ambivalent imbroglio home

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February 08, 2004

Sunday Morning

sisu says hi

The weekend supposedly means a chance to breathe again. The pace of this semester has seemed to ratchet up on an almost daily basis, to the point where I spend almost no time with L., no time for proper correspondence, no time to step back and try to see what's happening outside my little world of school and politics and school and school. Even my supposed dog just sniffs at me when I come in the door, "Oh, it's just you," then walks away.

About this time a year ago, I was giddy with relief and pride and happiness because I'd finally been granted admission to a couple of law schools. Oh for those halcyon days of yore! Excitement about law school, where have you gone?

Ok. I can't resist melodrama. Law school isn't bad, exactly, it's just a whole lot more tedium and work than anticipating law school was. To be honest, hardly a day has passed since school started last August that I haven't thought about leaving. "You gotta get out of here" is sort of like a broken record in my head. I'd probably think that meant something if I hadn't lived with some form of it for nearly my entire life. Ambivalence is a curse, unless it's a virtue. ;-)

So today, well into second semester, I don't think it was a mistake to come here (D.C.) and do this (law school), but I don't think it was the right thing to do either. Call me a world-champion second-guesser, but as L. seems to move closer every day toward the kind of writing career I've always dreamed about but thought impossible, I can't help but think how ridiculous it was for me to think law school was a good idea. I think about this for a while every day or so, then I quickly drown it out with the myths or mantras that got me here: "It's only money. It's about doing something meaningful; you get your J.D., and you'll be in a much better position to do more of what needs to be done in this world. The point of a J.D. is the sudden power it brings you." Or something like that. Other times the internal monologue is more pragmatic: "You can't leave now; how would you ever pay off all that debt?"

All that debt, indeed. In a brilliant little post entitled "law school decision time myths," Transmogriflaw lists "it's only money" as numero uno, and she couldn't be more right. The trouble is, if you don't allow yourself to believe this myth, how could you ever start law school?

Here's how: Go to the cheapest school you can get into! That was my plan when I started this adventure. I talked myself into it after seeing a friend earn a full ride to a quality school on the basis of a high LSAT score and a great application essay. I figured, hey, I can do that. Looking back, it seems that was the beginning of a slippery slope I'm still descending. If I can go free, why not? I thought. And if I can't go free, at least I can earn some good scholarships and grants to bring the cost down into the reasonable realm. And if I can't go for free, and if I can't earn enough scholarships and grants, I can always just go to an inexpensive school. And if I can't go for free, and if I can't earn enough scholarships and grants, and if I can't go to an inexpensive school, I can just not go at all. That will be a clear indicator that I shouldn't be going to law school. See: "But I've already decided that I won't go if I have to pay more than $30k for it, so that's a little easier."

Yeah. That's what I thought. Somehow all that thinking morphed along the way into something completely different. Transmogriflaw's Myth Three began to operate, working overtime to make me ignore my nagging doubts. "The debt won't matter so much because I'll be able to get a job that pays well enough I won't notice those big loan payments. And if I don't get a job that pays very well, I'll use my school's LRAP to take care of those big bills. And if my school's LRAP won't take care of those bills..." I never really found an answer to that one, but here I am, anyway.

And somewhere along the way, Myth Four kicked in. Yes, I had to apply to the top schools I could reasonably hope to get into, and yes, I had to go to the best one that admitted me. Looking back, I'm sure Myths Three and Four worked together. When I started thinking about law school, I didn't think this way at all, but it became a sort of inevitable, self-generating process. The more I learned about law school and getting in and all that, the more I had to seriously confront the likelihood that I would have to incur incredible debt to go. And the only way to get my mind around all that debt was to try to believe that whatever job I got would cover it. And in order to get that "job that pays enough," I had to go to the best school I could get into. I had to. There was no other option. After all, isn't that the law school applicant's Prime Directive?

