Thursday, January 04, 2007

Madison on The Art of the Abstract

Mike Madison of has a great post on the art of writing abstracts--for legal scholarship. Here's a taste:

"What I do look for is something more a paragraph that is simple, informative, and efficient, and more still than the description of the paper that I would give a colleague. I look for an abstract that is, in its own small way, elegant.

Alas, this is a matter of taste. (And it risks overlooking an important potential audience — law review editors.) Still, I prefer prefer a little craft to a package of information. I like the use of the first-person. I prefer active verbs to passive ones. I prefer not to take the point of the paper away from the first sentence, and I prefer not to use the abstract as I sometimes use the New York Times Book Review, as a substitute for reading the work itself. I want the author to want me to read the whole piece. The abstract should tell me why the author was interested enough in the problem to devote hours and hours to writing about it. It should tell me something about genre (descriptive? normative? theoretical? empirical?) and discipline (if any - or if not?). And I like an abstract that leads me up to the edge of the resolution, without giving away the whole thing."

I, the young scholar who is learning by doing, wrote on my own blog a while back complaining that this is a difficult art to learn, much less master. Madison even references this post as the only one he could find about legal scholarship, calling it a "laconic" and "deliberately, I think avoiding answering the question" of how to write a good abstract. I like this. It gives me more credit than due for what was essentially a panic-stricken ramble and call for advice. I learned a lot even from writing the ramble though--and from the comments. It generally is a good thing to imagine yourself describing your article to the non-legal reader as well as the legal reader--both of which I have on my own blog. Generally, I think there should be a balance between necessary exposition and explanation, and direct and concise statement of your argument. Sometimes the former cuts into the latter. So just talking about your article makes you figure out what you want to say about it, and what should probably be left to a closer reading. Also, I've found that when I read the abstracts of my favorite authors (not every law professor can write clearly and elegantly), I get a better picture of what a good abstract should communicate. Stylistic details differ from author to author, and there I think is the heart of Madison's question. Is there a style that may be applied to scholarly legal writing? Should we put down our Bluebooks now and again for some Strunk and White?

I can't resist writing in my own way, with my own voice. I don't write purple prose, but I don't believe in dry, passionless declarations of facts. I don't believe anyone should or does write objectively anyway. Footnotes exist to explain to student editors the literature in the field and present the other side. But obviously, all authors eventually have to pick one and argue it. So I try to craft my articles and abstracts with language that does not equivocate or appear to only weakly believe in its own argument. I don't frame things in black or white, and I certainly entertain arguments from all sides and present contrary theories and data--but at the end of the day, I want my writing to have the quality of self-conviction. I want my article to be as elegantly written as it is utilitarian. I can't give up being an English literature major--we have a love of language as much as of ideas.

I am better at writing abstracts now. I can even get them into 250 words or less, which is what some conferences require you to do. So I've gotten better at communicating what my article is about, what my ultimate argument is, and why you should care about the problem and hopefully care enough to read the whole paper. But I wonder if I do all that Madison asks me to? I took a gamble and started off my article with a slightly abstract (pun intended) declaration of the general problem, then segued myself into the theoretical and methodological approach to the problem, and then kicked in my argument and intentions of the article. I did not use the first person, instead anthropomorphizing the inanimate with "this article....". I do use active verbs though. I am a Westerner, we don't take guff, and we do not say "there is no guff being taken."

How about you, Money-Law readers? Do you think your abstracts do enough justice to your article? Are they as elegant as they are utilitarian? How abstract should abstracts be, lest they do an injustice by not adequately describing your project to potentially interested readers?

It is an interesting linguistic turn, the term "abstract"--not "extract," for that would be too easy, or "summary," which would make reading the original pointless. No, it is an "abstract."

Merriam-Webster offers these definitions of "Abstract":

Etymology: Medieval Latin abstractus, from Latin, past participle of abstrahere to drag away, from abs-, ab- + trahere to pull, draw

As a noun:

1 : a summary of points (as of a writing) usually presented in skeletal form; also 2: something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things 3: an abstract thing or state :

Simple enough.

As an adjective:

1 a : disassociated from any specific instance
b : difficult to understand : ABSTRUSE
c : insufficiently factual : FORMAL
2 : expressing a quality apart from an object
3 a : dealing with a subject in its abstract aspects : THEORETICAL
4 : having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content

One should never confuse the adjective form of words with its proper noun, but it's interesting, is it not? And the etymology? What do you want readers to draw from your paper? When you figure it out, put it in your abstract. But I would caution you to avoid the adjective meanings--don't make abstracts abstruse, insufficiently factual, too theoretical, impersonal, detached, or "having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content." I think abstracts should be fair representations of their object.

