Law in Contemporary Society

Slave Mentality: Where Choice is Key, but Choices are Shackles

-- By TomaLivshiz - 03 May 2012

Thin Market For Freedom

Last year, I spent Passover visiting a friend in Israel who lived in an urban commune. Most of the Jewish world celebrates Passover by reciting the narrative of the exodus of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt, but the group with whom I was sharing the holiday took a different angle. At their seder, this commune read a portion of a famous Midrash (a rabbinic commentary on the text of the Torah) which focused on the untold story of Passover: the story of how most of the Hebrew nation—eighty percent—decided to stay in Egypt as slaves. The seder organizers wanted us to consider what seems like a confounding question: why would so many people choose to stay in slavery?

At first, the idea seems preposterous—is there anything worse than slavery? But I found at least one explanation to be distressingly familiar. From the perspectives of the Hebrew slaves, the stability and predictability of bondage was preferable to the risks and unforeseeable challenges of total freedom. One defining characteristic of slavery is the lack of autonomy. It is unsurprising, then, that people who have been in bondage their whole lives might be terrified at the prospect of boundless choice. People might prefer to be unhappy, to suffer, or to allow themselves to be denigrated when the other option is carving a new path, through incremental steps and deliberate decision-making. Trailblazing may not seem like a choice at all. What if the new path leads somewhere worse than Egypt?

If You Were Shown the Path out of Slavery, Would You Take it?

Over the last twelve months, the original question—why do people choose to stay in slavery—has fermented in my mind and, in relation to the trajectory we began in August, has become truly pungent. I do not mean to say that I, or we, are slaves to the school, the system, or the firms; that would be too dramatic. What I mean to say is that I too am paralyzed by the thought that “I have no real choice” when in reality, it may be the inundation of choice that frightens me. My guess is that many of us feel bound to the well-worn path of the canning factory out of fear that leaping out of the assembly line might leave us worse off than we will be on the inside of a can.

Speaking for myself, I admit that I am overwhelmed by the prospect of stepping off the pre-drawn path. Were I to do so, instead of making the singular resolution to stay on the conveyor belt, I would have a whole lifetime of decisions, and worse still, a lifetime of mistakes. Thoughts of being an entrepreneur, finding other ways of covering my nut, finding clients, are inspiring in the classroom, but quickly seem audacious and quixotic once I step out. And while a fate like that of the narrator in Bartleby--splitting my soul until I descend into insanity--is far from appealing, like the narrator I feel the urge to grasp at a semblance of safety rather than crafting my own route out of debt and into the future.

Being Your Own Deliverer

This year, I spent Passover with my family – all people who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union. For many, Passover is a ritual commemorating an ancient story, but for Russian Jews, it is more a personal tale of liberation. It eventually became clear that the story we read from the Haggadah had a familiar cast: my parents’ generation saw Russia as Egypt, the Communists as Pharaoh, America as Freedom, and themselves as Moses—as deliverers. The journey to America was not forty years long, but it was difficult and only somewhat chartered. Between Russia and America, my family spent a month in Austria and several more in Italy, where my father, a mathematician by trade, peddled goods on the streets of Rome in order to ensure our manna. With this legacy, it seems counterintuitive that I, raised with several orders of magnitude more privilege than my parents, could be so willing to turn away from the very freedom for which they had fought.

But what this class has forced me to admit to myself, is that going to work for a big law firm is a choice too. My parents could have stayed in Russia, and the Israelites could have chosen to remain in Egypt. If that is the path that I will take, the excuse of inevitability is a hollow one. Even if I am being ushered towards bonds, mortgages, securities and mergers, I could choose to lose my place in line and go do something else.

I agree with the colleagues that you've written a clear, forceful account of the central psychological issue you and they wrestle with. You have also shown, equally effectively but perhaps not quite as consciously, how humans use their mythology to make sense of their world and to regulate the anxiety that originates from their awareness of its limitless complexity. You have described what is in this context the important functional meaning of slavery: to be defined socially as a person without choices. You have not said, but you have grasped, that one can also define oneself internally as a person without choices. These are the "mind-forged manacles" William Blake heard clanking everywhere, and which—as I may have mentioned once or twice—I hear clanking all around me every time I enter the Law School. They are made of anxiety, of fear. By building a network of fetters around us, we contain our dread by reassuring ourselves that we are in a coffle with others, and that there is safety in numbers. The law firm is a bulwark against the fear of not knowing how to be a lawyer.

