Monday, December 5, 2011
Why I'm Glad I Went to Law School (Yes, seriously!)
In honor of this past Saturday’s LSAT test-takers, and their contributory actions to our nation’s glut of unemployed lawyers...I thought I’d share my reasons for going to law school and why I’m still so glad I did.
(Try not to vomit.) I don’t practice, so I don’t use my degree in the traditional way, but the lessons I learned in law school constantly impact my daily life.
I certainly wasn’t always glad I went to law school. When I graduated in 2007, I had no job, no plan, lots of debt and for a bonus, lots of bad attitude. Shortly thereafter, a boy I was seeing, impressed that his girlfriend had a juris doctorate, spent three hundred dollars to frame the diploma. I don't know what happened to that kid, but the diploma remains. It hangs, conspicuously, over the desk where I sit, typing these words. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever being proud of having gone to law school…now, I couldn’t imagine being prouder.
Nowadays, there seems to be a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of high-pitched whining, about all the unemployed law school graduates who fall prey to manipulated statistics, as they get tackled by a deflating industry in "crisis". The scam-bloggers work themselves up to a fever pitch, shocked and outraged, outraged that people are still going to law school!
Sure they are. I myself went to law school with my eyes firmly closed. I eagerly believed the hype that law school was going to solve all my problems and I’d graduate happy, shiny and delicious-smelling. Everything would be perfect. (“Thank you, Law School!”) I constantly encounter that same delusion: people who have no interest whatsoever in practicing law, but think a degree will help them get a job in human rights, or writing for TV, or you know, all the many, oh so many, other fields in which having a law degree is helpful. Right. All those fields. The same people who glare daggers at you, when you suggest that they might want to research the actual industry they’re interested in, and see if there are jobs in said field, and perhaps even find out exactly how a law degree would benefit their career opportunities. The same people who become snappish, when you suggest they ask themselves why exactly they want to go to law school. “But you went to law school! Why do you get to go, and I can’t?!” Right, totally right: I want to keep that glorious prize of debt all to my greedy self...
I went to law school for all the wrong reasons… and those wrong reasons, plus the experience, taught me a great deal. I thank god every day I left the muck and mire of TV news to go to law school, since it was the beginning of true adulthood. There’s an expression that you’re not an adult till your parents pass. That may indeed be correct. I would also suggest that you’re not an adult until you understand that having a professional degree isn’t a license to print money, or an elevator ride to success, and that your debt is yours till the day you die.
I went to law school when I was 31, after spending the majority of my twenties making bank in TV news. After graduating Wellesley College, I moved to Moscow, Russia. Due to luck and my ability to speak Russian, I began a career in TV, eventually moving to Washington, D.C. and then New York. In my twenties, I was making obscene amounts of cash as a freelance producer, writer, assignment editor, etc. This is no way struck me as odd or out of the ordinary. Twenty-five years old and making $50 an hour, plus overtime, to produce press briefings on Capitol Hill or at the White House? Doesn’t everybody live like this? Isn’t success this easy for everyone?
But in TV the glamour burns off quickly, and suddenly you’re stuck producing live-shots with polyester-clad correspondents who ask you where exactly on the map the Aryan Nation is, or what NPR stands for. They ask you these things seriously, with furrowed brow, since correspondents are not known for their sense of irony. It probably got lost somewhere under all the hairspray and foundation.
So, burnt out, exhausted, fed up, I had two choices: do the hard thing, and figure out my life or go to law school. The intelligent thing, of course, would have been to take responsibility for my unhappiness and end my stagnant relationship with my boyfriend…but, ugh, who wants to do the hard thing? Not Congress, and certainly not me! Instead, I know: I’ll live out my prime-time TV-inspired law school fantasy of, oh, I don’t know: clerking for the Supreme Court? Becoming a West Wing speechwriter? Doing all those very sexy, very fun things lawyers do…? We all know that turned out: six-figures of debt and no fancy job. Also, I failed both the NY and NJ bar exams. Hot! Oh my so-called life.
But then you know… an interesting thing happened: I started taking responsibility for all the mistakes I had made. And by taking responsibility, I was able to learn from those very same mistakes. I took responsibility for going to law school, despite having deliberately not invested any significant time or energy in researching what law school would be like, or the impact the debt load would have upon my life, or even what it meant to practice law on a day-to-day basis. I took responsibility for hearing only what I wanted to hear when I asked friends if I should go to law school, for being a coward who chose prestige over reality. I started understanding that if I was unhappy in law school, and afterwards, it was my fault. That if law school wasn’t what I desperately wished it to be—something cool that would solve all my problems--I had only myself, and my cowardice, to blame.
If you’re going to attend law school… go for the right reasons. Go because you’ve researched it; because you’re excited to learn and practice the law; because you’ve crunched the numbers and you understand what the debt load will mean for your future opportunities. Understand what it will mean if you can’t find that dream law job. And what it will mean if you can.
On the other hand, don’t go because you believe that the “prestige” of attending law school will somehow compensate you for not being able to figure out what to do with your life. Because—and watch what I do here—you’ll still be you! You’ll still be you, the same you, just with a lot of debt and some more letters after your name. So if you (secretly, oh so secretly, so secretly that you can’t even admit it to yourself) think that going to law school will make your boyfriend love you, or your friends envy you, or somehow fill the hole inside of you: it won’t! (It can’t.) Everything will still be the same…you’ll just be the same you, just owing
thousands upon thousands of dollars.
My diploma hangs over my desk, because it’s proof of the battle I won…with myself. I went to law school for all the wrong reasons…and yet it remains one of my favorite mistakes, a catastrophe that saved my life and forced me to become an adult. I went to law school for all the wrong reasons…little knowing that it would lead me to everything right.