Law in Contemporary Society

Fears of a law student

Reasonable Doubt

Although I have committed myself to be trained to participate in a profession that has traditionally allowed many to live comfortable and fulfilling lives, I find that my days are filled with anxiety. From my observation this is typical of the majority of my fellow students. Some of the most troublesome worries of a law school student, or at least, the worries that trouble me the most, are anxiety about finding jobs and fear of inability to pay off debt. If many other law students feel this anxiety to the same extent as I do, it is easy to see why many choose the security of working at a big firm over choosing to exert control over their own lives and careers and find their own place in the legal world. Because I feel this is a considerable problem, I think it would be useful to discuss these fears and perhaps try to find a way to cure, or at least mitigate, this crippling anxiety. Coming into law school, my greatest fear was fear of being saddled with soul-crushing, unaffordable debt upon graduation. In this I was hardly alone. My dread was further fueled by my discovery of, a forum where unemployed lawyers burdened with huge amounts of debt complain about how miserable their lives are. The idea that the debt of a law school education leaves you with the choice of either accepting an offer at a big law firm or one at a public interest law firm and leaning on the crutch of LRAP is, by my own observation, the dominant sentiment among our student body. The anxiety that fuels this belief is probably detrimental to the ability of the student body as a whole to choose the lives that best fit them, so I think it is useful to address this fear directly.

The Columbia Solution

Columbia Law school would have you believe that the problem is easily solved and the system is the solution: either take the high paying job or rely on LRAP and you have nothing to worry about. I don't find this to be helpful. Admittedly, at first, these seemed like acceptable options. But every day since I've started at Columbia I've questioned their adequacy more and more. Nevertheless, what has held me as well as many of my fellow students back is the lack of a clear alternative way out that leads not only to career satisfaction but also to a comfortable life with income that renders our debt manageable. Professor Moglen has pushed us to consider alternative career paths and to avoid becoming “meat” packaged by the Columbia assembly line, but the ability to entertain the option of pursuing off-the-beaten-path careers we must still consider our ability to support ourselves and pay off our loans. The pressure of paying back loans, it seems, is too great to permit us with any breathing room upon graduation to reflect and explore our options.

Or is it?

Maybe the solution to the problem is to stop worrying about our ability to pay off loans right away and start worrying about achieving some sort of happiness in our lives. In other words, maybe it's time to take the focus off the money. This is not an easy step. The entire law school system fights against this intuition. But it might be worth putting into perspective; in the grand scheme of things, nobody will leave law school with education loans greater than the mortgage on an average house. As Professor Moglen pointed out to me, inflation is on our side, and our investment will become easier and easier to pay off as inflation increases every year, assuming inflations outstrips interest rates (which, in this economic situation, is not unlikely). These considerations might calm the anxieties of some, but regardless of how relatively small our debts will be compared to the debts of most home owners, paying off our loans still seems to be a daunting task. Putting it into perspective makes the task of paying off our student loans seem possible. But it might be useful to explore other options to further mitigate our debt anxiety.

Another way of helping ease the anxiety we feel about debt is strengthening our belief that we can, in fact, be lawyers and will do so. This resolution will not be helped by the status quo, however. At present, law schools leave their students woefully unprepared to do anything of the sort. The practical skills that we would need to start off on our own can not be learned in huge lecture halls. Probably the only way to learn such skills through the university curriculum is through participation in clinics and externships. However, there is a limit to how many of these classes you can take (they, along with any non-law school classes taken toward earning the J.D., can comprise 23 of the 83 credits required for graduation) and spots are limited. So why aren't we complaining about this? The best way to get our money's worth with respect to our professional education is to get as much professional experience as possible. As consumers of the product that is a Columbia Law School education, we should demand more for our money.

What to do with it

Looking at our debt with some perspective along with being more proactive about the practical aspects are two things we can do to help ease our anxiety. I'm not sure that either one or both of these things will be able to solve or even substantially mitigate the problem of fear. I think, however, that it would be useful to open up the discussion to the rest of the law school community and recognize and confront each of our own fears with respect to law school and employment so that we can put our focus where it needs to be.

  • You haven't explained why you think that the best way to prepare for practice is to be trying to practice without having learned how. The hypothesis on which law school is based, and which I think has validity regardless of the reasons why law school presently works badly, is that a coherent attempt to teach is more effective than undirected apprenticeship. As a person who both teaches in classrooms and also operates a legal services entity where young lawyers, including law students, practice all the time, I can say for sure that law school education, including at high student-faculty ratios in large classrooms, serves purposes that practice-oriented school-to-work programs can't have on their own. But why should I stop you from explaining how lawyers should be trained?

  • I think there is courage and strength in admitting the anxiety, but the next step is to be willing to let go of the cords that tie you to it. If every time you spoke to some suburban householder he told you how he lies awake at night worrying about his mortgage payment and that it's preventing him from doing what he wants to do with his life, you'd wonder. So I wonder. You're going to have a small mortgage to pay, probably in addition to some long-term debt on your home. So what? Life choices aren't made on the assumption that your only way to pay the mortgage is either (a) get a job with the worst industrial polluter in town, or (b) do something no one can quite define or knows how to do. People have been making a good living using law licenses for a thousand years. Large leveraged law firms have been around for less than a hundred years. The belief that you can't make a good enough living to pay the mortgages without hocking your license to some sweatshop isn't worth three essays your freshman year. It isn't worth one. To let the issue have an y significant effect on your life choices is stupid. That's really how it is. Now, can you deal with it?


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r12 - 22 Feb 2015 - 15:32:02 - EbenMoglen
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