Law in Contemporary Society

Maybe Med School Is Less Suffocating?

I finally get it. I wish someone would have told me that when I accepted a seat at Columbia Law School, I would be assigned my very own elephant to follow me into any room which I occupy.

  • Careful about sequence of tenses. This should have read "I wish someone had told me that when I finally accepted I would be assigned...."
I made my decision to come here with my ideals in tow, fueled by the endless list of career options boasted in the school brochure. “The great thing about the first year is that I get to survey nearly all the different types of law,” I once said. But it recently became apparent to me that all of these “core” courses are just an instance of window-shopping while on a conveyer belt toward Corporations, Financial Accounting, and all the other aspects of law that I couldn’t be less interested in. In my opinion, the “golden handcuffs” aren’t latched to one’s wrists when he accepts a full-time offer at a law firm. They’re already beginning to appear on mine, and I haven’t even finished two semesters.

At the beginning of the semester, my reason for still drinking the Kool-Aid rather than following my own interests was because of student loans. While this is still a significant consideration in what I decide to do for the first ten years after law school, I’m discovering that there are other, more entrenched forces at work.

As I mentioned before, Columbia prides itself on an entire department dedicated to public interest law and its ability to subsidize those who decide to spend a summer in that field. But this dedication pales and shrivels in comparison to the effort expended to draw my attention away from public interests (not to mention away from my class work) and toward the glittering image that is private practice. A testimony to Veblen’s observations, firms clamor for the attention of 1Ls as early as October. Despite the fact that we know little to nothing about the law at this point (or perhaps because of it), we are bombarded with their waste, their trash quickly becoming our treasure. My lack of sleep was intensified by numerous additional cups of coffee, compliments of free Starbucks gift cards mailed out my potential employers. My stomach growled and my mouth watered at the various delicacies served at the cocktail receptions held for us on a weekly basis. And it gets worse. Literally one week after I had secured a job for this summer, I was already feeling the pressure to prepare for next summer. Twelve thousand interview opportunities are present at the Early Interest Program that will occur in August. Nerves will be stretched and smiles will be fabricated, all in the hope of securing a job that won’t even begin until the fall of 2010.

  • You don't need to, and shouldn't, attend EIP.

It’s no wonder why I find it so difficult to make room in my course schedule for next year to take any family law. As Martha said, “lawyers don’t learn anything other than what puts money in their pockets.”

  • She didn't say that. She said "dull" lawyers don't learn anything else.

Already I am feeling the pressure to take several classes “requisite” for a career in corporate law, just so my summer employers don’t doubt my passion for the field. Before I have even had the opportunity to decide what aspect of law best suits my interests and personality, an anonymous figure is compelling me to take courses on a “track” toward corporate law.

  • No one is compelling you except you. You are jumping at shadows.

All of the waste and conspicuous consumption common to corporate law only perpetuates my (tragically) developing addiction to elitism. I am not proud of this. I am proud that I was able to overcome stereotypes in my small-minded hometown and attend a stellar undergraduate institution, and that I was able to test my way into yet another stellar graduate institution. But now I am addicted. My preference for top ten US News schools has turned into a disapproval of anything less.

  • But US News and World Report rankings are nonsense. Being obsessed with nonsense is not being psychologically and spiritually well, and it's not exercising good judgment. Saying this about yourself and then going on as though nothing had happened is like announcing that you have a treatable but degenerative chronic illness that you have decided not to treat.

Naturally, this has been carried into my search for employment. All of the shining brilliance of the world of corporate law, superficial or not, has me convinced that to continue to appear to the world as one of the leaders of my generation, I need to associate myself with one of these high-profile law firms.

  • And you are wrong. If something "superficial" has convinced you of a substantive proposition, you need to look critically at the conclusion, which has not been supported adequately to bear the weight of your life choices. If you are going to be as smart as you hope you are, you can't make your life choices on the dumb basis of "glitter."

What saddens me is that this elitism now begins as early as elementary school for some children (per our discussion of New York’s elementary school “interviews”). At least I was able to make it until high school.

Finally, despite a growing desire to retire from the world of higher education and devote myself to being a “housewife” to my boyfriend, I feel increasingly compelled to realize the dreams of my female predecessors and take advantage of this opportunity to make more in my first year at a firm than my parents make now, combined. A woman is finally being taken seriously as a candidate for president, and all I want to do is sit at home, clean, read, start a family and enjoy my life as I see fit. “Clearly,” there must be something wrong with me.

  • There are several ideas here that need to be analyzed, and all the irony built around "clearly, something must be wrong with me" only gets in the way. First of all, there's no point disassembling the components of a happy life (whether they are two or three or four--money, work with meaning, family commitments, whatever) and then letting them compete with one another. The problem you are putting your fine mind to solve is how to have enough money, work with meaning, family, and etc. One reason to call your attention to Thorstein Veblen is to remind you to be careful about letting the question be "enough" money (whatever enough means to you when money is translated into the things you want to buy with it) rather than being how to have "as much" money as someone else. Maybe, if you're going to live in a marriage with someone, you don't have to earn as much as both your parents put together in order to live as you want. Or maybe you don't have to earn that much a year out of school, but will need to be earning that much once you have children to house and educate. You can shape a legal practice to provide meaningful work for yourself, time to be with your family, and enough money, if that's the legal problem you put your mind to solving. And if you don't pawn your license for a job with someone whose idea of how to make a job doesn't in the least consider, as you would consider for yourself, the other aspects of your life. He may pay you more than you can arrange for your practice to earn if you structure it yourself, particularly at first, but once you get the USN&WR, National Law Journal mindset out of your personal head, and remember the Veblen analysis enough to avoid chasing other people's standard of living at the expense of your own satisfaction, that doesn't matter at all.