The word "abstract" has changed from its early meaning of pulling from the whole only the essential to well, amorphous non-representation, and non-figurative art. I don't know whether this change is older than abstract expressionism or if they can be said to be related. But it is a kind of exciting word. It can teter from one extreme to the other--from conveying what is essential and most descriptive, to conveying seemingly nothing and a distortion of the original. Be wary of either extreme--don't get too caught up in creating an executive summary, but make sure you don't misrepresent your work. In writing your abstract, make sure to pull the essential from the whole, but realize that in doing so you are creating an entirely new work that should have its own craft and style. And make sure it isn't too abstract, unless you want your readers to gaze at your abstract they way they would a Pollock--which side is up again? (For the record, I love abstract art and Pollock.)

Who knew that legal academia could be this exciting and artistic.



Podiatric Metaphors Expounded, or Getting Your Foot in the Door While Putting Your Best Foot Forward

I recently applied to S.J.D., or "Doctor of Juridical Science" programs. Why would someone who hated law school and who thinks of her L.L.M. program, as a "glorified J.D." want to go on for more?

Because while I sort of hated law school, I love the study of law. And while the program at Liberal College Law is so unstructured and virtually indistinct from my 3L year as to be a glorified J.D., it is useful at least for giving me the time, space, and resources to write a lot, and under faculty supervision. For now, that's what I need and want. And I'm not ready to go on the market yet. And I think I could write a really great dissertation combining my two favorite research interests, federalism and employment discrimination law.

I've already explained how it behooves me, a graduate of a Top-20 public law school, to stack on the pedigrees and get my post-graduate degree from a much higher ranked law school. It is a part of how I am gaming the system, investing time and money now to better my chancs of getting that coveted law prof gig in four years. It's all about how gaming the appointments system.

So how do I game the admissions system?

I don't know. At this level, it's not about LSAT test-taking strategies or even trying to choose classes that will get me the most A's. That helps of course, but LLM students here at Liberal College Law are not graded on a curve, which takes some of the pressure off. And by now American academic-track LLMs should be used to taking issue-spotter exams, and if they want to be professors, should be good at writing seminar papers--so there's not much advice to be given on that point either.

So how do you game a system that isn't set up to be gamed? In my journey to become over-educated, I find that by now it matters a little bit less what my grades are or where I have gone to school previously. Now that I have been accepted to Liberal College Law's LLM program, it can almost be assumed that I am qualified and have the requisite academic track record. Apparently, going to a big, mid-ranked public state school for college doesn't matter as much anymore, and what matters is the last institution I have attended--and I have been climbing up the ranking ladder. So if Liberal College Law considers me qualified, well then, I am considered worthy of admission to a lot more places than I did back in 1998. So at this stage, the old transcripts and accolades matter less, and I forgot that secret PBK handshake anyway.

I've realized through talking to professors and my program advisor that what matters most is faculty-student match-up. Who will be staff that year doing similar work to my proposed topic, who can advise me, who I can get to agree to be on my committe and advise me on a dissertation for up to three years. It's kind of like networking--it matters more who I know, who will work with me, and what they think of me.

So the best way to build faculty contacts is to give up on your free time. I hardly have time to blog, much less be a research assistant, given that I am writing two to three articles this year. Plus, while being an RA is useful for getting to know well one professor, it doesn't help you create a team of people behind you. So I frequently go around to office hours, introducing myself and my work. I do this with professors who have moved from my previous law school to my new law school (just to say howdy), and I do this with professors who do work in my areas of research. I email them abstracts and updates about my academic and career progress, just as a friendly update.

I let them know when one of my papers was accepted to a colloquium. And after the colloquium, I made a point of going in person to office hours to tell them about my experience (i.e., brag). It's a lot of work and apple polishing, but I've never been turned away for a brief chat, and short update emails have always been appreciated--amazingly, some faculty like to hear what students are up to, and don't mind giving out advice and encouragement. Some actually view mentoring as part of the job description.

