Why I Dropped Law After Coming First In Law

13 August, 2021
Decision-making; Life

For high-achieving high school graduates there is a convention that you should study medicine or law. There is a romanticised view of law broadening your horizons — "It shows you are smart ... It teaches you to think … It looks good on the resume" the law evangelists proselytise.

As a high-achieving student you might find you've gotten into law school, you're enjoying the study of law, but you don't want to be a lawyer.

Not long ago, I was in this situation.

I was one year into my degree and was trying to decide whether to drop law.

I consulted people from all industries and levels of seniority, I sought the advice of my parents, I thought deeply about my motivations.

And whilst after all this I dropped law, I often advise against doing so — there is more to the study of law than meets the eye.

This article will unpack the decision-making behind why I dropped law. More broadly, my goal is to share decision-making heuristics. I want to show that surface-level decisions often have hidden considerations.

My decision process can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Optimising for learning — the devil is in the opportunity cost.
  2. University is more than education — signalling, resemblance and counter-signalling.
  3. Structural advantages of law — timing, people and incentives.


1: Optimising for learning — the devil is in the opportunity cost

The study of law teaches you generalist skills that correlate with success across many disciplines.

A: You learn to write

Writing is a superpower. Clear writing leads to clear thinking. It also leads to more articulate speaking — if you've ever spoken about something you've previously written, I'm sure you know what I mean.

B: You learn to read

Reading 300 pages of complex cases per week? For 13 weeks straight? No problem!

Reading legal writing boosts your ability to read other writing because of its complexity.

Improving your reading ability is a meta-skill that enhances the acquisition of other skills.

Why?

Because it allows you to gather and comprehend information more quickly. Effective reading is a cornerstone of effective learning.

C: You learn to speak, persuade and exercise judgement

"Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men." — Plato

Law is adversarial by nature and tutorials are discursive by design. You're constantly analysing and formulating arguments. You're required to discern patterns from limited information and apply what you know to novel scenarios.

Learning to develop and articulate complex legal arguments is like training with a weight vest — everyday communication feels easy by comparison.

So, with all that, law sounds pretty good doesn’t it? But do you need to study law to learn how to read, write, think, speak, persuade and exercise judgment? Are there more productive ways to develop these skills?

In general, yes.

So, let's get into that.

The devil is in the opportunity cost

My good friend Andre Thomas recently asked me a provocative question: "what is your number one fear."

Scratching my unkempt COVID beard, I replied:

Making a decision that closes me off to better decisions.

For me, studying law meant (A) I didn't have time to study more interesting things, and (B) I had to also do the unproductive parts of law.

A: The opportunity cost of studying law

The primary reason I dropped law was to reallocate time to other learnings.

I've always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge — or the outcomes knowledge can bring — which meant that there were 1001 things I wanted to pursue.

I wanted to spend more time equity investing, more time angel investing, more time interning, and more time learning about crypto and medtech and AI and longevity and venture capital.

This obsessive curiosity pushed me towards dropping law in a way that might not make sense for everyone. I'll explore this in part 3.

B: The unproductive trivialities of law school

Law school allocates an inordinate amount of time towards memorising and reading and practicing fast handwriting.

This was a challenge as I have an obsessive focus on the actions that bring results. Even in high school, despite coming in the top 0.15% of the state, I didn't complete most homework tasks and rarely listened in class because I thought doing so was unproductive.

Again, this trait inclined me towards dropping law in ways that might not make sense for everyone.

What's more, the content of law isn't the most relevant if you are not going to be a lawyer (my good friends Sachin & Adam recently interviewed Malcolm Turnbull who agrees).

Since the value of law school is mainly from the skills you develop rather than the content you learn, I did several things to hone these skills in more practicable ways.*


2: University is more than education — signalling, resemblance and counter-signalling

Law school has other advantages beyond simply learning content and honing soft skills. These include signalling and resemblance.

A: Signalling & Resemblance Biases

Signalling

As humans, we look for signals to help us make decisions.

In many situations, our brain’s ability to make inferences from limited data is advantageous. It's an adaptive strategy that allows us to make quicker decisions.

Studying law can be a valuable signal.

Studying law doesn’t just show you know law. It shows that you are hardworking. It shows that you are intelligent. It shows that you can write and read well.

