Sunday, February 26, 2006

So You Want To Be A Lawyer, Eh? (Part Deux)

Since I got some positive feedback on yesterday's post (thanks, by the way! is it pathetic to keep thanking people for reading me? 'cause I really appreciate it!), I decided to do a contextualizing follow up. Plus, I'm tired from changing diapers yet again today, and am a week behind in newspapers (I have a few articles on the Summers' resignation to catch up on before I write a commentary, because, you know, I'm all fair and balanced like that), so I really don't have much ability to talk about anything other than the law. (except for my elation over my loser younger sibling boy Drew winning Dancing With the Stars)

So you may wonder, do I regret going to law school? Am I bitter about any of my experiences there? If I had to do it all over again, would I, and would I do it the same way?

The answer to all, as to any question in life of course, is yes and no. Some of you know that I had the option and the incipient desire to go to graduate school in either English literature or political science, but being undecided and not very passionate about either choice back then, elected to choose the eminently "practical" avenue of law school. My rationale then was 1) I had chosen this path since the age of 16, and it seemed foolhardy to abandon something I've worked on for so long, and 2) everything was set up for me--the LSAT score, the admission to a good school--why not go? and 3) it's "practical" in the sense that even if I never ended up being a lawyer, I'd have a very practical degree that could, in theory, land me a job that paid the bills well until I figured out Plan B. You know, like getting a beautician's license.

These are extremely sad, passionless reasons to go to law school--I do not suggest that any future lawyer have these half-assed reasons for going, although most do. Many anthropology or psychology majors wake up one day during junior year and realize that they don't want to be anthroplogists or psychologists, and so they go to law school (one of the few grad schools that don't have any pre-requisite courses or major). I imagine the same is true of English majors, of whom I knew many. Political science majors very rarely grow up to be political scientists, most end up lawyers--I have no idea why, except that beyond a love for general politics and political news, maybe the students don't love the subject enough to do the actual political science work. Everyone loves Constitutional Law, but everyone hates political methodology. That was certainly true among my compatriots in poli sci during college, who seemed to really hate doing the senior thesis. So you have a lot of people going to law school without knowing exactly why, what it is about the law they like, what they want to do during and after, or why they want to be lawyers to begin with. Very sad. And I could have been one of them.

But at any rate, for better or worse, I had settled on law school. I had a 98th percentile LSAT score, so I couldn't not go, in a way, and I got into some very prestigious schools. However, like I did in college, I went to the school closest to home for family reasons, and not the most prestigious school I got into. Do I regret that? Yes and no. Somehow, I am fortunate enough to be able to say that things have worked out for me. Making the decision to give up your dream school is tough, but when you have elderly parents, a network of siblings and their children who need you, well, there isn't much you can do. I'm going to be moving pretty far away from them for the first time in 25 years in 5 months (aaaaahhhh!) and while I'm very excited to be young and free, I'm also very sad and feeling tremendous guilt. So it's only with hindsight that I am glad that I went to my law school. Just like my undergrad, it had the perfect concentration for me, and was very highly ranked for that concentration (BTW: fuck the US News and World Report). Just like in college, I made some of the best friends of my life.

So I made the decision to go to law school, and to go to that school, and to enroll in that program. I regret, in the end, none of that.

