March 17, 2004

Lithwick: I Went to Law School for This?

by Guest Contributor

Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate, where she writes regularly for "Jurisprudence: the law, lawyers and the court." - Ed.

I went to law school because I didn't have the stomach for med school. I went because virtually everyone I had known from the Yale debate team had gone to law school. I went because I loved the TV shows about the people's cross-examining slippery witnesses into a confused confession. And I went to law school because I had unformed, inchoate hopes of making the world a better place at a policy level.

These are all good reasons to go to law school. But they are also bad ones. If more people went to law school knowing that centrifugal forces being what they are, they would someday end up at a law firm doing work they don't much care for, many fewer people would go to law school.

The mistake many (possibly most) make is treating law school like a second BA -- a second opportunity to put off making a concrete career decision, a general "broadening degree" that will make us employable in any field. Don't get me wrong; one can treat a law degree as a great all-purpose second degree, a chance to learn to "think like a lawyer." But somehow, something happens to that thinking almost before we tear the shrink-wrap off our first contracts book: We start to let fear drive us instead.

The article here includes the best advice I can offer about fighting fear in law school -- and about understanding the ways in which our fears funnel us into summer jobs, clerkships, journal positions, law review competitions, and ultimately into law firms. But it is perhaps too cynical. It doesn't mention how magical law school can be if you bite your cheek and ignore the fear.

I went to law school, hated virtually every minute of it, dropped out, dropped back in, and bitched and moaned like a toddler. But law school ultimately allowed me to do precisely the job I always most wanted to do: be a writer. I could not do what I do today -- cover the courts and the law -- unless I had gone to law school.

The huge irony is that if I had known back in law school how happy I would be 8 years later, I'd have had the time of my life! I would have loved my classes, taken more interesting ones, never gone to an event I hated, done even more clinical work, learned to salsa dance, and made better friends. It would have been like undergrad, but in better shoes. The reason I got stuck was because I let myself feel stuck, thinking that unless I treated law school the way everyone else treated it -- as a dark tunnel to the world of corporate law -- I was doomed.

The best thing about law school is that it really will blow open a thousand career doors for you. But you need to see them. You need to tap your way along the dark tunnel -- feeling for soft spots, and listening for folks on the other side to tap back. You need to be true to your heart; true to why you went in the first place. And you need to do whatever it takes to fight the fear and the sucking noise that will otherwise pull you into a life you may not want. That means being proactive: find mentors who are doing weird things with the law. Work for a professor who isn't doing ordinary research. Volunteer someplace that needs lawyers. Cold-call lawyers you read about and find out how they got their jobs. Keep doing the stuff you found interesting before law school.

I am completely glad for my JD. It gives me exactly what I once hoped it would: a bit of knowledge, some credibility, an all-purpose ability to read cases and statutes. But the best thing about it is that it was a means to an end, and that end was becoming more myself, not less. Go to law school for the right reasons, or the wrong ones. But be certain you are more yourself, not less so, when you come out the other end.

March 17, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack

Non-controversial comment follows:

Writing as a recently-graduated law student, I agree with Ms. Lithwick's points. I hope I can apply her suggestions. Thanks to de novo for putting together this collection.

Posted by: Morgan at March 17, 2004 10:33 AM

A rather long comment:
I went to law school with Dahlia, and consider myself one of her most dedicated fans. But Dahlia and I perhaps had different experiences in law school. I had a wonderful time, and used those three glorious years to run my first marathon, fall in love for the first time, plan several international conferences, explore new and fascinating intellectual and professional fields, explore San Francisco and the CA wine country, travel abroad, take (mostly) great classes from (mostly) brilliant professors, and discover a passion for criminal defense work and death penalty opposition that led me to jettison the very goal with which I entered law school: to become an environmental lawyer.

Still, I concur entirely with Dahlia's advice. Despite all the mind-expanding experiences (as opposed to mind-expanding drugs) I gained in law school, I still slid effortlessly from my clerkship into a big-firm associate job. I then bounced my way through several other big-firm associate jobs, making buckets of money and hating the vast proportion of my working hours. But each step of the way, I sought out opportunities to feed and grow that passion I'd discovered back in law school. And five years down the road, I found myself in my dream job as an assistant federal public defender, handling habeas corpus cases and appeals. I make a lot less money, but I'm using that precious JD to do something I believe in, helping people who've pretty much run out of hope and options, working with an exceptional bunch of colleagues, under remarkably humane conditions. And there are plenty of jobs like this out there, if you are willing to hunt them down and persevere in pursing them.

I will add to Dahlia's advice that, while you should be true to why you went to law school and fight the pressure to follow the well-traveled path into the Firm, you should also keep your heart and mind open to the many possible career paths to which law school might lead you. Take classes that intrigue you or with professors you enjoy even if you think you'll never practice in that area (while I hope never to see the business end of a probate case, Trusts & Estates turned out to be one of my absolute favorite classes). Don't ever, ever, EVER take a class because it will be on the bar exam. That's what bar review is for. Do an independent study paper on a topic that truly interests you and submit it for publication. Try a clinic in an area in which you have no prior experience (or, even better, in the area you think you want to pursue) so you can see what it's like to actually PRACTICE that kind of law. Do the big-firm thing for one summer, so you can enjoy a lot of really excellent free lunches, work on a wide range of cases, and buy some great shoes. But pay heed when those burned-out associates who buy you lunch reminisce wistfully about their own summer associate days.

And enjoy law school. Fight the fear!