This is easy enough to do at your home institution. But what about schools elsewhere? What if you want to keep moving up the ranking ladder, or are a J.D. looking to get an L.L.M.? I've found that blogging is invaluable for creating contacts and friends (or at least, the real-life alter ego has found this helpful). Long before I started blogging, I was emailing other blawggers articles and blog topic suggestions, just to get those coveted "hat tips." (And that got me thinking, why aren't I blogging myself?) But before I even started blogging, I was emailing professors far and wide, just to offer some comments and compliments on their work. Isn't that the purpose of SSRN, to widen one's audience in hope that someone will read you and say something about it? Generally, authors are receptive to readers--and are especially flattered by young scholars and student readers.

So it's not impossible to do some apple polishing long distance. Email is a wondrous thing. Once you draft your research proposal and assemble a little dossier of your CV, writing sample, transcript, etc., you can even send it out to a friendly and interested professor at your dream institution, who might just sponsor your application. That, at least, is the end goal. But making some friendly contacts far and wide and getting your name out is a start.

It's all about putting your best foot forward, I've realized. It's a simple, but true, "duh" statement. It's not just about getting the grades or the pedigrees--you have to get out there, get known, get people behind you who will go to bat for you. You have to present yourself well, to know how to talk about yourself and your work, to learn the art of self-promotion without sounding too arrogant, and how to ask for help and advice while projecting confidence. You have to get people who will agree to supervise your work and be on your committee, or at the very least read drafts and offer comments. Eventually you want people who will pick up the phone and make some helpful calls during the hiring process. People who know other people. Networking is important, especially in academia. So instead of just listening to my professors in lecture, I try to talk to them in office hours, to turn what would be a uni-directional relationship into a mutually consitutive exchange of ideas.

Most students have spent their entire lives on the other side of the lectern, viewing it as a sort of "fourth wall" that they, as the audience, should not breach. I remember being a TA and having more students come see me for grad school advice than the professor--not a good thing if you want letters of recommendation.The students would confess that they have always been "too shy" to approach the professor, and so preferred getting more informal advice from someone of a less formal stature. This hardly makes sense, and it's like asking your neighbor for career advice. Not that TA's aren't helpful or friendly, but there's a limit to what they can do for you.

So go ahead, and wedge your foot in the door. Polish your shoe while you polish that apple. We're not in elementary school anymore, so don't be afraid of such anti-nerd (oh, but the meek shall inherit the earth) labels as "brown-noser" or "apple-polisher" or "teacher's pet." I mean, if you are pursuing a third post-secondary degree, you are soooooo beyond "nerd." But this stage, as an academic aspriant, you should be beyond thinking of yourself as only a student--for all intents and purposes, you must think like a "future colleague."

And maybe, once you start getting your foot in the door, you'll be invited in one day.

(Foot in Door photo credit: "Danielsonship" on Flickr)



Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A New Year's Resolution

I generally hate the coming of a new year. I measure time by academic years (August-June), as all nerds who've been in school too long do. So half way through the year, anxious about my grades, wondering where I'll be next fall and the status of the applications I just turned in, I get the rude awakening that as we fritter away, measuring our lives in coffee spoons, time passes by in huge dollops. So since I am a bitter, cynical type and generally not sanguine about the new year, I hate to be reminded that a year has passed that I may never lay claim to again, that mistakes were made and time was lost. It is a feeling of resignation, not resolution.

Yes, I am a bright little ray of sunshine.

Not to say that resignation over the passing of a year does not spur me to resolution for the next. I do not deny that I have made a few easy-to-achieve resolutions for the New Year. I have resolved forthwith to spend my time more judiciously. This doesn't mean to focus solely on work, but it does mean that I will work better, and not just harder. It means that I will spend my time only with those people and in those ways that I will want to remember come December 31, 2007. It means that I will exercise better judgment.

Why is this simple resolution so hard to achieve? Why is it that at this advanced, post-graduate education level I still feel like every academic experience is a repeat not of high school, but of junior high school? Every year we make the same resolutions, and every year we discover that we are never too old to make the same mistakes twice (or more). I keep hoping that academia will be different, but reports from my law professor or dean friends tells me that at all levels of education, there will be an endless cycle of cliques, politics, inter and intra-group tensions, webs of gossip and rumors, romance and failed romance, all of which take you away from your intended mission.

But what is the mission? I'd like to think that in academia, the mission is a collaborative, communal search for truth and knowledge. I am an idealist in that sense. But what is more true and well, obviously known than that this human quest will necessarily be complicated by human emotions and dynamics? So perhaps I should just accept things as they are. I am working on my third post-secondary degree. And I am in junior high school again.

