Monday, January 10, 2011

The rigors of law

Yesterday morning I found an admittedly mean-spirited pleasure in reading an article in the Times about the woes of new lawyers.  Since I have on several occasions considered and then rejected the idea of law school, even going as far as to register and pay for--but never actually take--the LSAT twice, I like to see that newbie lawyers are suffering.  It suggests that my failure to make a decision may actually have been a wise choice in disguise.  I have nothing against individual lawyers; I have met some who are brilliant, good people and others who are arrogant, ill-natured, and quite stupid. Still, for some reason, I find it vindicating (a word whose similarity to vindictive I am just now noting) to see the law profession stumble.

As it turns out, law schools, like graduate departments in the humanities are so arranged that, in order for the programs themselves to survive, they must lure in far more students than the future market for their services will support.  Law schools, according to the Times, advertise inflated post-matriculation employment rates to make potential students believe that a law degree is a good investment.  The tweaking of statistics has produced a veritable army of underemployed lawyers, battalions of temp and contract lawyers, many of whom only manage to earn $60k/year until after the first 10 or so years post-graduation.  This, apparently, is insufficient to pay off law school debts and support young attorneys in the lifestyle they expect to attain by attending law school  (i.e., purchasing $350,000 homes).  The article does not ask us to pity the new graduates exactly.  It points out the irresponsible tactics the law schools use to attract students as well as the irresponsible choices made by those students who allow themselves to be attracted.  

In addition to my ugly delight in all of this, I was also more innocently interested in the young lawyers' plight because it resembles the experience of many who seek PhDs in the humanities.  The article acknowledges--and I think this is important and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the problem to me--that even if the truth were presented to the potential law student in its starkest, most accurate terms, many of those applicants would ignore the dim prospects for success, or at least refuse to see that dimness as relevant to their individual situations, which I guess is the same thing.  I know exactly how such unreasoning hope works because I experienced it myself in relation to academia.  One source in the article refers to this brand of magical thinking as "exceptionalism," that is, the nearly unshakeable conviction that whatever the numbers say, whatever the science of probability illuminates about the chances of making law school pay (since that seems to be the goal), and whatever you witness through report and individual observation about the experiences of others, any individual poor sop will perceive her own personal chances as better, as bound to exceed the average.  She will beat the curve.  With hard work, persistence, and good letters of recommendation, she can be a partner, a corporate lawyer, a justice department lawyer.  And why shouldn't she think that?  Isn't such ambition as American as the McRib?  You never succeed if you don't try.  Tie your wagon to a star, or whatever. 

Apparently, as the young man who headlines in the article reveals, the law degree is a reward in itself, so, even with underemployment and staggering debt, the holder of a JD can find some satisfaction merely in his or her lawyerhood. Or, put another way, regardless of whether one ever works as a lawyer, regardless of what kind of law one practices and to what end, regardless of how well or how honestly one practices the law, and regardless of whether one pays one's law school debts or just waits for other lawyers to engineer a bail-out--regardless of any of this, to be a lawyer simply is prestigious.  So, maybe I made a mistake after all.  It would seem that self satisfaction and the respect and admiration of others might in fact be achieved merely by earning a bachelor's degree and polishing off a two-year program of torts, patents, civil procedure, and remedial writing at any of thousands of fine law degree issuing institutions.  Wonder what I did with that LSAT prep book?

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