All of this is not to say that I am left without agency in the situation. The powers-that-be at this institution would hardly say that I have no choice in what I do with my education. I have the agency in choosing which door to open, and Columbia boasts the great number of doors available. My point is that a few of those doors, made of marble and gold, Dean Schizer is practically offering me a piggy-back ride toward and will even escort me through it. The rest of those doors are splintering and become more unattractive by the minute. I finally get it. But that’s not to say that I’m equipped to overcome it.

  • You're equipped to overcome it if (1) you define law school as the place for becoming equipped to overcome, (2) you apply what I've taught you, and (3) you spend the next two years building knowledge and resources that will help you begin thinking about building your personal practice to meet your personal needs and goals in life from the moment you leave school. The organizations that organize law practice for risk averse control freaks won't do for you what you can do for yourself, which is to build a law practice that provides meaningful work that earns enough money and fits the other needs of your life. That's what having a law license can do for you if you use it as intended, which is not by mortgaging it to a law firm. If you demand of the law school that it teach you to think in those ways about your practice you can get it to do so. And you can learn from people in the profession by working with and for them without abandoning your autonomous career development. You don't need large law firms to do for you what they can't do anyway. You want to be in control of balancing your life, using the social privilege produced by law school to facilitate a good life, aligning your values and your practices instead of pitting them against one another. Yes you can.

-- WhytneBrooks - 04 Apr 2008

Hey Whytne, I completely share your "growing desire" of devoting yourself to being a housewife. For me, it's more complicated than just a growing desire. It's more a growing conflict within myself. When I see my boy, I feel the compelling need to be with him and spend time with him. I know that is what feels "right" to me. However, I don't want to admit it because there are so many successful women out there who seem to balance both world perfectly. I worry that not being able to handle "both" would appear that I lack capability.

Also, I sometimes question whether my overwhelming desire to just sit in the park with my son, rather than to make hundreds while billing hundreds, is something I should fight against, fearing that admitting it may strengthen the gender streotype, "confining" women to domestic works. We've been taught that we can have it all, almost to the point that we have to have it all, and now I find myself sort of trapped between the two conflicting roles I must play...

It's an ongoing question that I'm struggling to find an answer for. Boy, isn't it tough...

  • It will be less tough, Yae Ahn, if you don't think so much in terms of how it "would appear" and think more in terms of how it might feel. You need a way of life that makes striking the balances you want to strike easier, rather than harder. The belief that a great deal of money will strike all the balances automatically is easier for men to adopt than women, which might help to explain how many people's lives, of both genders, manage to become unhappy in every successive generation. But once you have realized that you can't pay to rectify work/life imbalances, that the human relationships on which you depend for your own well-being will not thrive on arrangements that supposedly maximize income by selling all your output at a fixed price to one law firm (can that really be the way to maximize income, or does it just maximize starting salary?), you can begin to address your question in practical terms, and you can also begin to demand that your teachers help you to think about it by contributing their knowledge.

-- YaeAhnPark - 04 Apr 2008

I would love to be able to say, after our lengthy discussions on how to better serve ourselves than a cookie-cutter corporate law job, that I'm happily employed practicing the type of law that I choose. Unfortunately, I cannot. Having been allergic to anything remotely business-related for most of my life, I'm now learning more about mutual funds and asset management than I ever intended. The work is interesting, don't get me wrong, but it would not have been my first choice.

However, after the moments of realization that manifested themselves in my second paper, there are a number of conclusions that I have reached. I wanted to share them below, and hopefully you all feel the same way I do about at least a few.

First, and probably most importantly, I don't want to disappoint my ancestors and elder relatives, who worked so diligently and thanklessly to create this opportunity for me, by using this amazing education to sit in an office and make rich people richer. Not that those positions aren't important to our economy, but they are not as personally and tangibly rewarding as I want my career to be. At the end of the day, rather than boasting that I helped ABC company to acquire XYZ company, or that I managed Mr. Moneybag's account, I want to be able to say that I defended a whole host of people who were unfairly accused, or that I helped a certain underprivileged class of people to gain rights that they deserved. If it means it takes me an extra twenty years to pay off my loans, so be it, at least I'll be able to sleep at night.

Second, I think that law schools and firms should be blamed for a lot more than they are. The fact that law schools encourage students to make the wrong choice through fear-mongering (that is, fear of a small paycheck), and law firms pay more money per year to 24-year-old associates than my parents made in a decade is shameful. It's not simply the people that are becoming greedy, but these institutions just blow on the flames. It kind of makes me ill that this mentality has become the norm, and I was totally unaware of its toxicity until this semester.

As far as our ongoing discourse on how to achieve our ultimate goal goes, I have had a few moments of sheer terror--when I see the things that Prof. Moglen warned us of live and in the flesh-- but I've had a few moments of hope. I told my mentor at my firm about our discussions on the "golden handcuffs" and pawning our licenses. He nodded his head at a few things, and seemed a bit puzzled about others. But he did suggest that perhaps a middle-ground is doing in-house work. There's not as much working until 1am, slaving away for a faceless client and losing oneself in the bureaucracy. Naturally, the pay is less, but even after having been there for only a week, I can feel that things are a bit more relaxed and a lot more human. But there still remains the problem of choosing what you practice. Perhaps my next internship will solve that mystery.

So, although I can't quite claim victory over this conflict, I do fully intend to pick the brains of my colleagues this summer to find out what they have done and how they feel about it, what they might have done if they could do it over again, and what they wish for the next generation of law students destined to be courted and corrupted by Big Law.

-- WhytneBrooks - 08 Jun 2008

 

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r5 - 22 Jan 2009 - 02:26:12 - IanSullivan
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