Law in Contemporary Society

Evaluating Happiness: Rejecting Cognitive Dissonance in Law School

The Rationalization

Since beginning law school, I’ve constantly been asked, “How is it? Do you like law school?” And every time, I have answered affirmatively – that I like it and I’m happy. I’m enjoying the readings and the new historical perspectives I’ve gained, my peers are intelligent and I like a good number of them, and I’ve been challenging myself to become a better speaker and writer. I’ve been asked so many times, that it’s practically rehearsed by now.

Nevermind the overwhelming amount of sometimes tedious work or the lack of practical training. Nevermind how the curve is undoubtedly a terrible method for encouraging learning through collaboration. Nevermind how my time with my family and friends shrink.

I like the internal consistency of sacrificing a lot and reaping just as much, as people often do.

The Rejection

But then came one day, “I hope that’s the case, but I’m not sure I believe you.”

I’m not often accused of lying, although, when that sentence was uttered to me, I also don’t think it was meant as an accusation of a lie. It did force me to consider the set up that law school puts us in. We pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time in law school, so we must be happy doing all of the readings, attending the firm lunch receptions, and meeting overworked attorneys who invite us to join them.

It made me consider that I need to seriously evaluate if I’m happy in law school by simply following the steps that Columbia has so nicely laid out for us, or if there are other steps that I could be taking instead.

What is Happiness?

The thing is, we’ve been taught from an early age that happiness derives from success in the forms of social attainment, academic success, or even wealth accumulation.

Careful with "we." This narrowly achievement-based view of happiness is by no means universal. Thinking more closely about how such an upbringing differs from other possibilities—about the psychic as well as cultural roots of such an approach to bringing up children, about which traumas one inherits if that's the particular psychic context in which one grows up—will turn out to be valuable for you.

Therefore, in law school, the easiest way we think will help us achieve happiness is the same: meeting and becoming friends with our classmates, achieving the highest grades, going to a top-ranked firm.

But, social psychology has debunked some of the happiness myths and revealed other methods to achieve happiness. We may think making a vast amount of money at a private New York firm will help us achieve happiness – but any amount of money over about $60-70k no longer adds to our happiness levels. Instead, social psychology has suggested that giving to others is something that makes us happier. Law school, though, has made me into someone who is incredibly selfish about my time. No, I can’t come to a birthday dinner – because I need to study. No, I can’t help you move out – because I have reading to do. No, I can’t help you file your divorce papers by next week – because my exams are next week. These are absolutely unacceptable excuses, and in fact, destined to make us more unhappy.

Instead, if we truly wanted to achieve happiness, we wouldn’t be focusing on just our selves, our grades, or our achievements. Happiness, then, can be achieved through “sacrifice”.

What to "Sacrifice"?

Sacrifice always has this dreadful connotation. In its very definition, it is “to give up (something important or valued) for the sake of other considerations” (Apple Dictionary).

Obviously a really terrible source. From that supposed definition, one might suppose there was no such thing as religion in human society, for one thing.

One great benefit of being at Columbia is that from CU Internet addresses one has free online access to the Oxford English Dictionary. That's the history and meaning of the English language, word by word. Looking up sacrifice there might be helpful for putting the word in a deeper context. The first (1597) use of the word for the denotation you are preferring may also both pique your interest and offer a small enlightenment.

The suggestion is that once we give it up, we may not be able to get it back.

Undoubtedly, we have a limited amount of time – that always means giving something up, but I think sacrifice in law school should be a positive thing: we are figuring out what we want and what we don’t want. Simply put, if I’m not willing to sacrifice it, I probably really want it.

Figuring out what the “it” is will be what makes the next two years worthwhile. Right now, my path is full of uncertainties. What would I consider to be a fulfilling legal career? What path do I want to go down? Is it the path of someone who becomes general counsel of a company that will contribute worthwhile technology to our future? A prosecutor, or a public defender? Someone who leads a non-profit? A policy-maker? Someone who opens a law practice?

