Law School Daze
As luck would have it, the nonprofit work I’ve done since graduating from law school last spring has situated me among hordes of college students and recent graduates a few years younger than I am. The question I’ve gotten from them most often has been “Should I go to law school?” Without answering the question definitively for anyone, I gladly offer the advice that I wish I’d been given as a youngster. “Whatever you decide,” I tell them, “know this: being a skilled communicator or arguer, by itself, does not a lawyer make.”
I’ve had a knack for writing and oratory since I was young, excelling in public speaking and debate competitions and Model UN conferences throughout high school. In law school, I joined the Moot court Honor Society, participating in tournaments that simulated oral arguments before appeals courts. Over the years, I also became a decent writer (though of course, you can be the judge), contributing to student newspapers, opinion journals and online blogs. I’ve also been a history and politics buff since childhood, and many of the issues that enthralled me required legal knowledge to do them justice.
So what career development advice did I get from countless grownups around me? “Do law,” they said. “You’re good at speaking, writing and arguing; you’re into politics and history; you want to make a difference in the world. What better career could you have?”
From a young age, then, I leaned toward law as the most sensible career path for me. The fact that I developed a genuine interest in constitutional and international legal issues in college only further steered me in that direction. So after struggling to find other decent work for two years after graduating, I bit the bullet and went to law school.
A rude awakening awaited me. I found most of the course material—particularly during 1L—mind-numbingly boring; the four- or five-hour final exams, punishing; and the overall cost, staggering. What I learned about legal practice in summer internships and Moot Court didn’t shine much light at the end of the tunnel, either: demoralizing Bluebooking; poring through reams of cases, statutes and regulations written in stultifying prose; the endless formatting that goes into any halfway decent brief. Scandalously for me, even oral argument proved a letdown. You have no idea how aggravating it can be to argue with someone who outranks you and can crack the whip over your head at will. After years of debating my peers, I balked at the almost slavish deference that lawyers have to pay judges in court.
I also found that making losing arguments perfunctorily is not my strong suit. I know, I know—debaters are supposed to be good at that, no? Unlike academic debate, however, the law straitjackets its practitioners with binding rules that may have little actual merit. Together with real-world facts, these rules often require lawyers to make downright ridiculous arguments on their clients’ behalf. I still remember with annoyance my last Moot Court tournament, in which I had to argue with a straight face that my client, a fictional Pacific country, had somehow not violated international refugee law by apprehending boatloads of people who had gotten lost at sea while fleeing a series of natural disasters, detaining them for years without processing in an overcrowded, grimy facility with asbestos in its walls, and then transferring half of them to a neighboring country with a horrific human rights record. In the real world, although such lawyering is a dirty job, someone has to do it; I just increasingly doubt that I am that someone.
Once disillusioned, I remembered the days when elders urged me to study law because of how articulate and argumentative I was. Only then did it dawn on me that none of them were lawyers; none of them were especially qualified to recommend it as a career. I also realized that none of the actual lawyers I had known had ever encouraged me to follow their lead. Although they didn’t mention what a stressful, expensive bore law school is, none of them ever suggested that because I was a skilled writer, speaker and debater, law was the way to go. They knew better.
It’s not the fault of the first group that my decision to go to law school was so uninformed. They gave me the best advice they could (deluded as they were by television and films, which conceal the sheer mundanity of lawyers’ work). What’s more, I have no excuse for not contemplating the humdrum nuts and bolts of legal practice from the beginning. In the eleventh grade, my high school let me spend a day shadowing a high-powered attorney while she and her colleagues defended a tobacco company in a civil trial. The experience didn’t get my juices flowing. A bailiff had to admonish me to stop slouching and sit up straight; later on, I actually dozed off and had to be nudged awake by one of the attorneys. Yet I unforgivably missed this chance to learn a critical lesson the easy way. One necessary attribute for success as an attorney is, quite frankly, a very high tolerance for tedium—a quality I’ve never possessed in abundance.
The moral of my story is that students should find out what lawyers actually do daily before deciding to become one. Succeeding in law takes a lot more than an argumentative streak, a golden pen and a silver tongue, and not all attorneys even need those qualities. Drafting contracts and wills, doing real estate closings and other transactional legal tasks don’t require a gift for the gab. Moreover, lawyers aren’t the only ones who get paid to write, speak and argue well, or to advocate for deserving causes and people. The earlier prospective law school applicants are alerted to this reality, the less the workforce will be plagued by the scourge of mismatch—and the happier and more fulfilled a lot of people will be.
Featured image courtesy of [Flickr]