There are lockers. I am sharing my locker with a visiting scholar who does not have a locker, and we have a locker-caddy. There will be a dance this year, the law school prom, otherwise known as the Barrister's Ball, and I will not go, out of protest to be contrarian and non-conformist, but secretly I would like to be invited by someone. Even in a weird, off-to-the-side, not wholly integrated program like the L.L.M, we have a class president and vice-prseident, we have the popular kids and the ones you never talk to, and once again, I'm the cipher in the snow. The one you hardly see or notice, the one who's never around, never in the middle of things, always to the side. I prefer it this way.

At least this time around, it's by choice--I take 8:30 am classes and seminars, and go straight home or to a cafe to study as soon as they ends. I have been to junior high school about three times now (college was a wonderful, liberal arts in a big state university experience, so I discount that), so I know better. This being the third time I've attended the 7th grade, I know better than to get into cliques, than to accept every invitation that sounds like it would be peer pressure to binge drink or hang out with the wrong crowd (be cool, stay in school). Okay, so at this level the "wrong crowd" means "people you don't like" rather than people who will press joints into your palm. (And to be honest, being a debate society kid, no one ever did, I was that nerdy.)

But it's amazing that even when you do everything possible to avoid grad school drama, thinking "Ha! This time I know better!"--you still get stuck in it. It's like a vast puddle that no one can escape getting mucked into. Forget that big pond/little fish metaphor. Grad school is all about puddles. Things you want to sidestep in a self-congratulatory nod to your own maturity and liberated mind, things that are not so life-altering as they are merely tiresome and draining. Apart from your work, which can be (but usually isn't) very important, or big life changes like getting married or having a child or getting tenure-track (yes, it ranks alongside birth), most grad school drama is just sound and fury, signifying nothing. It's not big splashes. It's little splishes. Ones you'd rather avoid, but the puddle of human drama is so vast you can't.

So I got stuck in a couple of puddles last year. A few of my own making. I put on my metaphorical galoshes and mucked things up more. But should stop walking or getting involved? In avoiding drama and fracas, does one avoid life itself? Is the answer necessarily disengagement? I was once a co-chair of my law school's Asian law students association, and it was the worst year of my life. It was full of politics, I had social justice goals that competed with karaoke night, and there was almost a referendum vote to recall me. But the following year I still became chief-aricles editor of a journal. I didn't disengage.

I once believed in working with people, not avoiding them. I am doing work now in social network theory that urges me to continue to make such connections. So while my presence at Liberal College Law is dwindling to the point where people in my program are asking me if I go to class (I do!), and I have met maybe 2-3 people outside my program, perhaps I should not cleave myself from the entire infrastructure of the law school or the grad program. Perhaps the solution is not to disengage, but to reengage--but on different terms, with different people, and in different ways. Perhaps I should think of the intellectual community as being bigger than this LLM program, bigger than this law school, and think of the wider campus.

So whereas one of my resolutions was a Mary J. Blige-ish plea for "no more drama," perhaps it's all in the staging. I can handle a little drama, just not more of the same. Perhaps life is a repeat of the 7th grade because that's all we can see when we are stuck in the puddle. I remember 7th grade as being a pretty narrowly focused period in life, wanting to grow up, still clinging to the security blankets of the past. Maybe if I cast my net wider, and tried to be a part of the campus community--attend lectures by the political science or sociology department, poetry readings by the English department, movie screenings by the film school--maybe then I would feel like I didn't give up, that I am engaged and invested in my school, but without the drama immediately surrounding me.

Isn't it funny how another disgruntled grad student rant turns into yet another plea for interdisciplinariness, for those who study the law to look outward rather than inward. If its a possible answer to the solipsism of our profession, then it's probably an answer to solipsistic grad students who are sick of grad school drama everywhere.



Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Poems for the New Year

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
-- Thomas Hardy

The Old Year

The Old Year's gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
In this he's known by none.
All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
And now he's nought at all.
Old papers thrown away,
Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
Are things identified;
But time once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.
-- John Clare

At the Entering of the New Year


Our songs went up and out the chimney,
And roused the home-gone husbandmen;
Our allemands, our heys, poussettings,
Our hands-across and back again,
Sent rhythmic throbbings through the casements
On to the white highway,
Where nighted farers paused and muttered,
"Keep it up well, do they!"
The contrabasso's measured booming
Sped at each bar to the parish bounds,
To shepherds at their midnight lambings,
To stealthy poachers on their rounds;
And everybody caught full duly
The notes of our delight,
As Time unrobed the Youth of Promise
Hailed by our sanguine sight.


