Law in Contemporary Society

Professional Agnosticism: Why law students trade in goals to help people for golden handcuffs?

-- SylvieRampal - 24 Jun 2008


No one starts out wanting to be a gun-for-hire, to do work they hate, to drown in self-loathing. We are led there by fear and doubt:

1. We come to law school with unrealistic expectations, myths of the legal profession.

2. We are professional agnostics.

a. We come with unclear goals and unstable preferences. For much of our lives, the focus has been on doing well (whatever that meant); school demanded neither passion nor direction. We didn’t have to know what we wanted from or to do with our lives; we never developed the kind of clear, specific, exact goals that sustain and strengthen.
b. Absent clear and specific goals, our general ambition makes us susceptible to the influence and expectations of family, friends, teachers, mentors, etc.
3. It is difficult to develop specific goals because conflicting cultural and community obligations and responsibilities pull us in different directions.

4. Lack of information, skewed presentation of professional options and framing effects push students towards unsatisfying career choices.

1. Desiring the Myth

Raised in a world of personal chaos and dysfunction. I craved order and justice; being a lawyer meant effecting change, setting order and winning justice. As the child of immigrants—second class citizens— the law meant first class citizenship, power, autonomy, control.

I knew nothing about the profession or what it meant to live as a lawyer. I thought lawyers lived lives of financial comfort and stability. The reality of the unhappy lawyer, the idea of limited job security are jarring.

2. Unexamined Life

In high school, I showed some promise as a creative writer; my English teacher urged me to study English and creative writing. But my high school counselor—and family friend—was a powerful personality: She was a forceful black woman, blunt, charismatic and over-powering. She came from an island country, like my parents, and had no time for “white” conceptions like stress, anxiety, depression, job fulfillment. White people could afford to study English or writing careers, black people had to be pragmatic and settle on jobs that would never disappear—concrete disciplines like business or medicine or law. My parents have similar beliefs. The combined efforts of family and counselor helped dictate my college major and underlie my hesitancy to take on lower paying jobs.

The Costs of Unstable Preferences

The costs of going to college and now to law school without clearly defined career objectives are unstable preferences. Lack of self-assessment and uncertainty about preferred methods for achieving hazy goals like “helping people” means that when optimism collides with perceived credible threats, untried idealism dies an unseen death. We come to law school on a wave of pregnant ambition, optimism and idealism, but the failure to nurture those resources enervates the intellect and the spirit and gives birth to still-borne hope.

3. Conflicting Obligations and Responsibilities

• For their many sacrifices and our shared history, I owe my parents and will take on their care. I need the financial resources to do that. • As a Haitian-American: I have a duty to the Haitian immigrant population and to my cultural community to act in ways that better their lives. • As a Black woman: I have an obligation to the black community and to my gender to outperform society’s expectations; to work harder, longer, better, faster, to raise the profile of my race and gender. • As an attorney: I will have a duty to help low income and disenfranchised groups gain access to the legal system.

How do I balance these countervailing concerns and obligations and live a life I will be happy with. Can I be true to so many masters?

4. Misinformation

From where I stand, my expectations and those of my family, being poor or financially underachieving seems like a personal indictment, a character defect. Spurning economic opportunity seems ungrateful, disrespectful, wasteful.

People want great things for and of me, part of what constitutes what is “great” is economic value. Sometimes idealism and optimism run away with me, but the power of perceived pragmatism eventually asserts itself.

Perhaps I am misinformed, but it doesn’t seem like I can do “good” work and live a financially comfortable life. Professors, public interest, government and Big Law attorneys have consistently framed the choice as hating yourself for the well-paid work you do or as doing “good work” but living a sacrificing, possibly monkish lifestyle. Those who still intend to do “good work” have stated that the sacrificing, monkish lifestyle is not a problem for them because they never intended to own much or to have children. How monk-like.

I grew up poor. I have people depending on me. I don’t aspire to live an ascetic lifestyle. I want to own a home, to have a family and to provide them with the material and social resources I didn’t have. I do not want to struggle financially. (“Struggling” would mean failing my family, the people who have invested in me, and myself.)

Skewed Presentation + Framing = More Money, Less Job Fulfillment

Big Law and public interest (PI) and government work are not presented on equal footing. Firms seem like the norm: I get far more emails and announcements about Big Law than PI or governmental positions. Information on Big Law, Big Law hype, gets talked about and traded with fervor and enthusiasm. This skewed presentation is a reason why some classmates wonderingly ask “What else is there? What else would I do, besides Big Law?” Gradually, persistently, law school culture changes your conception of normal or credible until nothing else seems like a viable option; your choice is made from a seeming lack of credible options.

Nothing else seems credible when you ask yourself how you will manage the debt that you have taken on, how you will live a material existence that justifies the time, effort and expense of law school. The choice is framed as the avoidance of loss, rather than assessing the potential gains of any employment at all.


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r2 - 22 Jan 2009 - 02:15:47 - IanSullivan
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