Feb 1, 2010

Thinking about Law School, Volume 96

I hope readers aren't tiring of the discussions about dissatisfaction and disappointment with the law school experience and life in the law, since I have been writing so much about it lately. But it really seems to be on folks' minds. It's a Very Hot Topic.

I am getting lots of emails asking advice on specific law schools, and, at the same time, reading more and more about the debt and morale crises (I do think they are separate, though often related) among law students and young lawyers. So the economic climate is causing more folks to be interested in attending law school, while at the same time making it less likely that they will be happy with the experience and/or the eventual outcome (i.e., legal jobs they can live with).

I recommended recently that one of the most important things a prospective law student should do is to find out what the practice of law is really like. I stumbled onto an interesting about.com piece last week that made the point better than I did:
The best way to avoid making the wrong career decision is to educate yourself regarding the realities of law practice. Gaining insight into the day-to-day life of working in a particular legal specialty or practice environment is crucial to determining whether the job would be a good fit for you.

Many individuals choose a career in the law for the wrong reasons. Before embarking on the demanding, time-intensive and expensive journey to becoming a lawyer, make certain that you are making a well-informed decision.
The author, Sally Kane, goes on to address five myths about law practice that anyone reading this blog will recognize:

1. Becoming a lawyer is a guaranteed path to financial success.
2. As a lawyer, I can eradicate injustice and affect societal change.
3. I will make a great lawyer because I am good at arguing.
4. Litigators lead a thrilling, high-powered and glamorous life.
5. The work of a lawyer is intellectually challenging.

Be sure to read her take on each of these, but let me add my two-cents'-worth as well.

Number 3 is my favorite, because it is so funny-- and so prevalent. When college and high school students tell me that they want to go to law school, I always ask them why. I'll bet that nearly half say that it is because "people say that I am good at arguing." But I think this sort of craziness disappears for the most part before the law school application process.

At the other end of the spectrum are Kane's myths numbers 2 and 5. One of the reasons that I do what I do with the Christian Legal Society and Regent Law School-- and maybe the primary reason that I wrote Redeeming Law-- is that I believe that ordinary law practice has the potential to be real participation in the redemptive work of God in the world. This is not a non-controversial claim, of course, and it always requires a bit of 'splaining, as they say. I've laid some of that foundation in the book, of course, and here, here, and here, so I won't belabor the basic argument now. However, I do want to explore how far we ought to go toward saying that real lawyers in real law practices don't "eradicate injustice" or effect "societal change."

Kane points out that "litigation has little to do with virtue triumphing over evil and everything to do with advocating your client’s position based upon the facts and applicable law." There is plenty of truth to this, but, on the other hand, the end of litigation is that just claims should prevail, despite the fact that lawyers do in fact argue their own clients' positions. One of the beauties of the system is that moral process, even with zealous advocacy, can lead to "virtue triumphing over evil" in many cases. An injured person can actually be awarded compensation for medical bills and pain. A party who has robbed can see the thief punished. A question about who failed to live up to a bargain can be put to a neutral third party or parties. Evildoers do in fact get punished. Virtuous parties do really get rewarded. Sure, it doesn't happen all the time, and sometimes the system or the lawyers fail, but, at least in theory, working toward a human system that is more and more just and more and more effective every day is a worthwhile participation in something God has established and that he loves.

It is easier still for me to see the fingerprints of God, not in litigation, but in the ordinary practice of lawyers who counsel regular Joes and Josephines every day. For example, helping parents leave money to their children, guiding entrepreneurs as they set up structures that will employ their neighbors or provide worthwhile goods at a reasonable price, and discussing potential responses from a worried spouse in a family dispute, all work toward redemptive "societal change."

More troubling to me is the type of work in which lawyers labor long hours, not in service to clients who need counsel or those whose (arguably) virtuous claims must be vindicated, but in service of other lawyers or large companies, spending all day, for example, tucked away in warehouses doing document review and stamping for one purpose or another. The complexities of modern corporations often make it difficult for lawyers to work out their roles in the larger scheme of a corporate or legal mission.

Nonetheless, even small cogs play a key role in the overall mission of the machine. If a lawyer is convinced of her employer's or client's goals, she may work diligently-- even in the bowels of a cold warehouse-- to serve that goal. And while this is certainly part of the reason that real legal work is not always intellectually challenging, it is often good training in understanding the elements of a well-prepared case or the necessity of mastering details before advising clients.

Which leads us, full circle, to the main point: law practice is often drudgery, pure and simple. For many lawyers it takes an active imagination-- and good theological advice-- to envision the lasting kingdom work, if any, in which they are involved. Even in the drudgery, there is much that lawyers do that contributes to social stability, justice, and positive change.

Prospective lawyers should manage expectations appropriately, understanding the nuts and bolts of the "detail work" that is bread and butter of both law school and law practice. They should be well informed about the amount of grunt work that usually accompanies complex litigation and corporate work. And they should understand the detailed theological task that confronts those lawyers and students hoping to make eternal sense out their regular jobs.


  1. Prof. Schutt -- First, thanks for writing this blog and Redeeming Law (which I'm about half-way through and finding immensely helpful).

    As a corporate lawyer, I greatly appreciate your comments on work for large organizations. When I started practice, I was honestly surprised at what a poor job most corporate lawyers do of understanding, and explaining to nonlawyers, the value of their work. There are so many intermediate layers between what the lawyer does and the (at least potential) benefits to society that it's hard for people to see our work as anything more than an added cost.

    In addition, I strongly second your recommendation that prospective law students find out as much as they can about what real law practice is like. When I was considering a career change to law (in the pre-www days), I read whatever I could find, and talked with whoever was likely to know, about life as a practitioner. I personally would welcome -- as I think most practitioners would -- the opportunity to provide a realistic view of my day-to-day work to people considering law. The opportunity has arisen occasionally, but I wish it happened more often.

    (My name, BTW, is John Paschetto; I'm a partner at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, in Wilmington DE.)

  2. Thank you, John for your kind comment and good thoughts on corporate practice. I think there are all sorts of young lawyers in corporate practice who could use this kind of encouragement as they work through these issues, and it's a big help to have someone like yourself who is working through them.

    I think you are right that there are many lawyers willing to help mentor law students and prospective students. For some reason, I've been finding it tough to make these relationships happen regularly. Perhaps there is a bigger role for the local church or CLS chapters, or the like?

    Please keep chiming in-- this relationship between calling and the corporate practice is sure a fruitful one for more discussion.



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