Why I’m Glad I Dropped Out of Law School

One year ago, I walked away. As I pushed the front doors open, the mounted silver letters spelling “University of Southern California Law School” loomed overhead, heavy with history and expectations. As I descended the stairs and made the journey across campus for the last time, a rush of adrenaline propelled me forward. I had no idea what lay ahead of me, but even then I knew I would never look back.
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So what sealed the deal, then? It’s hard for many people to imagine making that decision. To some, it seems absolutely foolish. “Who would leave behind such a prestigious opportunity?” To others, it seems like a brave rebellion. “Good for you for following your intuition.” They’re right about that – it was a gut feeling, mostly. One I am slowly learning to interpret as time goes on.
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I had been contemplating some aspects of this sentiment for an entire semester at that point. For one, I quickly learned that I did not care for the day-to-day lawyer life looming ahead of me for the next several decades. I saw that corporate and public interest lawyers alike were expected to work outrageously long hours, sacrificing family and social life along the way. And for a public interest lawyer, there would not even be enough money to pay off loans at the end of the day. I remember attending panels and retreats with lawyers who were doing the work I thought I wanted to do one day. Even those who seemed fiercely dedicated to their work admitted that they were losing out on a lot of their relationships and work-life balance. Between my struggles with depression and my generally unhurried tendencies, I just knew I wouldn’t last in a job like that.
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Moreover, I always felt a dissonance between my personal political and social convictions and the expectations of the legal profession. I consistently struggled to synthesize my personal distrust of “the law” with the profession’s obligation to uphold it at all costs. In class, I knew that my questions would rarely be welcome since that material would not be appearing on the final. Not to mention, I was beginning to doubt the worth of attempting to incrementally improve what I believed to be a fundamentally broken system. To make it through law school, on some level everyone has to buy into the idea that we must work within the box we are given. Many strong lawyers and judges have made that box into a better, more inclusive one over the years, but it remains a box that most cannot alter, let alone circumvent. These are my personal views, of course. I do not mean to discredit all of the honorable, necessary work of those lawyers who serve the people and change lives every day. Many of those people are my friends and mentors and I am so glad they are passionate about their profession. But I guess I’m too cynical, and less and less inclined to follow the rules these days.
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There was, too, the issue of fitting in. I did bear witness to some unfortunate cultural attitudes that run deep in the legal field and always have. No one ever questioned the expectation that every law student and lawyer would drown their pain and stress in alcohol. I can’t even remember how many alcoholism jokes I nervously laughed through, thinking to myself, Do they ever consider that some people don’t drink for religious or personal reasons? As a Muslim, I didn’t feel that the legal networking world would work for me unless I was willing to play along. Perhaps worse than that, so many people were obsessed with external markers of prestige, a fixation that starts with 1L fall grades and ends with professional salaries. My leftist politics and general distrust of capitalism prevented me from getting on board with that numbers game. No one ever considered the possibility that some people might not be able to pay a massive cover charge to network at yet another Bar Review. And everyone was interested in analyzing Excel spreadsheets of GPA cutoffs for the top firms’ summer associate positions, right?
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Having said all that, I did have many valuable experiences and conversations with like-minded people while in law school. I befriended people who were open-minded, critical thinkers with a passion for the same issues I cared about. I had many conversations with folks about the inherent injustice of the system, the struggle of being a person of color in law school, and our lofty goals for improving our communities and bettering the world around us. I always came away feeling energized and empowered, and I still reflect on those moments all the time. But I found those moments to be too few and far between. The reality of law school, and of most students’ future professions, is one of sworn dedication to the rules and a desire to make money for the sake of making money.
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My decision could not be completely independent, though. My personal gut feeling battled my communal identity. I felt immense guilt at the thought of leaving a place where my presence was a protest and a symbol of social change. To date, Latinas continue to make up less than 2% of American lawyers. How could I just walk out, leaving the tiny handful of Latinas in my section behind? How could I tell my Latinx friends, fellow classmates and aspiring law students among them, that I had abandoned the cause? I knew I wasn’t leaving for academic reasons – I performed well enough and even grew to like some subjects. I didn’t feel inferior to my white classmates, or my male classmates (even though there were a few rare moments that suggested some people felt differently about me). But I felt like I needed to continue occupying the space I had rightfully earned since I knew they would all continue doing so long after I left.
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Choosing to leave meant unlearning some of my most deeply-rooted beliefs about the world and my responsibilities within it. Without realizing it, I had spent much of college and law school in pursuit of traditional academic and occupational prestige. I wanted to impress the people around me with degrees and honors and all the rest. I started to believe that the rule for law students was, “Get a lucrative and impressive job. Do so quickly or people will think you’re slacking. Get on that grind for the next few decades – you can sleep in 20 years. Passions are for weekends, but if you find some aspect of your career fulfilling, that’s a plus.”
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For the longest time, I didn’t even stop to consider that there might be other choices. I could choose to make a job out of my passion for writing – a passion I had stifled for many years. It would mean delayed gratification and a lack of structure, but it would also mean developing my own voice. I could be a storyteller and an advocate. It would mean accepting the possibility that I may never have significant financial success, but it would also mean making more genuine connections with the humans around me. It would mean losing out on the fleeting approval of nosy acquaintances but gaining the deep respect of the people who love me most.
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When I die, I can’t take any money with me. The passing judgments of others will fade out of existence. It is my belief that I will be judged by my actions and my convictions, and I will only answer to God. When I think about it that way, all the doubt about my decision fades away. Because I want to write about things that matter. My children’s book is meant to empower adoptees of color and multiracial kids and anyone who has ever felt that they were not “enough” for their cultural communities. The pieces I am attempting to get published right now are meant to unearth the injustices of the adoption industry and lay bare the harmful narratives so many people buy into every day. Every time I have spoken my words out loud, be it for an open mic or a performance or a presentation, I have done it in the name of justice. How could I ever have minimized the impact this life choice could have on the world around me? If my words can empower just a few people in this world, I will know I have done my job. The reward may not come in the form of a big paycheck or an impressive LinkedIn profile update, but it will be enough for me.