Coping with Law School Dismissal
by Anne O'Dell
A law school student facing academic dismissal confronts a confusing and turbulent point in his or her academic career, but salvaging that career can still be a possibility.
Almost no one will deny that leaving or taking a break from law school is a stressful and traumatic experience. As a great deal of status is attached to the legal profession, a dismissed student may begin to feel inferior to law school peers. Oftentimes, friends' and family members' well-intended inquiries will intensify worries and confusion about what to do next.
"Rejection is never an easy thing to deal with," said Alexander, "but I learned that it could be a beacon for other opportunities."
Alexander survived her first stressful semester, but the second semester posed more challenges than she was able to handle.
"I had to battle with dwindling finances, the stress of having a sick parent and the I Love Lucy escapades of my younger sister. During the last three weeks of the spring semester, my mind and body completely shut down. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and stress had taken its toll on my well-being."
With a low GPA at the end of the term, Alexander said, "I knew that my law school future was shaky at best. A member of the law school faculty informed me that my writing skills conveyed that I was not law clerk material."
Soon, she said, "I found myself on the business end of an academic dismissal letter."
However, Alexander is quick to share her subsequent successes. Eighteen months after her dismissal, she began taking steps to publish her first book; now, she is a successful freelance writer with an audio book, Dismissed Law Student Essays, currently available on Amazon.com.
"Eventually, I got over my dismissed-law-student stigma, and I started to look for ways to reach out to others who were in a similar situation."
Implementing Your Exit Strategy
Although protocol will vary, there are several basic issues that every dismissed student will want to address before leaving campus.
All students who are recipients of grants, loans, or scholarships will need to make an appointment for a financial aid exit interview.
It is essential that any departing student contact the school library, technology department, and business office to resolve any outstanding balances or issues; and although one may feel intimidated or embarrassed, it is important to explain the new situation to any relevant student organizations.
Lastly, even though dismissal is a painful experience, remember that any threats of violence or retaliation will be taken very seriously by your law school.
"Getting academically dismissed from law school can put a damper on your career path," said Alexander, "but it's not the end of the world, although it can feel that way at the time!
"A graceful exit may still enable you to get a letter of recommendation and/or job reference from one of your former professors."
Once these administrative loose ends are taken care of, Alexander recommends organizing your life a bit before you decide whether to reapply to law school.
Establishing Your Plan B
Use your law school hiatus as a time to pay off any debt and research your vocational options. Start keeping a journal, and note any important deadlines for application. Keep a portfolio of any notes, outlines, and briefs; and start a folder for reapplication.
First, Alexander recommends establishing a simple, workable strategy to make sense of your situation and get your career back on track, whether that means reapplying to law school, finding an alternate route into the legal field, or exploring other interests.
"The longer you put it off," she says, "the worse you will feel when school starts back up again."
Although Alexander started attending a community college paralegal program, she acknowledges that there are many other options for dismissed students.
The first question to consider, said Alexander, is "Where do I want to go from this point on?
"In other words, is being a lawyer worth the long road back to law school? If it is, then make it a point to stay involved in the legal field in some capacity. If you are through with law as a career, then research and pursue another career path."
If finances and schedules are not too constraining, Alexander noted the possibility of obtaining another kind of degree, such as an M.B.A., right away or volunteering with a law-related charity.
An online or evening paralegal studies program might be a better option for a recently dismissed student with serious financial responsibilities, such as a mortgage and dependents.
Alexander said that once she had her own "Plan B" set in motion, her self-esteem skyrocketed. She worked as an assistant in law firms during the day and studied at the local paralegal program in the evening.
"At first, it wasn't easy on my ego," she said, "but in the end, it was the best thing that I could have done to jump-start my career."
Applying for Readmission
The American Bar Association's Standards of Approval for Law Students allows for the readmission of a student who has been academically dismissed "upon an affirmative showing that the student possesses the requisite ability and that the prior disqualification does not indicate a lack of capacity to complete the course of study at the admitting school."
When a student is applying to a different school from the one he or she previously attended, the ABA requires a two-year period of "work, activity, or studies indicating a stronger potential for law study."