We stand in the dusk of a pine-tree limb,
As if to give ear to the muffled peal,
Brought or withheld at the breeze's whim;
But our truest heed is to words that steal
From the mantled ghost that looms in the gray,
And seems, so far as our sense can see,
To feature bereaved Humanity,
As it sighs to the imminent year its say:—
"O stay without, O stay without,
Calm comely Youth, untasked, untired;
Though stars irradiate thee about
Thy entrance here is undesired.
Open the gate not, mystic one;
Must we avow what we would close confine?
With thee, good friend, we would have converse none,
Albeit the fault may not be thine."
--Thomas Hardy


Monday, January 01, 2007

Writing With Guidance From Above

Recently Jim, ever the ontological type, created a taxonomy of sorts for "Types of Faculty Appointments." He included the following categories: VAP, Rookie, Senior Junior, Junior on and so forth. I was tempted to email him with a simple query: "What am I, chopped liver?"

While I never doubt Jim's faith in me or his solid support of ambitions, I must admit that his omission of L.L.M's and J.S.D's from his taxonomy is a classic oversight. We are sometimes lumped in with VAP's (Visiting Assitant Professors) and Fellows, as a certain type--those who make up for their sub Top-5 schooling with extra time in a more elite law school program to hone their scholarly skills and get some writing done (and published). And that's where the similarity ends.

For one thing, I, as an L.L.M., am paying Liberal College Law an awful lot to assemble a "tool kit" or "package," and VAPs and Fellows are paid by their school to do so. While L.L.M's and J.S.D.s are similar to VAPs and Fellows in their supplicant ways, we tend to be closer to Raw Rookies than VAPs as we are begging harder to get jobs. When we go on the market we have no fancy title (say, Climinko Fellow), but we do have an alphabet soup after our names. (I will have four post-secondary degrees by 2010, but console yourself with your much better padded 401(K).)

Then again, we are not so rookie as say, someone with just a J.D. and a nice clerkship under the belt--by the time you finish your J.S.D. you've written (and hopefully published) at least 2-3 articles and a dissertation that could in theory become a book. So L.L.M's and J.S.D's have a good amount of scholarly training by comparison to the Raw Rookie. Post-Grads probably have more than even your average Fellow.

So what are the benefits to pursuing post-graduate law degrees? Why on earth would someone who hated law school want to go back for more?

Because VAPs and Fellowships are generally reserved for lawyers/aspiring law professors who wish to enter academia after clerking or practicing for a while. Thus, post-graduate law degrees allow what would be Raw Rookies from sub-Top-5 schools to polish themselves a bit before going on the market. It's a huge investment of time and resources, but those entering academia are rarely in it for just the pecuniary gain. Post-graduate law degrees also have a huge benefit: institutional support, however weak, and faculty supervision, however variable depending on who is your advisor.

If you are trying to game the system, as I am, on what is probably one of the most unlevel playing fields possible, it helps to learn how to work within institutions and make them work for you. This is probably a big reason why I can't with good conscience call myself a critical deconstructionist anymore. Having graduated from a a Top-20 law school, I knew full well that wasn't enough to get me through the meat market--I needed more publications under my belt, I needed a more elite institutional affiliation, and I needed a lot of big names behind me, people willing to make a phone call or go to bat for me on a hiring committee. Enter, the L.L.M. degree, exeunt all that cognitive dissonant baggage over trying to dismantle the master's house with the master's tools.

My L.L.M. degree will be from a Top 10 school, and it could almost be Top 5 if the Top 5 slots didn't appear so permanently fixed. It helps to be affiliated with Liberal College Law. I can't deny that it gives me some credibility when I submit proposals to conferences or in making faculty contacts. It opens doors that being only a J.D. didn't. I can't deny that it doesn't make my sparse resume look far better, as if I was in some Linnean (or Lamarckian) taxonomy and slowly moving up the ladder. So, while I am working for a glorified J.D. taking classes with 2Ls and 3Ls, I am also writing two substantial articles to be published by next fall. And they will be written under the supervision of faculty advisors. And this is a good thing.

No one will hold your hand in the legal profession. Even my friends, who are only first or second year associates, don't get much guidance from their partners. Hazing is what our profession does best. Can you remember the first semester of your 1L year? Yet legal academia is, and should be, different from all this. It should be like any other division of academia, where the ideal is that students and professors alike are in the collective pursuit of truth and knowledge. I am still young enough an academic to make such a statement without sarcasm. Ideally, there is no hand-holding, but there is guidance, there is mentoring, there is a spirit of collaboration. I know I must sound naive, but this is what I am hoping academia is like.

