“There Is Absolutely Nothing Wrong With Law School” (For Some People)

tiny beautiful thingsAs the “Dear Sugar” columnist for The Rumpus, Cheryl Strayed doled out encouragement and guidance to souls who described themselves as “stuck,” “suffocated,” and “crushed” (among other similarly unfortunate states). Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (2012) is a collection of these requests for advice and Sugar’s responses.

Strayed provides nuggets of wisdom, but they’re buried within what sometimes seems—at least to me—like a mountain of gibberish. I’m not a poetic or philosophical person. I like writing that gets to the point efficiently, and so I cringed every time Strayed went on a tangent about events in her own life that were, at best, only marginally related to the request. Still, some of Strayed’s letters are beautiful and resonated with me, particularly when she answers a question similar to one I’ve had to answer myself.

For example, in The Future Has an Ancient Heart, a creative writing professor asks Sugar to “deliver a graduation speech for [a] class of writers,” many of whom “are tired of the ‘being an English major prepares you for law school’ comments being made by friends and family alike.” To this class, Sugar says:

“You’re going to be all right. And [] not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way. […]

You have to do what you have to do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.”

As a public interest attorney who regularly interacts with undergraduate interns, many of whom are studying English and contemplating law school, I have often said something along the lines of “There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.”

I was an undergraduate history major, which is about as marketable as an English degree. With my stereotypically South Asian mother to appease, I couldn’t have a gap or temporary job on my resumé. It was already bad enough that I wasn’t pre-med. So, law school it was, and it turned out to be the perfect choice for me. But, obviously, it isn’t a good choice for everyone with an undergraduate degree as useless as mine.

Sugar is right about law school—don’t go unless you want to be lawyer—except that few undergrads really know what it means to be a lawyer. No two lawyers are alike. The only thing a law degree does is give us is the ability to sit for a 2-3 day-long bar exam in the state(s) of our choice. Then, if we pass, we can say we’re lawyers, members of a profession that is so diverse that the term is almost meaningless, like if every oncologist, dentist, immunologist, and veterinarian was called “doctor” without any further delineation.

A few years ago, a preschool teacher asked Mr. A.M.B, who is also a lawyer, to explain what he does to a bunch of four-year-olds. He said, “I fix problems.” My practice is different from his, but I also fix problems. We give advice, kind of like Sugar does, but of the legal variety. Our knowledge of statutes, case law, and systems—the nuts and bolts of our society—allow us to advise clients on matters in court or in negotiations that directly affect their lives. Other lawyers, though, don’t represent clients at all, working instead in policy, academia, or other fields where insider knowledge of how laws work helps them.

So, I recommend law school to those who want to understand how our society functions, particularly if they’ve made an effort to see what “being a lawyer” looks like in real life and not just on TV (as elucidating as entertainment like My Cousin Vinny may actually be!). But they should do it as cheaply as possible, because one thing a law degree won’t guarantee is a job. Far too many JDs have found their degree about as marketable as the one they received in the humanities.

I say this as one of the lucky ones. I had a great law school experience that helped me secure the job of my dreams, but I’ll be paying off those loans until I’m 45.*

___________________________________________________________

*My law school has a loan forgiveness program for public interest attorneys, but I don’t qualify because I got married to someone who earns more money than I do. The decision to get married can have downsides, but that’s a topic better suited for an advice column like “Dear Sugar.” 😉

**Mr. A.M.B. recently reviewed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m skeptical of the premise, but my husband liked the book.

***Thanks to Katie from Words for Worms for choosing Tiny Beautiful Things for the Fellowship of the Worms read-along. Please check out her blog to see what everyone is saying about it.

