Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: law school

>> Friday, June 24, 2011

I think I'm going to do what I did last week and take one more question, plan on taking the weekend off, then wrap up this latest series of Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets. These have been some excellent questions, fun to answer, and I'd like to thank everybody--I feel like some of the responses in this series have been some of my better blog posts to date; at the risk of cliché, I hope everybody has enjoyed reading these as much as I've enjoyed writing them.

So, the last question for the week. Seth writes:

Okay, I finally thought of a question. I'm going to assume you've heard something about the collapse of the legal job market, the explosion in the price of law school tuition, and the scammy tactics many law schools are using to inflate their post-grad employment rates. Given all that, if you were a young person contemplating law school today, do you think you would still do it?

I've been practicing law long enough to have a love/hate relationship with it. Going to law school doesn't mean one is going to practice law--in fact, I had no intention of practicing law when I applied--but it's the most obvious thing to do with a law degree. There are times I feel a great deal of satisfaction in what I do, and there are times when I'd chew my leg off to get out of it, and I write that with little exaggeration: there are times when this job feels like those classic Bruce Springsteen lines: "It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap".

There are times when despair and work-related angst are strongly upon me that I wonder why I went to law school and why didn't I go get a Masters and Ph.D. in History? Or maybe if I could go further back in time: why didn't I work more seriously on artistic pursuits to the point where I could cobble a living together from a relatively low-stress and trivial day job and nights spent playing guitar or writing the Great American Genre Novel. If I were a young person knowing what I know now, would I have gone to law school or done something else with my life? Quite possibly not. Maybe even probably not.

That's a personal answer that both does and doesn't answer the general nature of your question, Seth. It doesn't answer it because it goes to my own personal regrets over missed lefts at Albuquerque, roads not taken in the woods, neighbors with greener yards, etc., etc., etc. But it does answer the general insofar as I might say to any young person contemplating law school today, "Is this what you want to do, kid, is it really really what you want to do?"

Let's set aside the dire employment situation and the fact that law schools have accepted too many students and created a glut where the supply of young lawyers grossly exceeds what the demand for their services would likely be even if the rough economy wasn't causing employers (even in the private sector) to cut back; let's leave that aside and point out that the legal profession is notorious for its rates of substance abuse and stress-related health problems. Well, of course it is. The law requires taking on a large amount of responsibility--sometimes the stakes are literally life-and-death. The amount of work to be done can be paralyzing. Furthermore, the practice of law of any kind quickly brings the attorney into contact with some of the worst examples of human behavior: after all, people who are satisfied with the performance of a contract, who are satisfied with the settlement of an estate, who are happy in their marriages, who have never been accused of a crime, who haven't been injured in an accident or at their workplace or accused of causing injuries--these people hardly ever need lawyers to help them deal with their routine, mundane, banal lack-of-unhappiness. No, there are few areas of law (real estate, perhaps) where a lawyer's services are needed and there's nothing wrong; mostly, people need lawyers when there's a problem, and believe me that takes its toll sooner or later. We traffic in human misery, which is part of why people hate our profession; for what it's worth, we often end up hating ourselves to some degree as a result.

Is this what you want to do, kid, is it really really what you want to do?

I'm also an odd duck in some ways because, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't go to law school to be a lawyer. When I was majoring in History as an undergrad, I thought I'd like to end up in the State Department at some point; well, I looked at the Foreign Service Officer Test application paperwork and sample questions and quickly grokked that there was no way I was smart enough to take the damn thing. Law school seemed like a good way to smarten up, get some additional qualifications for a job at State, so I took the LSAT. But looking at tuition rates, it was very apparent that I could only afford Carolina and that there was actually no point in applying at any of the other schools I might go to, as I couldn't afford to go to the others had I been admitted. (It happens that when you take the LSAT, you receive all sorts of offers for various kinds of grants and scholarships from places you've never heard of if you please, please, pretty please apply to the Bumfuck Egypt School Of Law, so had I really specifically wanted the law degree, I could have applied to one of those places if UNC hadn't taken me, but I didn't see the point in getting a piece of paper from a JD mill in the middle of nowhere. At any rate, I was lucky to get in the place I applied.)

Once I got to law school, however, I discovered what I was good at and what excited me was the criminal defense. I knew by the end of my first year that I'd be looking for work as a public defender when I graduated. This happens to a lot of law students, this discovery that what you have an aptitude for or interest in isn't what you thought you were going for. Which also makes it difficult to advise that young person contemplating law school, you might realize. "I'm going to law school to help homeless people find housing," he might say, "and that is what I really, really want to do, old dude," and then three years later he's a tax lawyer because, man, that tax code is really, really fascinating and stuff. And then there's a young woman in his class who was going to get rich writing contracts for corporations and now she's eating cold canned Spam-A-Roni and contemplating defaults on her student loans after an exhausting day representing Social Services in family court. That kind of thing. Is that what you want kid? Hell, it's probably going to turn out you don't even know what you're going to want.

I wanted to be a lumberjack. (Well, not really, but that line seemed to go there.)

But I mention this because when I was a young person contemplating law school, it wasn't really an end but a means to an end that had very, very little to do with law school or even the law. It was something I could do while I got to a next stage that I ended up never getting around to. So what would I have said to myself; conversely, if my younger self were fast-forwarded to the present economic situation, would he have said, "Well, since I don't plan on practicing law, I'm not too worried about my job prospects"? Might have, yes.

It is very hard for me to know if I'd have been happier not going to law school. Some days, it seems like a mistake, a wrong turn. Other days, it's not so much that it seems like the "right" thing to do but I feel like it wasn't a mistake, that it was something that was an interesting and enjoyable experience that set me off into a field where, maybe, I sort of did something good for somebody at some point, and managed (to date, at least) to make an adequate living doing it. Still, y'know, maybe there's an alternate universe out there where I'm signing the development deal for the HBO miniseries based on my third novel or something. There's probably no such thing as a life without regret.

I don't know if this answers your question or not, Seth. I don't know if there is an answer. If there was a useful insight, I'm happy to have offered it.

It looks like Jeri's question is the last one in the queue for this series; I hope she won't mind if we pick it up on Monday. And, once again, thanks to everybody for the great questions!


Phiala Friday, June 24, 2011 at 3:28:00 PM EDT  

If it's any consolation, I feel much the same way about the PhD, both in terms of personal what-ifs and advice to prospective scientists.

Well, not quite. I can't honestly look back at my professional life and see anywhere where I would really have made any other decision that what I made. At the time I decided to go to grad school, there was no decision because that's all I wanted to do.

Some of those choices were very clearly mistakes, but not in any way I could realistically have known at the time.

Phiala Friday, June 24, 2011 at 3:30:00 PM EDT  

I have to leave a second comment simply because I like the verification word.


Is it a plant? An island chain? A tessellated zoomorphic floor covering?

I'm intrigued, and may make off with it for a story. Friday night flash!

Seth Friday, June 24, 2011 at 6:51:00 PM EDT  

Hey Eric,

Thanks for the reply. It certainly gives me some things to chew on, but in the larger sense I think your response confirms a lesson I've tried to learn over and over again: life is not really plotted very carefully. It's not like everything adds up to one particular, important narrative that you can somehow screw up. It's just a series of choices with different, but not necessarily better or worse, consequences.

Now back to trying to read Joseph Glannon on Civ Pro before school starts. Because I'm too academically competitive to wait until August.

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