March 18, 2004

Wait, I Have to Practice?

by PG

Not wanting to be disowned, I've crossed "plaintiff's attorney in medical malpractice" off my list of future career possibilities. But that still leaves a dizzyingly infinite range of options. I applied to the University of Houston law school because they had the top-ranked health law program in the country, but I'm not sure that I want to go that route. My Penn essay mentioned my enthusiasm for bioethics, but I don't know how to incorporate that into a career, other than by getting appointed to a presidential commission.

As law school draws closer and more people ask, "So what kind of law do you want to practice," I'm forced to confront the likelihood that I am going to law school not because I want to be a lawyer, but simply because I find law really interesting.

This realization didn't bother anyone when it applied to my choice of major -- indeed, my parents were doubtlessly comforted by the thought that I wasn't going to try to make a living on studying literature. Law school, on the other hand, is supposed to be a fancy kind of vocational training. I will exit with a JD, shortly thereafter pass the bar and be set in a comfortable profession. Right?

Right. Except for that nagging feeling that I'm just going to law school to have fun. Not so much of the softball-playing, alcoholic-becoming variety, but of the class-enjoying, discussion-having, idea-forming sort. It seems like a more factual, analytic version of classes in the English department.

Will Baude talked about the law as history and song, and I see it primarily as story. Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, succeeding peaks of action until the highest court makes its ruling (climax), and the epilogues of the main characters' subsequent lives. James Dale gives speeches. Jane Roe lobbies to make abortion illegal (that's not just a second act, that's a sequel).

In studying the cases, we generally know only as much about the characters as is necessary to this particular plot; these are stories on the principle of the iceberg. We begin in media res, and look for the essential principles of conflict. Does Dale's right under New Jersey law not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation trump the Boy Scouts' free association right to exclude homosexuals? Does Roe's right to control her reproduction trump Texas's interest in protecting fetuses from abortion?

Although the fashion in understanding a literary text through studying the author's life hasn't become widespread as applied to court decisions and the judges who write them, Dahlia Lithwick's project of demystifying and humanizing the Supreme Court justices seems like a step in that direction.

Speaking of Lithwick, I met her at a conference on public interest law at the University of Virginia last month. She spoke at the "Non-Traditional Legal Careers" workshop, with the same message as her symposium post: don't let yourself forget why you're going to law school.

Sound and useful advice, except for this problem: I don't know why I'm going to law school, other than because I'll enjoy it. Not being a member of the idle rich (more a member of the sedentary upper middle class), I suspect that spending $100,000 on entertainment -- even entertainment that is more poetry than pushpin -- may turn out to be a poor utilization of resources.

Just don't mention it to the family.

March 18, 2004 01:13 PM | TrackBack

Well, that certainly doesn't put you in the minority. It's a rare type indeed that know what they want to do when they enroll in law school. Few entering students know enough about the law to pre-plan their career path. In fact, few students know enough about the law after their first year of law school to plan their career path.

My best advice would be to be proactive during your first year. Sit in on the various interest groups/clubs and listen to what's going on in that area of the law.

Just to digress a little... as Dahlia Lithwick seems to be a sort of cult icon in the infancy of this blog, let me add a few words. Keep in mind that although she's having a blast in her non-traditional career, she also went to Yale undergrad and Stanford law school. My point being that some of the really terrific non-traditional jobs out there are highly sought after and usually go to the best of the best.

Prepare yourself for the reality that what you want to do with a law degree may not be within your grasp for the first few years after you graduate unless you have the credentials to back it up. I don't mean to be negative, but it's just the reality of the legal and pseudo-legal job market.

Posted by: Brian at March 18, 2004 06:33 PM

Your post reminds me of myself, and it reminds me of the very, very, very few other people I know who went to law school because they actually love law. These people are now doing a variety of different things with their law degrees, but one thing they all have in common (including me) is that they are happy with their jobs, and enjoy a great deal of satisfaction out of what they do. These people vary from a public defender to a prosecutor to an intellectual property associate at a big firm.

You'll find your calling one way or another. But consider yourself lucky, and bear in mind that you are in a tiny minority. The vast majority of my classmates went to law school for every reason but yours and mine.

Posted by: Chuck at March 19, 2004 02:10 PM
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