Law in Contemporary Society

The Risk-Averse Lawyer

-- CaseyBoyle - 14 May 2008 (ready for grading)

Sometimes I think it was really my risk-averse nature that led me to law school. Not to belittle my own or anyone else’s career goals, but I often speculate that the legal profession attracts a certain “risk-averse” individual, and that many of my law school peers were similarly guided by their own cautious tendencies.

As an undergraduate, I worked in New Haven’s public schools as an elementary school tutor, nutrition program coordinator, and preschool volunteer. From those experiences, my interest in urban education policy was born and, being a native New Yorker and a product of its own city schools, I went on to write my senior essay on mayoral control of the NYC public school system. Since then, I’ve been hooked on education policy. During my senior year, I applied to be a teacher in NYC, hoping to start there and then go on to become NYC Schools Chancellor. At the same time, I’d always considered going to law school. I took the LSAT during my junior year and applied to law school soon after “just in case.” Then when it came to deciding which path I would take, I realize, in retrospect, that I chose the “safe” one. The path without the risk of failure and disappointment, but with the perceived guarantee of high-status and security.

Not that teaching is, by any means, a “risky” profession. But the future that I envisioned was far from a sure-fire bet. And in the eyes of family and friends who had watched me “escape” from my middle-class upbringing to go on to Yale, becoming a teacher would be squandering a rare opportunity. If I wanted to be a teacher, they told me, I could have gone to the local community college and saved everyone a lot of money. They reminded me that my older sister and I were the first in my extended family to graduate from college. They spoke of material comfort and status and career satisfaction.

My decision to go to law school wasn’t entirely influenced by the opinions of others. I too felt law school’s allure. Captivated by the perceived guarantee of high-status and eager to continue down a road that would earn me praise, law school seemed the obvious choice. The students I talked to at Admitted Students Day buttressed these beliefs. While many were unsure about their own futures, they were sure of one thing and were prone to repeating it: if you go to a top-tier law school, you get a job in a top-tier firm, regardless of mediocre academic achievement. The formula was flawless. The cautious, self-doubting, and afraid-to-fail person inside me was attracted to it. I tweaked my goals, telling myself that a legal degree would still allow me to pursue my education policy objectives.

Law school has seemed to further condition the risk-averse person inside me. Risk-averseness seems to be engrained in the curriculum and culture of law school. The 1L curriculum, one that has changed little over the years, consists of an array of common-law courses. The law is infrequently portrayed as a dynamic tool for social change. Judicial decisions are not analyzed with much attention paid to either context or aftermath. Rules and doctrine seem to be the focus, while policy and innovation are a mere afterthought, discussed after students extract the rules from the cases.

From my perspective, risk-averseness seems to pervade the law school culture. The custom appears to be that 1Ls blindly follow what the older and wiser 2Ls tell them. If a 2L tells you to “submit your summer associate firm applications by December 1st or else,” you’d better do it. If a 2L tells you to buy the Chemerinsky treatise for Con Law, head to the nearest bookstore before you find yourself with a dreaded B minus. This risk-averseness is evident during exam time. Students who, in September were comforted by the prospect of that guaranteed “B,” now find themselves locked in the library for 15 hour days “just in case.”

Now, a year later, I find myself at an analogous crossroads. One road leads to an uncertain career and an unpredictable future in public-interest law and education policy or government work. The other leads to the quintessential Big Law Firm, with its seemingly “risk-free” path toward success. Once again, I hear the same voices and feel my risk-averse nature grabbing hold, except this time I feel a stronger urge to ignore them. I recognize the bifurcated pathway that law school and the legal profession have created and enforced – a dichotomy that amounts to a quasi-sorting system. Those willing to engage in the risk-taking and innovative work of pressing for social justice take one road, while those who are more risk-averse and timid head toward Big Law.

The questions for me then become: how do we uproot this entrenched sorting system? How do we make both paths equally desirable, even to the most risk-averse individuals? Those who head to Big Law do so for a variety of reasons, but, I perceive, not always because they want to. Often, the path is chosen because it appears to be the safest, most attractive option. Those who make this choice often wind up using their license in ways they never intended: to serve the corporate ruling class. Many have big plans and ideas, most of which will never materialize – the combined result of their own risk-averse natures and the dichotomy created by law schools and the legal profession.

From where I’m standing now, I recognize the choice I have to make. I recognize that one side reflects a choice that has virtually already been made for me by family, society, the law school institution, and by the risk-averse person inside me. But I also know that there’s another side of me – a side that with the proper social and institutional support and personal courage can prevail.


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r8 - 22 Jan 2009 - 00:42:23 - IanSullivan
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