repaying your loans, gun for a top law firm. Most top firms only pursue graduates of the most prestigious institutions with the exception of a select few young lawyers who do extremely well at lower-ranked schools. For most, the plan is to work hard at the firm, pay down your loans, and then go enjoy your law career with a better work-life balance elsewhere. However, some do enjoy the big firm lifestyle and others stick around for the financial stability.

Over a two-week period, SEO Law gave me the unique opportunity to work alongside the summer associates (law students who just finished their second year of law school) at a top firm. I can’t talk about them in detail, but my assignments allowed me to partner with summer associates or do comparable work to theirs. Because I hadn’t taken a law school course yet, my learning curve was even steeper. I analyzed the tasks I was given, asked clarifying questions, and then worked to produce whatever material the practicing attorney requested. The tasks were often more complicated than anticipated and required me to check-in with the attorney several times or find a way to fill in the gaps on my own while hoping to present the best final product under the time crunch. I did love the intellectual rigor and the chance to learn about completely new industries.

However, perception is not reality – the experience was as advertised, but there’s nothing like actually going through it. The expectations were high, the pressure was intense, and on occasion, the hours were long. In fact, I was only getting a small taste of what the big firm workload was really like. If you don’t love examining the law, which I quickly discovered I don’t at the moment, attending law school is not for you. This applies to anyone seriously considering a profession or grad school: find a way to experience what you’re pursuing before fully committing to it. As far as being a lawyer goes, the work itself is not at all glamorous. Those who can meticulously comb through dense material are rewarded. So the reasoning behind my decision to forego a top law school education was simple to me: at 22 years old, there’s no reason to tighten golden handcuffs on my own wrists. I’m not 100 percent certain that I enjoy what it means to be a practicing lawyer, therefore, I shouldn’t rush off to school. Going to law school would mean investing years of my life and a great deal of money, and hoping for the best on the other side where my flexibility would be shot for at least several years. Let me put it another way: it’s like marrying someone you don’t love and hoping that along the way you miraculously fall in love. Neither seem like wise decisions to me.

Act With Integrity

I called Columbia last Monday at 9:00 am on the dot (when they open). I asked them if I could defer my enrollment. They said no. I hoped they would grant my request, but I was fully prepared to respectfully decline their offer to join the Columbia community and that’s what I did. Immediately, I became an individual in a program designed for pre-1L students who was no longer going to law school in the fall. I could’ve easily kept the decision to myself and never told SEO Law or the firm until the last possible second. That would’ve been cowardly. If I had the courage to make the decision, I could find the integrity to inform those who needed to know about it. In telling the truth, I knew I would potentially disqualify myself from the program. If disqualified, I would forfeit several thousands of dollars and abruptly end the relationships I was just starting to build.

I shared my decision with the SEO Law coordinators – they were dumbfounded. To their knowledge, no one in the program had ever made a decision of this nature. They didn’t know what to do. They told me they would get back to me once they figured it out. Stuck in limbo, I was tasked with going through my workday as usual. How could I? I fully expected it to be my final day in the office. I packed my things and waited for the inevitable boot, but it never came.

SEO Law decided to leave it up to the firm as to whether I should stay or not and the firm extended me an offer to finish the summer as an intern. I was shocked not only at the invitation to remain, but also the tremendous support that shrouded me from the lawyers and staff I’d only known for two weeks. They respected my decision. They respected my honesty. Furthermore, they respected my work ethic over the two-week period. In admitting that I was not ready to embark on the journey of becoming a lawyer, I gained a team of lawyers willing to help me figure out my next steps. In addition, SEO Law agreed to support me as well: I will finish the summer as an alumnus of the program. I will honor their generosity by remaining a professional, adding value to the firm, and doing my best to be a likable member of the team.

The Importance of Relationships

I went through my senior year having a plan for post-grad life all figured out. Clearly, that’s not the case anymore. For the first time in my life, I have to get a grown up job. I gave myself a day to fully process that harsh reality, but then it was back to the drawing board. I contacted several individuals who I thought might be able to help me figure it out, and within a few days some real possibilities were already on the table (I’m still looking for more options by the way). I never expected to be in this position, but I’d like to think that people have been willing to assist me because I always strive to be genuine. My philosophy on building relationships is to give and expect nothing in return. You never know who can help you or when you’ll need it. If you treat everyone with the same level of respect, you maximize your chances of getting the support you need when the timing is right. My situation is a testament of that.  

Don’t Settle

In making this decision, I made a few things clear to myself: money, prestige, and perks are tangential to my goals. I’m more interested in letting passion be my fuel. A sense of purpose is what I’m looking for, and if it takes more time to better understand what that is, so be it. Thankfully, there are other ways to enhance my abilities as a problem solver, communicator, advocate, researcher, and writer – all the qualities of a promising lawyer. Perhaps practicing law is still in my future. Nothing is guaranteed, but if I reapply to schools with actual work experience, I will certainly be a stronger and more mature candidate.

In August, instead of heading off to law school, I plan to fully enjoy my newfound freedom. Extreme activities like finally taking that trip to Vegas with my boys or skydiving are options. Old hobbies like pick-up ball and personal reading are definitely back in play. Even a week or more backing packing a foreign destination is one of the many, exciting possibilities in my head.

In the fall, I will be doing meaningful work somewhere, and I rest assured knowing that I will relentlessly attack it like all other obstacles that have stood in my way thus far. Amazing opportunities follow perseverance, not the other way around. So this post is especially for the younger millennials out there: don’t settle. If the bigger picture isn’t quite in focus yet, don’t be afraid to try a different lens. Embrace the growing pains because there’s beauty in the struggle.

Photo Credit: Danny Sellers