I Went to Law School to Change the World. Did I Make a Mistake? – Part One of Two

Jordan Rushie a well-known and well-spoken blogger at the Philly Law Blog recently warned pre-law students that that if they don’t want to be involved in representing others then they shouldn’t go to law school.

Quoting one of Jordan’s posts:

Do you actually want to be a lawyer and represent people (or corporations, or the state, or whoever)?

. . .

If the idea of getting clients and then representing them in court sounds awful, then law is probably not the right career for you.

(You can see his two posts on the topic here  and here.)

To be honest, getting clients and representing them in court is not something I get excited about.

I went to law school with good intentions: to be an agent of social change, to open people’s minds, to communicate, and to change the world. I also like to think that I was not alone in this regard but, either way, Jordan’s posts have prompted me to ask if it was a mistake for me to lay the fulfillment of those expectations on the law school experience.

I’ll explore this issue in two posts. In this first post I discuss why I went to law school and why I think my law school experience isn’t helping but is in fact hindering my broader professional and personal aims. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll discuss whether it was a mistake for me to go to law school and I will solicit your thoughts.

Why I Went to Law School

There are two specific reasons the 25-year-old me thought that law school could give me skills to “change the world.” The first reason was the example of lawyers I had known and seen and the second reason was my understanding of who lawyers were and what they did.

First, examples: While I didn’t have a lot of clarity about how I would change the world or whatexactly I’d do with a law degree, I enrolled in law school believing the people who said to me “you can do anything with a law degree!” The career potential of a law degree seemed both wide-ranging and consistent with my desires. What have almost all of our presidents been? Lawyers. What were Gandhi and a number of other leaders of social movements? Lawyers. Diplomats? Frequently lawyers. Politicians and public servants? Often lawyers. Executives and CEOs? Can be lawyers. Non-profit leaders? Lawyers on occasion. The JD seemed like the right degree to make an impact.

Second, my understanding: I thought of lawyers as “social engineers,” as people who helped to shape the broader social narrative and dialogue. This perception was driven in part by the fact that nearly all the lawyers I knew then and know today were and are smart, articulate, and passionate. It was also driven by an acknowledgement that lawyers, knowing the infrastructure of our society i.e. the law, would be in an ideal place to drive this narrative. Therefore, both my experience with and understanding of lawyers suggested that legal training would allow me to pursue my goals.

Law School Not Only Doesn’t Help, It Hinders

Anyone who has read this blog or followed me on Twitter can attest to my conflicted feelings about the legal profession, let alone law school. Jordan may be right in this regard: A lack of self-awareness related to my desire to represent clients may explain my professional dissatisfaction as a lawyer.

However, as I have considered how I might transition out of the traditional practice, or at least out of one that involves direct representation of others, I’ve found that my law school debt and some missing aspects of law school education are not only not helpful but actually detrimental to my broader direction and ambitions.

Paying for law school or more accurately paying back the cost of law school is expensive and my debt obligations limit my choices.  In my particular case I am the sole breadwinner of a family. School debt and the economic needs of a growing family put certain financial limitations on me. I might have been willing to take a job out of school that paid less than the one I have if I saw how it could move me in the long-term direction that I wanted to go. However, the pressure to insure that I could make monthly loan payments and still have extra to cover surprise expenses that a family inevitably brings prompted me to choose a job that would maximize my earning potential.

Law school also failed to provide me with some key skills that are necessary to becoming an agent of social change: entrepreneurship (of either the social or the business kind), communication skills, facilitation, leadership, collaboration, flexibility, conflict resolution, creativity, and/or empathy.  I know it’s a lot to ask that any educational experience teach you to “change the world” but my law school educational experience didn’t even meet my most modest expectations. Some will tell you that law school teaches you to “think like a lawyer.” I’m still a little unclear about what that means or the value of it but I can say that law school taught me to analyze appellate legal opinions in a certain way. However, since each professor had their own way of teaching and doing it, I’m not even sure I analyze appellate opinions all that well.

My decision to go to law school landed me in a situation in which I don’t take much joy in a key facet of my job, representing others, but am also constrained both financially and by lack of skills to explore interesting alternatives. This inevitably leads to the next question, and where we’ll pick up with the next post: “Was My Decision to go to Law School a Mistake?” You can pick up part two here.

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