As 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.