Law in Contemporary Society

A Lawyer’s Lawyer

-- By BrandonJoseph - 27 Apr 2018

The Path to School

My decision to attend Columbia Law came 13 years after I left Brooklyn to attend a Connecticut boarding school on scholarship, five years after graduating from Princeton, and three years since getting hired by the New York City Mayor’s Office. After graduating from college in 2012, I first worked with a non-profit as a Court representative advocating for incarcerated young people. I planned on attending law school in 2014, and figured that I could best learn from the practicing attorneys working at a breakneck pace in and around the Manhattan Criminal Court on Centre Street.

I asked every attorney I met the same question: “given what you know about law school, would you still make the choice to attend law school today”? Almost every attorney that graduated from law school from 2007-2012 responded with some form of “no”. Every attorney that graduated law school before 2000 responded with an unequivocal “yes”.

The younger attorneys cited unhappiness with their work, and the recession, as their reasons for urging people to avoid law school. The young attorneys’ responses, combined with burnout from working in Criminal Court every day, motivated me to delay law school. I resigned as a Court representative in the summer 2014, and withdrew from UVA Law a few weeks before the start of classes. Before graduating college, I wanted to attend law school for the standard reasons: I did not understand math or science, and generally found success as a student. Advocating for young people helped me understand the importance of lawyering for change, but I also knew that the pursuit of justice in Criminal Court would consume me in an unhealthy way.

I later took a job as paralegal—and eventually, policy analyst—at the Counsel to the NYC Mayor’s Office. There, I learned from lawyers who had spent their careers advocating for policies ranging from health justice to digital equity. I realized that specializing on policy passions, and using the law to push for systemic change, could be fulfilling and effective ways to achieve justice. I decided to attend Columbia Law in 2017 in order to stay connected to the issues plaguing New Yorkers while in law school.

The First Year

I found the initial transition from five years of work to school unsettling. After a year at Columbia Law, I have learned that law school has little to do with life as a practicing attorney. First year-courses are designed to teach students how to read cases, write in legalese, and understand how the law works in theory. Outside of the classroom, students join and operate clubs as in college, and interact in front of lockers like high school students. Career-wise, law school presents a menu of absolute paths to students. Top grades allow students to do “anything”, including the most “prestigious” big-law jobs, clerkships, and public-interest fellowships. Students with middling grades can obtain the less prestigious versions of what students with top grades receive.

After a semester a school, I began to feel the stress of the prospect of choosing between leading an unhealthy life working for justice back in the Courtroom, or life as overworked big-law associate working only for himself. I hated having to pick between paying off debt, helping my family, and helping the underserved that inspired me to go to law school in the first place. I stopped reading cases the first few months of my second semester of law-school, figuring that my path to post-grad employment had already been set. Why read property when I’d end up working in pre-determined fields that did not require specialized knowledge from law school?

In March, Columbia SJI asked me to introduce this year’s recipient of the “Distinguished Alumni Award”—my former boss at the Mayor’s Office, Maya Wiley. Maya had accomplished a ton of things in her career, including founding a non-profit, and work at NAACP Legal Defense Fund. As I prepared for the introduction, I thought about how Maya sought to infuse equity and justice into every project or initiative at work. She made a point to make social justice a part of her practice. At the award dinner, I spoke with many alumni that dedicated their careers to public service. Every alumnus spoke passionately spoke their unique paths to success. I left the dinner realizing that no matter what I do after law school, I can find fulfillment in setting my own path to affect change.

The Path Forward

I’m coming back to law school for my 2L year so that I can build the skills necessary to help others my own way. I will use my 2L and 3L years to figure out exactly how I plan on helping others. Instead of keeping my head down in books, I plan on re-connecting with the lawyers that inspired me before enrolling in law school, and on meeting new professors and alums. Academically, I will seek out mentors who can help me improve my legal research and writing skills. No matter what I do post-graduation, my legal advocacy skills will be the most important tools I take from law school.

I came to law school to get a license that will help me push for systemic change in the name of justice. Pursuing justice and earning money are not mutually exclusive, but I still will have to work hard to obtain both. I aim to become a lawyer that future students view as a model for success, one that combines an entrepreneurial spirit with the relentless pursuit of justice. I hope to become an attorney that others respect as a master of his craft—a lawyer’s lawyer. After a year in law school, I realize that I can help people both in and outside of New York City without Columbia Law’s blueprint. No one has ever bettered the standard of living of hundreds of thousands of people by following a steady career path outlined by someone else.


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r1 - 27 Apr 2018 - 03:30:47 - BrandonJoseph
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