What I do regret, are the following:
  1. Taking on too much first year. I joined, out of interest and ethnic guilt (and hey, if you're any kind of minority, you'd feel guilt too) the Asian law students association, the Asan-American jurisprudence themed law journal, an Asian law clinic for victims of domestic violence, the Law Students Mentor program for undergrads, and an international law journal. TOO much. I know that guilt factored into this, which is weird because I had no such guilt in college. I identified more as a feminist, and did all the feminist orgs and activities, but felt no inclination to join the Vietnamese student orgs. Maybe because I went to a high-population Asian university, and didn't feel so isolated I sought the company of fellow minorities, or maybe because those orgs were so, so stupid. I do not, in general, favor "let's hang out because we're Asian" social orgs, nor do I favor orgs that do activities like "culture shows" to parade Asianness for spectators or raves. WTF?!, you know? But in law school, even though the affiliate university was very diverse, and we were one of the more diverse schools in the nation, it was a trip realizing I was one of 6 Vietnamese girls--no boys even, apparently they don't do well on the LSAT or something. So I joined all these activities to feel like I was a part of a community, and because the work was, for the most part, important and worthy. Of course, this is a minority's perspective, but if you are a woman, I bet you'll feel some pressure to join the Women's Law Union/Association, even as you number 50% in the total school population. You'll still feel isolated, and you'll see, even from your precocious position, that glass ceiling in firm life. Ask firms about their family leave policies or their partnership figures for women. Go ahead, ask. And then wonder if you really feel secure in an essential part of your identity. I know that there are those who will cry "death to identity politics!" and I totally respect that--I'm just sayin', it can be hard in an environment that throws all those identity politics into high, HIGH relief. So if I did it all over again, I'd do maybe the Asian-Am jurisprudence journal and the mentoring and very little involvement in the org. Like I said, one or none first year.
  2. Taking on too much my second year. Okay, so by second year I quit everything except the Asian-Am journal (fascinating, and my best friends from it) and became, stupidly, co-chair of the Asian student org. BIG mistake. Being a member of an org is one thing, being an officer, and the top officer at that, is very different. Don't do it unless you like group politics. I hate it, sucked at it, by the end I was ready to give up my post or be impeached for not being able to go to EVERY event. Groups will ignore the events you organize or go to on themes important to you--for instance, I organized a "teach-in" against Prop 54, the "Colorblind" proposition that prohibits the gathering of racial data (bad, bad, BAD for epidemiology, monitoring civil rights and fair housing, possibly unconstitutional). I also did a lot of other inter-org coalition building. Yet all my board members can remember is that I didn't go to bowling night or karaoke night. This is probably what I regret most about law school, and what triggered a mini-breakdown during the second year. I can handle school stress--it's the social pressures I never, ever learned to handle. I've been one of those kids who can operate pretty independently, never even being offered drugs or alcohol, and never really succumbing to any pressure to party, drink, etc. But I got it all in law school, and heaven help me, I failed. And that's my biggest regret--that I wasn't strong enough to say no even when it was in my best interest. What I hate is that it was my own fault, and whether by internalized guilt or peer pressure, I tried to do everything, and ended up doing everything very badly. If you go to law school, do only very few things (like I said, at most one journa/clinic and one org) and do them well. And make sure you care about them and know your reasons for doing them.
  3. Not knowing how to make friends. This seems incredibly stupid, but you need to make friends wisely. When I first came to school, I was new in town. So I made friends in my section with the first people who spoke to me. I said yes to everything--even though I am not a drinker or a bar hopper. Thus, after going to "Bar Review" (ha! get it?) four weeks in a row my first four weeks, spending a lot of money on drinks I didn't want to buy and throwing them up when I got sick (hello, I am 5'2" and 125, hardy but hardly a good drinker), I couldn't take it anymore. I abruptly withdrew from all the drinking games and the bar reviews. And I got my ass nailed for it. My bar buddies took it personally that I wasn't drinking and living it up with them. They asked me if it was because I was getting "into all my Asian things and not hanging out with white people anymore" (it is true, they said that). I hated them even more for it, and made new friends--yes, some Asians, but my best friends first year were across all races. The problem is, because in first year people think/act/perform in groups, that's all they can associate with you--your perceived "group"--you are not an individual, and you do not have individual friends. It's all about your "study group" and your "social group." This is why I fell flat on my face first year. I'm really great at making and keeping friends, when I am able to on my own terms and form individual relationships based on shared interests and values. It's forming groups of friends I suck at--how to navigate group politics, absorb new members, shake off members that turn out to be weird, realize that you are the weird one being shaken off. So watch for that. Be aware that your "groups" may change over the course of three years, and that your clique first year will slowly degrade into individual friendships, and that you will have different close friendships by third year than in first year.
  4. Not taking better courses. Again, I cannot stress the value of good teachers and classes. If you need an open book exam, don't take a closed exam class. If you need to have time to write, like 5-8 hours, take courses with take-home exams or seminar papers. Take classes that are uncurved, where there is a greater likelihood of an A and at worst, a B. Finally, if you are taking a course for your practice area or out of interest, go with the best professor possible. Ask 2Ls or 3Ls who to take Corporations, Evidence, etc. with. Don't take classes simply because you think they're useful, but not interesting. I took Health Care Law and Policy for my dentist siblings, which turned out to be useless--I may one day write an article on ERISA federal preemption, but it's not applicable to most dentists--torts and contracts are, and they are already covered first year. Definitely cool and useful classes I wish I had taken: Tax, Real Estate Finance, Mediation Clinic, Commercial Law, Secured Transactions. Classes I recommend for the Bar, in addition to first year courses: Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Corporations, Wills and Trusts, Professional Responsibility (actually req. since Watergate). Classes I personally loved and am so happy I took: Civil Rights, Employment Discrimination, Corporations, First Amendment Law, Sexual Orientation and the Law.
  5. Not joining the Public Interest Law Program (a 2 year concentration) in addition to my Critical Race Studies concentration. I don't know how I would have finished them both AND my bar courses, but I should have tried.

Things I don't regret:

  1. Not going to the Barrister's Ball, i.e. the law school prom. I could tell you stories about how people spend hundreds of dollars on dresses, limos, and hotel rooms and at the cash bar, but I think you can imagine what it's like--25-35 year old people acting like teenagers.
  2. Not going to Bar Review--most of the times, so lame, and just for the SBA crowd and their buddies. Save your money and drink at home or at any other bar with your mates.
  3. Spending at least $100 a year to support public interest work at the law school. I may not be one per se, but my friends are, and I support the provision of affordable legal services for indigent and underrepresented communities.
  4. Going to law school--you can't get these courses in civil rights, employment discrimination, tax, and corporations anywhere else. Truly fascinating areas of the law, and I will never tire of learning them. This is why I'm glad I went to law school instead of grad school.
  5. Going to my law school in particular--I went home every weekend, which severely constrained my social life and probably negatively impacted my school work and extracurriculars--but I was able to watch my kids grow up. You can't get back these years with the children. So I'm glad I was there for each and every birth, every bad essay that needed proof-reading, every birthday party and even every poopy diaper.

So there's Part Deux of "So You Want to Be a Lawyer, Eh?" It's not terribly useful or new, but it's intended to provide context and some personal experience. I promise the next posts will be less personal and more of the same legalesque commentary. Or maybe I'll do some kind of hilarious skit. Who knows! Thanks for reading!