All Quiet

Law school up to this point has been about 90% classes where all I do is read and study and then I take one exam at the end of the semester to show off my knowledge and get a grade. Which I think is actually a pretty good way to learn (provided you’re motivated to learn) and evaluate how much someone has learned without having to bother people with petty assignments and busy work. But somehow, this session, I managed to sign up for several classes with multiple writing requirements, which ultimately means I’m putting together over 120 pages of dense legal writing this semester. Hence my lack of writing here lately.

I’m enjoying the process though.

In my undergrad days when I was doing full-time work plus full-time school I would churn out assignments like a little academic factory. Highly-tuned to each nit-picky requirement and professor-bias in order to put out papers that satisfied the course requirements at a tremendous pace. I could do that again.

But now that I find myself with an abundance of time to dedicate to my academic writing, it’s been nice to be able to actually put together something that includes some significant thinking and composition in it. And having the luxury to mull things over, set ideas aside, and revisit them later to really test the soundness of my reasoning.

I’m delving into legal philosophy, something I’ve long had an interest in, and I’m mulling over the foundational ideas about where law and government gets its authority, and how best to govern men. As a classics major as an undergrad I enjoyed being able to spend my research time looking at primary texts and wrestling with things like the Platonic dialogues directly, rather than spending weeks reading the all-too-often derivative drivel of modern academic journals about what other people think of the original writing. – Stuff that’s often written due to career-necessities rather than out of love for the subject or because a genuinely new idea is worthy of exploration. Aristotle didn’t write in order to gain tenure. So I’ve had the opportunity again to engage in some original writing, this time that of J.S.Mill and John Rawls and some other modern ethics and legal philosophers.

Whoever says law school isn’t academically enriching or interesting isn’t trying hard enough. I can see how one could easily skip through the three years without seriously contemplating why one thing ought to be prohibited and another allowed. But the opportunity for in-depth analysis of philosophical or political science issues is there, it just needs to be voluntarily taken on.

The problem is a good chunk of the law school student body has only a minimal interest in law, and a much greater interest in living what they imagine to be the appropriate lawyer-lifestyle, like loft-living and driving foreign cars. I shudder to think there are so many practitioners of the law out there who have no real interest in how we ought to govern ourselves.

It’s true that most lawyers just wind up in jobs that end up being 90% rote repetition, where they just fill out the same forms over and over again, conduct the same interviews, sit in at the same old hearings. And most only engage in their little 5% chunk of the law in which they wind up specializing and completely forget about the other 95% they were forced to know for the bar exam.

I have a friend in my class. He’s Chinese and has a job lined up for after graduation with a firm in Hong Kong helping people to emigrate to the U.S.. In all likely-hood he could probably learn to do all the tasks of the job with about 2-3 months of focused training. But he needs to be a member of the bar to do the job, so instead he has to go through 3 years of law school. For him, it’s just about getting passing grades on his way through, then passing the bar. There’s no real interest in the subject outside of the pending job offer.

I don’t begrudge him for his lack of interest. His situation seems perfectly rational to me. So when we hang out we talk about China, or Boston, or video games, or family and his soon-to-be-born son, or business. – But never law. He’s not interested.

Because of situations like his, a lot of people lately are calling for a change in legal education. – Suggestions range from making the law degree a bachelor’s degree, to cutting law school to just two years. After all, it doesn’t take three years of training to help people fill out a bankruptcy petition or a green card application.

I think the calls for reform stem from valid concerns. The price of tuition is out of control. All some people really want to do is practice in a tiny little area of law, like my friend, maybe there should be a way for them to do that without having to go through 3 years of graduate school. Perhaps some kind of “enhanced-paralegal” certification could be established to allow people to practice in a limited area of the law.

My concern though, is that not everyone in law school wants a bmw and a job filling out forms. Someone has to litigate complicated appeals. Our appellate judges need to be trained somewhere. Complex legislation needs to be drafted by someone. Intelligent, well-trained legal minds need to be available for counsel in negotiating international treaties. I think my point is, that a lawyer shouldn’t just be capable of filing a bankruptcy petition, but he ought to be capable of writing the bankruptcy law itself, and be able to intelligently analyze and discuss all its potential consequences.

Granted, most lawyers don’t care to get to that level of expertise and law school, as it is, often fails to train people to that level. But for the motivated, intelligent student, it is possible to attain that level, or at least be well-prepared to attain that level soon after graduation. Whereas, if the law degree were crammed into a 4-year bachelor’s degree program, I’m not sure it would be possible.

But anyway, my class is full of people who want a bmw and a job filling out forms. The problem is, those jobs aren’t as abundant as they used to be. And so the BMWs are out of reach. And the three years of their life in school weren’t even interesting or stimulating. So too many of them will find themselves debt-riddled, exhausted, and bitter. They went into school misinformed, poorly-prepared, and for the wrong reasons. My graduation is going to be like watching a waterfall of lemmings off a cliff.

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4 Comments

  1. eva
    Posted October 26, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    See, based on this information, I think even more that I would really like to go into law. I’ve thought about it, because I think a lot about society and social justice and why things are the way they are and how the actions of government and corporations and people shape our civilization. But the tuition, DAMN. Even if it might be enjoyable, I think there’s no financial freedom down that path.

  2. Rachel
    Posted October 26, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    “So too many of them will find themselves debt riddled….”

    But you took out student loans too right?

  3. Posted October 26, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    @rachel

    No. I fortunately had my first year and a half paid for by my former employer and my last year and a half largely paid for by a grant.

    Plus I came into law school with no debt and significant savings available for investing while I finished up school.

    I wouldn’t have gone to law school (at least not the one I’m at) if I had to pay for it. It might have been worthwhile to go to a cheaper school, but relocating and all that probably would have stopped me.

    Most of my peers came to law school still carrying significant undergrad debt, not to mention the typical consumer debt most people have.

    I think it would be OK to go into debt for school. But you have to be cost-conscious and aware of the job market. And to take on a significant amount of debt to study something you don’t even really care about for 3 years seems risky and foolish to me.

    @eva

    There are some law schools in the country where tuition is still down around $10k/year. North Carolina Central University School of Law is a good example. It’s very affordable if you establish residency in NC. Looks like a fine school from what I’ve read of it.

  4. Posted November 13, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Your post reminds me of my business school experience. Most of us (including me) were just looking for a credential that we figured would lead to six-figure salaries, opulent living, BMWs, etc. We didn’t care about discounted cash flow analysis or quantitative decision making.

    Four months in, I realized b-school wasn’t for me and that incurring six figures in student loans would be a terrible mistake, but I was too prideful to back out. So I stuck it out, graduated with over $100K in debt and ended up on a career path I despised. I’m largely off that career path now (and thankfully I’ve paid off all my debt) but b-school was still a mistake for me.

    Good for you for having an intellectual interest in attending law school, and good for you for having the financial resources to not have to get a big job with big pay in order to justify going to law school. Sounds like law school was indeed a good decision for you, unlike most of your classmates.