Resemblance

Humans make decisions based on resemblance. For example, one of the best predictors of presidential elections is how closely the candidate looks like a 'president'.

In a similar vein, a leader at top 50 listed Australian company derided me for dropping law, saying:

"Commerce-Law is the CEO degree".

And this is true.

But this is correlation not causation. It is driven by the fact that (1) law used to be harder to get into, (2) degree choices used to be more limited, (3) self-learning was not the same pre-internet.

Regardless, what this means is that studying law makes you more attractive based on resemblance.

After all, commerce-law is the CEO degree...

B: Counter-signalling: turning negative signals into positive signals

In general, the signalling component of law is hard to compensate for. But I've done a few things to 'counter-signal':

  1. I sometimes mention that I used to study law — after all, half of the signal of law is getting into law school. It frustrates me that this is a helpful thing to do
  2. My strong marks across other subjects meant that the 'law as a signal for intelligence' argument was less important, making it easier for me to drop law
  3. By dropping law, I can pursue several other projects which also have meaningful signalling content
  4. Dropping law says something about my character: independent thinker, decision maker, outcomes focused

I like to think in terms of anti-competition — that is, getting an edge by focusing where others aren't. I've always been hyper-critical of mimetic traps whereby people copy the paths of others.

While the tried-and-true formula of commerce-law works, it gets you the same results as others. To get outsized returns, I believe in being 'anti-competitive' — or in business parlance, Blue Ocean Strategy.


3: Structural advantages of law — timing, people and incentives

Some of the most underappreciated but most important aspects of law are its various structural advantages.

A: Timing

Law is a 5-year degree which makes it easier to land good graduate roles.

Why?

Simple.

A law student has four years to build up experiences for penultimate-year internships, compared with two years for a commerce student. The extra resume content you can gain in two years is immense — it's an additional four six-month internships.

If you are worried about landing a graduate role, law can be valuable for this reason.

B: People

To do law at Sydney University, you typically need to rank in the top 0.5% of the state. This means that your peers are smart, driven and probably have similar interests to yourself. This helps (1) motivate you to do better, (2) build your network, and (3) make friends who share your interests.

That said, more and more talented students are moving away from law. Also, high-school education is increasingly becoming a game of rote-learning, meaning that law might not necessarily select for the top people.

C: Incentives and motivation

I mentioned earlier that a few quirks of my personality inclined me towards dropping law: my contrarian mindset, my obsession with productivity, and my self-driven hunger for learning.

In the absence of this internal motivation, a massive advantage of law is that the heavier workload and environment of high-performing students might boost motivation.


Conclusion — when to drop law

While I'm reproachful of legacy education, law school gets an unduly harsh wrap. There are lots of reasons for keeping law. You learn invaluable skills, you gain a powerful signal, you extend your time in university, and you meet awesome people.

But here's the catch.

Most of these things can be achieved whilst dropping law. What's more, they can be achieved through methods that are doubly as productive.

Ultimately, if you enjoy law, I recommend continuing it as a general rule. If you have 1001 other productive things you want to do, the intrinsic motivation to do them, and don't want to be a lawyer, drop law.


If you're considering dropping law, feel free to message me on LinkedIn :))

Appendix

Some relevant factors I didn’t write about include:

  1. If your job might involve law, then studying law makes lots of sense.
  2. Be wary of making up false reasons to drop law when the real reason is laziness.
  3. If you hate law, drop it.
  4. If you want to pursue a more specialised degree (e.g. computer science, medicine), perhaps drop law.
  5. Asking yourself 'how can I minimise the negatives of a decision' is a useful framework. I therefore make an effort to still practice the implicit skills of law. I am practicing writing right now. I read plenty. I have frequent intellectual discussions with friends to practice articulating complex ideas.

*Here are a few of the things I've done since dropping law:

  1. Founded Next Chapter
  2. Made 5 thoughtful angel investments
  3. Interned as an equity analyst, investment banking analyst and at astartup accelerator, within 6 months.
  4. Started this blog.
  5. Learned much more about blockchain.
  6. Started studying mathematics & statistics at university.

Thank you to all the intelligent people who I chatted with in deciding whether to discontinue law. You know who you are, and I respect you all immensely.