So now, here I am, in law school, in debt, less than thrilled about the whole thing. Not miserable, not thrilled. Just trying to understand where I've been so I can figure out where I'm going. In a comment on the always excellent and inimitableStay of Execution, "tex" writes:

At some point, you've got to quit doing things you don't want to do to get to where you think you want to be -- otherwise, you'll end up somewhere you *don't* want to be...

So true. So true.

Where do you think you want to be? Are you doing the things it takes to end up there? Maybe a better question is: Can we ever really know the answers to these questions?

In addition to drawing thoughtful comments like those from "tex,"Scheherazade, an attorney practicing at a small firm in Maine, also recently posted some thoughts about how dispiriting the practice of law can sometimes be. She writes:

My job is just fighting about money with people who will all, at the end of the day, go home and sleep in their own beds. Partly I do this work because fighting about money is fun and interesting, but I know another reason I do it is because at the end of the day it's not so bone-crushingly HEAVY. And when I get glimpses of what I'm avoiding it makes me really sad, and it makes me feel like a fake and a liar.

Perhaps feelings like these can be reduced by the type of law a person chooses to practice, but the more I learn about it, the more I doubt that's true. It's begun to appear almost inevitable that, no matter what direction I choose to take in law, I'll end up having to represent clients I don't want to represent, who want me to accomplish things I believe are wrong. It may be impossible to know where you want to go in life, but it's generally a bit easier to know where you don't want to go, isn't it?

Posted February 8, 2004 07:24 AM | law school

AmbImb, I think your post should be required reading for every potential new 1L. It's a well-written and extrodinarily accurate description of the application process. Boy, did I recognize some of that.

The only reason that, in the end, I was immune to the pressure -- and it was really hard to not send in those applications around the country -- was because of my husband. I couldn't uproot him.

But, oh, the temptation! I like to think that I saw the law school decision time myths, that I would have avoided them had I been on my own, but, to be honest, I don't think I could have. Those myths work their way into your unconscious and it becomes impossible to separate out your own genuine doubts from their influence.

As for the money issue, I'm working on another post about what I consider the near-fraudulent workings of school loan offices. I think it's appalling that some of the most vulnerable consumers out there (young, financially inexperienced students) are encouraged to sign up for that debt simply because "it's for your education" and "you'll be able to pay it back." It's occurred to me more than once that if higher education institutes followed the same truth-in-advertising laws that corporations follow, we'd see a marked change in how school loans are marketed. It's not like students won't take the loans -- unfortunately, almost everybody has to in order to get a higher education -- but at least they might be a bit more aware of what they're taking on.

Posted by: transmogriflaw at February 8, 2004 07:17 PM

Ah...we may have flown one coop, but we've ended up in other ones, haven't we? Such restless chickens. :)

What I've come to realize is this: part of me is always going to want to be somewhere else, doing something else. I'm learning when that is something I have to ride out, and when it's something I have to root out--if you know what I mean.

And I think about debt and the "investment in education" line every time I write out the checks for my student loans every month. Adding to the debt makes this restless chicken balk.

(Having a partner in crime can help with the pressures, though...with bonus points for one as cool as L. :) )

Posted by: raquel at February 9, 2004 09:23 AM

Perhaps one reason for why it's so easy to slip into all these 'myths' about law school, and professional education in general, is that the alternatives seem so foggy and unreal.

It would be different if I knew people with satisfying careers who did not go after the advanced degree. I'm sure I actually do, but it's hard to notice them. Or, maybe it's because I know so few of them that their life paths seem more like the exeptions that prove the rule.

That rule is: most jobs out there are boring and unchallenging, and the only reliable way to escape this boredom is by earning an advanced degree.

It might be different for people who actually like "business." These folks get excited about starting their own company, or working their way up the food chain in a big corporation, neither of which requires graduate education. But if commerce seems dull, what else is there? Cubicle jobs and jobs without any responsibility as far as the eye can see. The people who actually have the bad fortune to hold these meaningless jobs actually waste much of their time at work by gossiping, surfing the web, taking long smoke breaks, showing up late, etc. etc.