You see how the myth of Egypt and the myth of Eden are conflated to make the halves of which the fetter is composed. The idea that if you leave you cannot return becomes an overwhelmingly powerful argument even though it is factually evidently false. Facts contrary to the myth, no matter how many times repeated, cannot establish themselves firmly in students' minds. This is repression of cognitive dissonance: to know the falsehood of the myth is to be faced again with the limitless complexity of the ways you can invent your life.

So our first step—taken with hope, hopefully, in this course—is to shake the certainties as they begin to develop, preventing them from forming such a smooth surface that it can deceive us completely into ignoring everything underneath. RachelGholstonSecondPaperSpring2012? expresses perfectly why this does—and should—cause immense resentment. LizzieGomezSecondPaperSpring2012? shows precisely where the resentment and bitterness that is the burden of knowing you can't just keep splitting heals: in the relationships with other human beings—clients, partners, mentors, students, proteges, colleagues—that inspire, share and guide our passions

But this is law school. So in addition to helping us to think deeply about how to frame our lives, it has to provide us a workshop in which to begin defining realistic, buildable plans for the initial stages of our effort. That means helping us to acquire resources: expertise we can sell and a network that can help us practice, find clients and opportunities to grow. It also means helping us to maintain psychic balance, not to ignore our fears and not to tumble blindly in the wind of them. Law school does not perform these tasks automatically, though they are the basic requirements, because it is poorly designed, having been made for a world that is transforming into something very different. But, as colleagues have noted, it can perform these tasks for you, because people who are here can form the relationships with you that you need, if they take the trouble to do so.

Eben, I would like to continue working with you after the semester is over, if that is all right.

You know the answer to that, Toma: It would be my pleasure. Also my job.

-- TomaLivshiz 12 Jun 2012

Toma, this is a wonderful paper. I think part of the reason working for a firm resembles slavery is the the idea that once you hop off the conveyor belt, there's no way back into a firm. We're scared that if we try something else after law school, the option of a firm will be foreclosed, and none of us want to close any doors that we don't have to. So we start working at a firm, thinking that we can always leave and do something else. Then once we start, we feel like we can't leave since we won't be able to come back.

-- HarryKhanna 12 Jun 2012

Harry, I certainly agree that this feeling--the feeling that if we don't participate in EIP, don't spend next summer at a firm, and don't accept the post-graduation offers that we will never have that opportunity again--is pervasive in law school, and for many good reasons I am sure. But from my limited exploration of the issue, I've found that there are many successful lawyers who will tell you that this is actually not accurate. One way it's been put to me is that it's a case of they need us more than we need them. Another phrased it to say that the firms are going nowhere.

I spoke with a man recently who left his firm after only a few years to do public defender work, decided that he preferred the, as he put it, complexity and variation of the work at the firm, and went back over a year later, only to eventually become a partner. If we hone our craft, if we develop the right skills and know how to market ourselves, then that option will always be available to us. And I imagine that if a former slave wanted to return to his or her shackles, no slave owner would stand in the way. Perhaps individual bridges may be burned, but the institution as a whole is not prone to personal grudges.

If the comparison were to hold so far, then perhaps one could find inspiration in the fact that if this scenario--voluntarily returning to slavery--seems implausible, then it would by analogy be equally fantastic to imagine a law school graduate who "escaped" from the conveyor belt to ask to be let back on. In other words, it is comforting to believe, while it might be terrifying for us to contemplate where the uncharted path will lead, that upon arrival we will have no regrets.

-- CamilaTapernoux 12 Jun 2012

Lovely paper Toma - I can definitely relate to your fear of straying from path dependency and stepping towards the unknown. However, I do think that those who wish to do so may be able to harness tools, build a network and create an environment at Columbia over the course of the next two years which would enable them to easily slide out of law school and into an alternate - yet secure and stable - career path. Columbia is full of professors with glowing backgrounds in public interest, government, and - most obviously - academia, available to us as resources and mentors. We are also presented with various clinical options and externships completely unrelated to firm life. While the thought of being pushed off of the diving board into unemployment after graduation is certainly harrowing, we still have two good years to build relationships, gain knowledge, and foster institutional connections that will enable us to swim in a non-Big Law environment come 2014.

-- MeaganBurrows 14 Jun 2012


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r12 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:19 - IanSullivan
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