Two years ago in August, I rode the B26 bus down Fulton Street through Fort Greene to my law school matriculation ceremony. I wore shoes from a thrift store and a $99 suit from Men's Wearhouse. I was riding the bus because I couldn't get too sweaty in my suit. I texted my mom, "I don't feel ready." She texted me back that I could leave school if I didn't like it. I hadn't done much research. I didn't want to go to law school, but it seemed like it was time.
I went to NYU for college and finished as fast as I could because I didn't enjoy it and wasn't engaged by what I was studying (economics, history, metropolitan studies). After that, for about two years, I worked at a part-time clerical job so menial that I couldn't tell my best friends what I did. I made $13,689.60 a year.
My mom told me that when she found out what I was doing, her heart sunk. One time, on the phone, my Dad asked me how old I thought I would be before he stopped supporting me. I said, "Hopefully the same age I am now," but I thought, "Maybe 28 or 29?" He said that I had no direction and I told him that I would figure it out. I'd just always assumed that one day, what I wanted to be when I grew up would dawn on me, and then I would just do whatever it is that I figured out was my calling, or something, and I would also not have to work very hard and I would make a lot of money.
In my free time at work, I wrote a blog on which I published reviews of a popular music website's album reviews, Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. It became somewhat popular, and eventually, about a year before I went to law school, I got a job as a blogger for a music television channel's website. I liked that job and I was proud to be able to support myself for the first time in my life, but it wasn't a job I could see myself doing when I was 40 or 50. I guess, even at 23, you know your dream job at 23 might not be your dream job at 43.
At my law school ceremony that August, I tried to stand up straight and look professional. I Googled which buttons you're supposed to button on your suit jacket (never the bottom one). I introduced myself to a circle of students who were talking about how lawyers had the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism, and depression among all professions. We were still so far from being lawyers that this seemed like a morbidly entertaining factoid more than an oncoming personal reality. We talked about what we did before we came to law school, and after I told the other students I'd worked at a music television channel, one of them said, "Wait, so why did you want to come to law school?"
This question haunts law students. Lawyers ask it to law students in every job interview. Nobody really has a good answer, but you have to make something up to disguise the obvious: money, stability, the fact that there aren't many other viable long-term options for educated people who want money and stability and have no aptitude for medicine or engineering. Some people will say they love to argue. Others say that their parents are lawyers or that their parents instilled something or other in them.
Neither of these reasons seems convincing as the sole motivation for such a major decision in one's life. Still, thousands of young people make it through law school each year, even if there might not be as many jobs as there were in 2006. Yesterday, many of them took the broken bar exam in order to fulfill some dream or nightmare of becoming a lawyer. In about a year, I'll be one of them. Hopefully it'll be fixed by then.
One time, during a legal job interview that wasn't going well, I asked the interviewer why he had gone to law school. He told me the truth: in his early twenties, he was was working an unfulfilling job with no potential for meaningful advancement and he didn't know what else to do. It was a relief to hear that.
A few weeks after the ceremony (and long before that job interview), I was sitting in my Civil Procedure class when I realized I loved law school. If you think of litigation as a war, Civil Procedure is something like the rules of engagement—one rule of engagement, for instance, is that a process server can serve someone with divorce papers as they're flying in an airplane over the state where the plaintiff filed the divorce action.
In Civil Procedure, we were studying Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, a Supreme Court case that arose when a man walking along the side of a railroad track in Pennsylvania in the early morning hours of July 27, 1934, got bumped by a passing train. It crushed his arm. In the decision, the Supreme Court decided that literally millions of pages of federal law could never be used again. The situation, starting with a man being bumped by a passing train and ending with a seismic shift in the history of law, seemed unreal, a historical curiosity on par with nailing the 95 theses to the church door. I wanted to understand the case because I was curious about it, not just because it would be on the final. In high school and college, I had done okay, but in law school, for the first time, I felt engaged.
As we were listening to the lecture, I sent a Google Chat message to my friend who was sitting next to me that said, "i think i love law school? is that possible/reasonable?" She didn't respond because she was focusing on the lecture. I Googled it and found a message board posting entitled, simply, "does anyone else love law school." The common thread running through the replies was incredulity. Nobody had ever told me, or any of these students on this message board apparently, that law school could be a thing that you could love. I thought it was just a thing you had to drag yourself through before you could become a lawyer. It would be like if someone told me to go to the dentist not only to get my teeth cleaned but also because I might really have a good time hanging out with the dentist.
I also noticed, for the first time, I didn't dread getting out of bed to go to school. I was going to office hours with my professors just to talk. (When does "thinking about committing a bank robbery" turn into an attempted bank robbery? When the suspect is surveilling the bank a few weeks before the planned robbery? When she's driving to the bank? She might still change her mind. Should we be putting people in jail for crimes they might still decide not to commit?)
More than anything, I loved learning about the rational underpinnings for the beliefs of people I disagree with—for a liberal law student, reading one of Justice Scalia's opinions is like going on an ideological safari through an awe-inspiring argument in a parallel universe. In the winter, before finals, I sat in the library, seven days a week, most days until after midnight. I'd never worked harder, cared more about what I was doing, or been happier. Over winter break after my first semester, my Dad hung my grades up on the refrigerator. They weren't perfect grades but, for the first time, he said he was proud of me.
After two years of law school, I still feel this way about it, but there is a lingering problem: It can be really embarrassing to tell people that I go to law school. I think that's driven in part by a long-held belief that people who go to law school can't hack it in the professional world, are cursedly uncreative, or have given up on their dreams. (Some students in law school confirm this; most don't.)
That perspective is supplemented by a constant onslaught of press that seems designed to scare people out of going to law school for their own benefit, casting anyone who decides to go to law school as an eager mark for a declining and paralyzed profession. Gawker itself has led the charge. The title of a TIME blog post from 2013 hints at the prevailing view: "Just How Bad Off Are Law School Graduates?" (Super fucked, apparently.) The last few years of press about law school seem to have been motivated by derision of the institution and schadenfreude for the students who have submitted themselves to it.
Actually, law school might be a huge pit for your money. I'm not saying it isn't. I don't know anything about your money, and obviously that's a big part of any decision to do anything for three years. Thinking about law school solely as a necessary evil on the path to a respectable career, and dwelling on how it isn't the golden ticket it used to be, ignores the possibility that the schooling itself will be independently worthwhile. You might really like law school. No one ever told me, but now you know.
David Shapiro is the author of "You're Not Much Use To Anyone."
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]