13 thoughts on ““There Is Absolutely Nothing Wrong With Law School” (For Some People)

  1. I frankly have found lawyers as yourself the kind I look up to. It is hard for anyone to go to school these days without racking huge debt. It is not just in your field! I really hope our country as a whole would take more of its money and give it to our young to go to school on. As cliche as this may sound—-Children are our future…By the way—I am as anal about a resume as your mom about no blanks between jobs!!!! I held a job from the age of 16 until the age of 49 without a break~! My brain tumor broke that record…..Miracles do happen and I am grateful to be around still to not worry about that record any longer.

  2. Seems like lawyering is less of a respected profession these days. I’m shocked that qualified lawyers can’t waltz into a job (April below) but I’ve read enough Grisham to know that you can be anything from a high flyer to a struggling divorce hack. Public defenders and public interest lawyers have my greatest respect.
    In Britain deregulation has seen a lot of high street firms collapse. Here in the Channel Islands that day will come with more and more young lawyers coming on stream, but for now fees and salaries remain good due to a healthy finance industry.

  3. “Far too many JDs have found their degree about as marketable as the one they received in the humanities.”

    Hear, hear.

    I had a strange path to law school and still, two years out of law school, I have yet to find my permanent place as who and what I want to do as a lawyer. (To be fair, I had a strange path after law school as well…)

    I suspect that my heart lies either in public interest or advocacy – but the market is so terrible right now that I despair at ever finding permanent employment. I am one of the lucky ones though. I have zero student loans and a husband who earns enough that I don’t have to take a job at Starbucks with my two state bar memberships and my J.D. while I continue to search for the right (read: ANY) job. So while my psyche takes a beating, at least it’s not the financial crisis that so many of my peers face.

    1. Congratulations on graduating without any student loans! That definitely makes it easier to endure the job hunt. I hope you find the perfect position. In my area, the best way to get a public interest job is through pro bono work on related issues. It shows a commitment to the mission and develops relationships with people who can recommend you to their colleagues. Good luck!

  4. Having gone to law school because it was the only way I could get a degree with the letter D in it without writing another thesis, I am qualified, I suppose, on this subject. And as for the thesis, I wrote one in college, and that was enough. Law school did not prepare me for the kind of law I ended up doing. I was a public defender, and learned to litigate the way I’ve learned most important things in my life–by the seat of my pants. Since I now write that way, I shouldn’t be surprised. But law for me was only ever a vehicle for what I wanted to do, which was to help people. It’s why I left the law to work in immigration. Which I also learned by the seat of my pants.
    Law school can be a total waste of time, but lately some lawyers have found jobs as generalists, people who know a lot about a subject and have the ability to generalize from what they know to the greater business climate, ie, corporations. Not my cup of tea. I wanted to help people, and the Supreme Court notwithstanding, corporations are not people.

    1. No, corporations are not people! I also went to law school so that I could help people, and I couldn’t have the job I have now without a J.D. It was a good decision for me. But it makes me so sad to see so many people sign up for a boatload of educational debt only to find that the job they thought they would have upon graduation doesn’t exist.

  5. Aaaaaaaand there you go being brilliant again! That is such simple, yet spectacular advice. I have a friend who went to law school for a semester, then realized she had no desire to actually be a lawyer. I have occasionally toyed with the idea of going to grad school (never law school, though) but I hit a sticking point when I realize I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. It seems a terrible waste to get the extra education (and loans) without a plan. I suppose I got my bachelor’s degree without a real plan and that turned out alright, but I don’t think I’d get that lucky twice.

    1. “It seems a terrible waste to get the extra education (and loans) without a plan.”

      So, so true! Good luck figuring out your path. I’m sure you’ll be amazing at whatever you end up doing when you grow up (I don’t feel “grown up” either!). It’s too bad book blogs don’t really make any money. You should be a millionaire by now! 🙂

      Thanks for hosting The Fellowship of the Worms!

    1. Well, that sounds like a person who found the right profession! Most of the lawyers I know are pretty unhappy with their practice in the tight legal market we have right now. I know several who have already transitioned out of the law (we graduated from law school 8 years ago).

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