If you want to reapply to another school before the two years have elapsed, the ABA calls for a letter from your former law school. Known as a 505 letter, this document can be difficult to obtain; so allow plenty of time to find out your school's procedures, apply for the letter, and wait for a faculty decision.
Once a student is ready to reapply to law school, one of the first websites on his or her list should be the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), a nonprofit organization composed of 200 North American law schools, including all ABA-approved programs. The LSAC is responsible for administering the LSAT, which you may want to re-take, and for activating student profiles for candidate referral.
Try to get letters of recommendation from former law school professors, current program professors, or respected attorneys.
Because the application process will be more difficult after academic dismissal, it is necessary to do even more research than when you first started thinking about law school.
Many schools will not consider admitting previously dismissed students, and some have historical tendencies to reject applications from students who have been academically dismissed. Other schools will consider an application, but place exorbitant conditions before the applicant and, if admission is granted, will closely monitor the student's academic progress.
Establish a list of five to seven schools with acceptable admissions policies, and apply early. In the event that admission is not granted, have a backup plan for that school year.
To date, Alexander's applications have not been accepted, but her career is far from stagnant, and she is experiencing a new contentment in her life.
"I believe in the old saying that everything happens for a reason," Alexander said.
"During my 1L year, I longed to leave the frozen tundra of the Midwest for the sunny skies of California and get a job in the legal department of an international corporation. Two years after receiving my law school dismissal letter, I was able to achieve both of those goals. I have both financial and emotional stability for the first time in my life."
Options after Law School Dismissal
Dismissal from law school for academic reasons can be devastating, especially if you are quite sure being a lawyer is the only thing you want to be. Dismissals often happen after the first or second semester of a 1L (first year) which means you practically didn’t get your feet wet in legal studies yet. However, law school dismissal is not the end of the world.
It Could Be the Best Thing That Could Happen to You
There is no denying that the days when being a lawyer was the sure way to make a ton of money are long gone. High tuition fees, low employment prospects, and a killer schedule have gotten to the point that it no longer seems to be worth it. Being dismissed from law school for academic reasons could mean that:
• You may not be in the right profession
• You are under a lot of stress (physical, emotional) that requires respite
• You need to step back to get your head in the right place
At the very least, dismissal from law school means that you lessen the amount of debt you have from student loans at a time when getting a job in the legal profession can be difficult. Many law graduates find themselves obliged to take on work that has no connection to the legal profession just to pay off their loans.
But the tide is turning. It is projected that 2013 will see a rise in the salaries of lawyers by about 3%. At the same time, applications for admission to law schools have dropped by 20%, something that hasn’t been seen in the last three decades. This means that:
• The legal profession may just be on the way to recovery
• There will be less competition with fewer graduates in the market in three years or so
• Law schools may be less stringent with their requirements for readmission for previously dismissed law students in the future due to less demand
Most law schools will not readmit a previously dismissed student for academic reasons unless the reason for the academic deficiency was due to extraordinary circumstances, such as an illness. With the changing attitude towards the legal profession, however, law schools may not be able to afford to be so picky. Good law schools will still follow the academic standards set by the American Bar Association (ABA), but perhaps not so stringently.
Use Your Time Wisely
A dismissed law student may only reapply for admittance two years after the determination for dismissal is made by the school.In the meantime, the best thing to do while waiting for the requisite period to pass is to work and save money so that maybe you won’t need a loan to matriculate if and when you are readmitted.
On the other hand, if you are determined to become a lawyer, it would make a lot of sense to get paralegal certification so that you can work in a law office as support staff. You will get valuable first-hand experience which will help you in deciding what branch of the legal profession best appeals to you. When you are ready to apply for readmission, the fact that you already have a working knowledge of the law will put you in a good place. And the best part of it all is that you will also be earning money! Some schools even credit some of the units if the paralegal studies program you take is accredited by the ABA.
Getting dismissed from law school should be avoided, but if it happens, you should make lemonade out of lemons. If you are determined to get back on the saddle, analyze where you went wrong and use the time between dismissal and readmission to work on your weaknesses. In the meantime, make good use of the time to earn experience, money and insight into the legal profession and increase your chance of success a second time!