If you’re thinking about becoming a lawyer, one of the first things you’ll hear as an incoming law student is something like this: “First year, they scare you to death. Second year, they work you to death. Third year, they bore you to death.” True? More than a little.
Law school is like nothing you’ve ever done before. This becomes apparent on the first day when it takes one intense hour to read 10 pages. Then you go to class and a professor starts with the Socratic method: question upon question about a particular case. That’s why it takes an hour to read 10 pages. You have to be ready for anything the professor might ask. And then the professor stumps you on the third question anyway.
The best thing about the first year of law school is that all you’re doing is learning. Although first-year grades matter like nothing else will in law school, you’re somewhat protected during the first year because all that anyone expects of you is that you study. For me, law has always been fascinating because it is the embodiment of our society’s choices about what is worth regulating and about which groups have the power to influence the law. The first year nurtures this interest without letting all the other “stuff” of the legal profession intrude.
But say you make it through the first year. What happens then? The first-year cocoon dissolves and you start to become part of the legal profession, rather than its student. Law itself is based on a (theoretically) normative hierarchy of values. Similarly, the legal profession is based on a hierarchy, albeit a more arbitrary one, to which most of us become slaves without realizing that we’ve done it.
As the second year starts, most students are busy finding a job for the second summer. The summer job usually becomes your “real” job after law school. But while you’re waiting for the summer to roll around, most second-year law students become immersed in a legal journal, a public-interest clinic or some other non-class activity. This is where the “work you to death” part comes in. Not only do your academic requirements intensify because the workload itself doubles, but you also spend a ton of time with your journal, your clinic or that other “thing.”
The problem is that the better you did during your first year, the more you expect of yourself and the more you do as you go. Your goals become the job at the higher-ranked firm, being on the “best” journal, publishing a piece of legal scholarship and getting ready for life after law school. You finished all your pie first? You get more pie, but it begins to lose its flavor.
And then you’re just so bored with it all that you want to tear your hair out. This is the third year of law school. You took the offer with the firm that you worked for the last summer and it doesn’t really matter whether you study anymore because the law school won’t fail you at this point. And so you wait, for nine long months, to graduate from law school and become a “real” lawyer.
Sound awful? It can be, if you let it. The real dilemma, in my mind, is that we lose a part of ourselves along the way; whatever it was that brought us here in the first place. From day one of law school until it ends, almost every moment, including breaks, is taken up with studying, job interviews, journal requirements, working, writing and thinking. No one has a chance to breathe, to reflect or to rest.
Is law school just a rite of passage? Maybe. But I think the real answer is that we’re a little scared to do law school differently. That if we don’t depend on the hierarchy, we’ll lose our bearings. That if we assess what hundreds of thousands of attorneys have done for decades and find it lacking, we won’t like what we see and that we’ll all feel a little bereft
Yet, I would do it all over again. Law school cleared my brain and I finally learned to think. And despite all the crap that comes along with being a lawyer — the arbitrary hierarchical norms, the more pie dilemma and the time investment — I can’t see myself doing anything else.
But this means that you have to become a lawyer for the right reasons. Money, status or inertia are not those reasons because they won’t make it all worth it in the end. Most people enter law school with hopes of “helping people.” The opposite was true for me: I didn’t grow up with much and I wanted to provide for my family in the long run. In short, it was the money. But now, becoming a lawyer is meaningful because it is also about using what I know to make life better for someone else. Before becoming a lawyer, my only advice is this: Understand why you’re doing it, be thoughtful and listen to yourself.