I hope law school will help narrow down the paths I want to take by allowing me to find mentors who can give me insight on how they and the people around them practice law, and places that I can intern at to see how law works in the real world.

Such people might tell you that a real life lived in the law doesn't consist of choices among those "paths." Such mentors would probably point out that life trajectories lived by people they admire took many turns through different roles in different areas of society. They may say that part of what made admirable those people they admire was the breadth of experience that contributed to their lives. At any rate, you might want to give some thought, and conduct some conversation with knowledgeable people, on the subject whether "narrowing" paths is one of your strategic objectives.

No matter what, I expect that if I am able to learn practical skills while I’m here – to work with counsel and learn how to counsel, then I may feel like my time here was worthwhile. This might mean “sacrificing” black letter law classes, leadership positions, or time spent memorizing out-of-date cases, but in order to get what I really want from law school, I’m willing to do so.

That's not sacrifice in any of the meaningful senses: that's a matter of agreeing to give up what you don't think you want, otherwise known as giving away ice in the wintertime. It's a negotiating tactic, not a valid form of self-investigation. Good thing, wrong place.

For me, I’m hoping law school will help me expand the bounds of my creativity and reinforce my character so I don’t become selfish, blinded by prestige, and no longer introspective of the kind of person I want to become.

Expecting law school to reinforce your character is probably not a good bet either.

There are relationships with other human beings that will occur, not a relationship with a law school, or some fragment of its operations, that will contribute to your personality development (including "character management") during this very significant, rather short, phase of your life. But they won't determine whether you become selfish: They will affect the development of your self.

Being at a world-class legal institution affords me confident optimism about my future, but only if I focus on pursuing things that I actively want to pursue. Undoubtedly, I don’t want to start reflecting on myself 20 years from now, only to realize that I never took the moment and asked myself what I truly enjoyed. As long as I continue to check myself and really ask if the activities I’m doing and the classes I’m taking are giving me something useful for my future, I am confident I won’t fall prey to an internal need for consistency, or anyone else's definition of happiness.

This last seems a correct conclusion. If the purpose of the draft was to make sure you could take the step to arrive there, it has served its purpose well. I think there are two points through which it might now turn into something serving the "next" purpose for you, beyond this strip of territory so expensively achieved.

  1. The philosophical importance of the definition of sacrifice arises from a basic, realistic insight that like most realism is hard for people: every human choice involves loss. This reality, like other realities against which human beings protect themselves at all costs, by dissociation, in order to avoid going crazy—the inevitability of death; the inadequacy of marriage; those cases in which parents don't love or even like their children—is surrounded by anxiety even when it is for a moment forced into conscious view. Young adults want especially hard not to see that reality, even in less socially-uncertain times than the present: faced with plethora of choice at the inexperienced onset of adult responsibility, they like to narrate to themselves situations in which nothing is lost by the choices they are making. Is it not particularly appropriate that the OED can show you the modern dissociative, rationalizing denotation of "sacrifice," as utilitarian algorithmic living, growing out of a poem about two adolescents whose dream of choice without loss is going to wreck them and everything around them? So perhaps the next coasting destination, as you navigate yourself towards open water, is to accept that choices involve losses but life's course is too inventively uncertain to make calculating gains and losses from moment to moment a sufficient, or perhaps even necessary, mode of self-understanding.
  2. Knowing that you are not "going to fall prey" is an important step. Feeling hunted is not a good mood in which to do planning. But the form of words is still holding a real meaning: you aren't ready to see yourself as the hunter rather than the hunted. Lawyering is making things happen in society using words. No matter what you use your skills for—whether you are choosing prey for virtue, or for money, or for sport, you are stalking a locale in society, some place, some time, some action, in which mechanisms you have made with words are going to make something advantageous happen. Even if no one is going to lose—which isn't usually the case—you were preying, not being preyed on. That's the job.


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r5 - 28 May 2016 - 16:36:28 - EbenMoglen
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