“I Got Awful Grades My First Year in Law School. Should I Quit?”

Say that a student is asking himself this question. He went to law school wanting to become a lawyer. He still would like being a lawyer. He thinks he’ll enjoy being a lawyer, if he can get a good job. But he’s afraid that his very low grades for the first year — say, bottom 10% of the class — are a sign that he’ll likely have very low grades at graduation (the correlation is quite strong, I’m told), and has a very high chance of not passing the bar on the first try, or even after several tries (the correlation there is quite strong, too, I’m told). And with his very low grades, even from a good school (not Harvard or Yale, but still a good school, say in the Top 50 but not the Top 10), he thinks he might have a lot of trouble getting a well-paying job as a lawyer.

Should he invest another $80,000 in tuition for the two years, plus (say) $80,000 in foregone income that he could be earning instead of going to law school? Or should he quit, and see if his talents can be better used elsewhere?

[UPDATE: Assume that, after getting bad grades the first semester, the student talked to his professors about what he did wrong, used whatever "academic support" resources the school provides, and otherwise tried to improve -- but the second semester grades were still bad.]

Every year, thousands of law students face this question. They don’t want to feel like quitters. They don’t want their friends and family to see them as quitters. They’ve been told all their lives: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” My sense is that at the Top 50 schools, very few people drop out after the first year; that has certainly been my experience at UCLA.

But they’ve also been told, “Don’t throw good money after bad,” and “Know when to cut your losses.” Sometimes, quitting is the smart thing to do, especially if you recognize that it’s not just quitting one project but starting (or restarting) another project.

What advice would you give them? Please try to be helpful, and try to recognize that they wanted to be lawyers and still want to be lawyers, if they think they can have a rewarding legal career that justifies the extra investment of money, time, effort, and pain. As you would when giving advice to a friend, try to figure out what’s right for them given what they likely want, not given what you would want given your own intellectual interests and social judgments. (“The world doesn’t need more lawyers,” for instance, doesn’t count as helpful advice to them, whether or not it’s correct.)

UPDATE: According to Kristine S. Knaplund & Richard H. Sander, The Art of Science of Academic Supprot 45 J. Legal Educ. 157 (1995), “there is a strong correlation between higher grades in law school and success in passing the bar. UCLA students with a B+ (83) average in law school are one-tenth as likely to fail the bar exam as students with a C+ (73) average.” Richard Sander’s A Systematic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools, 57 Stan. L. Rev. 367 (2004), likewise reports, “If we want to predict in advance who will pass a bar examination in a particular state, and who will fail, the overwhelming determinant of success is one’s law school GPA. For example, at my own law school (UCLA), students who are in the top 40% of the class upon graduation have a 98% bar passage rate, while those in the bottom 10% of the class have a 40% pass rate.”

I asked Rick about this, and he e-mailed, “[T]he statistics I’m citing describe the first-time bar passage rate. The correlation between law school GPA and actual bar scores is around .7, though I’ve seen rates as high as .80 or as low as .61 reported. I haven’t tried to measure it (one of the things that will be possible with the bar data!), but I imagine the correlation goes down with successive attempts on the bar, as other factors (such as how much new learning one undertakes in preparation for the 2nd and later tries) become more important.”

This is a correlation between grades generally and bar passage rates, but my understanding is that the correlation remains very strong even between first-year grades and bar passage, largely because first-year grades are strongly correllated with three-year grades. And while I don’t have the data at my fingertips, my understanding is that there is more such evidence than just this one UCLA data point.