Posted by: madeline at March 17, 2004 11:24 AM

A most excellent piece. You have very succinctly captured my own love/hate relationship with law school. I only enjoyed four out of my 23 classes, and liked you, absolutely loathed the majority of my three years, because I fell into the trap of taking the courses I thought I had to take in order to get a job.

It wasn't until the Fall of my third year, after I passed the Foreign Service exams, that an enormous burden was lifted, and I finally felt truly free to pursue my interests, and my outlook and law school experience improved immeasurably.

Now I'm pursuing my dream career as a diplomat and I can finally perceive the value of my legal education.

Posted by: Prince Roy at March 17, 2004 11:31 AM

Precisely how I felt about law school--hated the entire thing, transferred schools (like that would help), went back to my original school, and either bitched about how much i hated it there, or just didnt go. As a recent grad, awaiting bar results, I'm already planning my escape from big-firm life. And as a second(and LAST)-time taker in California (did you see our pass rate this past summer?) I have a completely different perspective, now I wonder WHY am I doing this? I studied like a mad person to do a job i hate! The first time I took the bar I was "following the sheep," but after studying, collectively, for an entire year for the bar, I've discovered that big-firm practice is just not worth it. I'm counting down the days until I get results, just so I can [1] get fired or [2] move on with my life/profession. Thanks for posting your experience, that you can go to law school for the wrong reasons, but still be glad you did it in the end.

Posted by: Akira at March 17, 2004 07:50 PM

If I'm not out of line asking, Akira, what do you want to do if not big firm work?

Posted by: Nick Morgan at March 17, 2004 08:07 PM

I'm still IN law school. Perhaps it's because I'm a non-trad student (30, full time job as an engineer, married w/ kids), but I'm eccstatic about everything in law school.

The wife... she wants me to get out and make the money to prove the hassel was worth it.

I think the biggest problem for most people is that they enter law school right after undergrad. Too many people have no perspective and less maturity when they enter law. (Don't even get me started on the day-students.)

If you know who you are when you enter, and you know you like to push yourself and grow your mind, I can't see how you can not enjoy law school. I get a good chuckle at all the students who think their life depends on getting picked up by a big firm. (I'm not at a big-name school, so it's not a foregone conclusion that you'll enter BIGLAW.) Anybody who forfeits control of their future to somebody else's whims deserve the fear they feel.

I suppose I can feel happy that Dahlia is now happy. I don't agree with her about much of substance, but it's her own d--- fault for not wringing every bit of life/joy/experience from law school. She didn't even (apparently) have a family to support and spouse who's feelings she had to take into account, and couldn't find a way to enjoy the experiences SHE was choosing.

I can strongly agree, however, with one thing even from my in-progress perspective. Law school definitely makes you MORE of who you are. There's a danger, it can and will change you. You will go from being a piece of iron to a sharpened sword of tempered steel. Those around you who are not in law school won't be changing in the same way, and the metamorphasis can (will) produce times of significant discomfort. I have no idea how long the mild estrangement from the rest of humanity lasts, or if it ever ends... we'll see.

(P.S. If you're in the MD/DC area and are impressed by what you've read and think you might want to hire me as a student associate at a healthy salary, I would certainly entertain communications which could lead in that direction.

Posted by: Bronson at March 18, 2004 01:44 PM

It seems to me that law school, like most other things in life, is what you make of it. My own observations are that a lot of people go to law school without an iota of understanding of what they are getting into and what they want to do afterwards. Thus the ennui and the hate. I treated law school as an opportunity to be challenged and to sharpen my intellect and loved every second of it.
People also aspire to go on to big law firms without the slightest idea of what that practice entails. But in this folly, people have no one but themselves to blame. I practice at a big-ish firm and I would be the first to admit that this type of practice is not for everyone. However, all law firms are not made equal. They are, to an extent, self-selecting environments. A-holes will pick other a-holes as their associates and partners. But the opposite holds true as well! And if the working environment is decent than the long hours become much more bearable. I practice IP litigation and the work is challenging and exciting. So long as this is the case, the burn-out factor is a non-issue. I guess this is all just to say that not all big firm associates are burned-out, mal-adjusted tools!

Posted by: JZ at March 18, 2004 04:39 PM

I'm glad Ms. Lithwick (whose writing I generally like, even when I don't agree with her, which is fairly often) is so happy, and that her career worked out. I had the same experience hating law school, and I loathed the ten years I spent in practice. If I knew today how happy I'd be as a professional computer geek, I'd have never gone to law school.

Damn learning by experience: Test first, lesson afterwards.

Posted by: Len Cleavelin at March 19, 2004 01:17 PM

Thanks! I'm a 35 year old considering law school as a career change. My main interest is in civil rights and public interest law. But I'm having trouble deciding if it's right for me or not. So, thanks for the article.

Posted by: Terrance at March 22, 2004 07:47 PM


thank you so much for your post. i just finished my first year of law school after spending several years at medical school and was genuinely surprised by how much i allowed my fear to drive me this year. i have no intention of practicing law (i have two years yet to finish back in medical school), yet i got flipped out by grades, exams, law review etc. thankfully, there are others in my class with similar life and career goals. i am an older student, and like to think i have some life perspecitive from which to draw upon, yet the herd mentality of law school can be brutal at times. while one can preach that you need to know who you are and why you are attending law school, the overbearing presence of guilt and fear drives many people.

anwyay, fantastic post. it is always reassuring to know that i am not the only one hating (or perhaps disappointed) by law school.

Posted by: japhy at May 15, 2004 06:55 PM
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