Perhaps our economy is more profoundly oversupplied with workers than we think. A better way of stating it might be that, in exchange for the promise of "efficiency," "economic growth," anc "consumer choice," we've acquiesced to an economic system where most of us are actually superfluous. The 'office space' types of jobs are still out there only because there's still the problem of getting money in our hands so that we can buy all the goodies our hyper-efficient economy produces. But the work most of us do is really meaningless for anything other than just circulating money.

Unfortunately, this may be true also for lawyer jobs and others that require postgraduate schooling.


Posted by: Carey at February 9, 2004 10:40 AM

Hm. I don't think I buy the rule that higher education is the only reliable way to escape boring and unchallenging jobs. I suspect that the ability to escape those jobs has far more to do with one's individual personality and less to do with the degree of education. The only connection I really see is that those with higher education are more likely to either be wealthy, as compared to the general population, or come from wealthy families and thus may have some flexibility in which jobs they can take.

Furthermore, I think many people with the jobs you describe as boring, in that their days include web surfing and gossip, are actually quite happy with their lives. I've worked with many people over the years who have predictable jobs that to an outsider would be mind-numbing. However, those jobs allow these folks a much richer life outside of the office than many of the supposedly more interesting jobs which consume far more time and energy.

What bothers me the most about law school myths is the force with which they are believed: you will get an interesting job, you will make a lot of money, you will like your high powered job, your rank is everything, and you will find the debt acquisition worth it. That may be true for some law school graduates, but it's not going to be true for all of them or even most of them. Students, particularly young students, jump headlong into the application process and the loan process with very little guidance as to what impact their choices will have on them later. It's hardly their fault; few have experience to know how debt acquisition affects one's life choices. (I do blame the schools for what I consider downright disingenuous marketing, however.)

There are a lot of unhappy lawyers out there. I wonder how many of them regret taking on the debt acquired for rank or job prestige.

Posted by: transmogriflaw at February 9, 2004 09:58 PM

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments. I'm thinking too much navel-gazing will inevitably lead to doubts and second-guessing, but I do think it's important for people to understand their decisions so they can make better ones in the future.

I tend to agree w/Transmogriflaw re: the boring job thing. Right now that "boring and unchallenging" job sounds perfect because I dream it would allow me to do other things with my life. The problem with any profession is that it's likely to follow you around, 24/7/365, while if you just have a "job" you can leave it at the office every evening at 5 p.m. and go out to do something you find interesting and fulfilling. So while a profession can be fulfilling, if it's not, you could be in trouble because you won't have time for anything else.

The debt we're accruing is simply no laughing matter. I guess I hope if this post and these comments are read by any future 1-Ls or anyone considering trying law school, this discussion will give them serious pause. I thought I saw all the myths from the outset and I thought that somehow inoculated me against falling into their traps. Recently, it has seemed like I was wrong. Of course, this could just be a stage. Perhaps after this semester, or a summer working in law, or after next year, or sometime, I'll look back and see that I really did make the right decisions, that the loans were all worth it, etc. Perhaps. I just don't want to be one of those unhappy lawyers chained to the profession by debt. Maybe I won't be. Maybe none of us will be. Hope dies last.

Posted by: ambimb at February 10, 2004 08:52 PM

AmImb, if it makes you feel better, my guess is that you'll be one of the ones that doesn't regret it at all, precisely because you do carefully consider your previous decisions and where they got you. Furthermore, you have an obvious passion for the law and what you can do with it. I think it will be worth it to you.

Nobody can read the future, and at a certain point, if you don't take a risk you're never going to know what you can do. Yes, the debt is scary, and yes, people acquire it with little to no thought. But you can hardly put yourself in the category of somebody who jumped into this with little or no thought -- certainly your blog is evidence to the contrary.

I questioned myself every single damn day of my engineering program. To this day I think stepping into that program was one of the best decisions of my life. I would never have believed it at the time, however.

20/20 hindsight and all that. I think the best we can do is hope for open-eyed risk-taking, and then jump.

Posted by: transmogriflaw at February 11, 2004 01:13 AM

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