In theory academia should be more cordial, and the word "collegiate" comes to mind. Networking in academia is not just about getting a job, but doing the job right---read any law review article and see the paragraph long "thank you" to all the people who have read or given valuable commentary on drafts of this article. It helps to have friends in high places, and if you are coming from a school below Top-5, you need them all the more. You need to produce quality work, and it helps to have quality people reading your work. You will be judged on your work alone, and there will be no one guiding your hand as you write. But at least you have an editor.

Post-graduate degrees give institutional support to those who don't have a ready roster of heavy-hitting academic figures behind them. It allows us to have access to faculty advisors, some of whom are experts in their field. It allows us to use our institutional affiliation to garner more support and notice at academic institutions elsewhere, which helpful when we finally go on the market. While there is no hand-holding, there are at least formal structures in which one may obtain guidance.

I think of it as the difference between the two Caravaggios, the first (and his first attempt) picturing St. Matthew as an old man, struggling to write the first gospel while the youthful angel guides his hand. Don't go into academia if you think this is how things are going to be. Even with the benefit of being associated with Liberal College Law, I have to do a lot of work on the side to create and maintain faculty contacts, keep abreast of current developments in my chosen fields, and turn in regular drafts of work to make sure that Preeminent Federalism Scholar likes me. I am writing more than most L.L.M's in my program, and I can't say it doesn't exhaust me. But imagine how much harder it would be to write my two articles, to make faculty contacts here and elsewhere, to submit to conferences, or have someone who regularly reads drafts of my articles without the benefit of the L.L.M. program. Actually, I don't have to imagine. That was last year.

While I aesthetically prefer the first painting, the image of the second is what is most comparable to academia: the long, hard slog through the night, but with the comforting knowledge that the angel is above, reading over the shoulder. Hopefully, what you write will have readers, and while you write you'll have a few people looking over your shoulder. Just be sure to thank them in footnote 1.


"Professional" Students and Their Own Particular Hell

( Why do J.D.s and M.B.A.'s Click? Apparently, it's their shared sense of living hell. )

When I was a J.D. student, I was baffled by the number of J.D./M.B.A. "Mixers." Why not J.D./M.D., J.D./D.D.S., etc. etc? Why don't J.D.s mix with other graduate students, as in those people who study the subjects (literature, history, political science, psychology) we lawyers used to study before we jumped off the practical ledge? (The mini-recession loomed, we liberal arts majors got a rude awakening to a potential lifetime of being technical writers or copy editors, and like lemmings, we lept together into the abyss.)

J.D./M.B.A mixers are all the same: a dearth of interesting conversation, too great a male-to-female ratio, and appalling food options. And not being the corporate law type (three years of anti-discrimination law will get you almost nowhere at a J.D./M.B.A mixer), I lacked cross-disciplinary fluency. There's only so much I can talk about M&As or Sarbanes-Oxley before I sound repetitive, or worse, stupid.

So yeah, I wondered why there were so many opportunities to hang out with the B-School kids. I wondered why they had nicer sweatshirts and cafeterias. I wondered if anyone public-interest minded goes to business school. These are questions I've been struggling with for years. I still haven't found the answers.

But I may have found a bit more insight through the years of being a professional student of why J.D.s are intuitively matched up with M.B.A's. We're professional students. Not graduate students. Professional students. We are training not to become academics, but professionals. This distinction is important for some reason. It certainly matters in terms of how much tuition you pay if you go to a public school that's subsidized by state and federal funds. I have paid wayyyy more than my graduate student compatriots. It is a point of irritation to me, the aspiring academic, and my public interest friends who are not destined for a lifetime of excessive pecuniary gain. But for some lawyers, it is a matter of pride that we are training not just our minds, but our entire characters in school--that we are learning not just facts and figures, but how to act, how to carry ourselves "in a professional manner." See Lani Guinier, Becoming Gentlemen. This is so old school. I know medical schools have "White Coat" ceremonies, and so maybe law schools should have ceremonies in which they give us white wigs and black robes.

Perhaps because both J.D.s and M.B.A's are supposed to inhabit the realm of the real world, and not the ivory tower (indeed, we are more like the marauding mongrels according to popular lore), we feel kinship in this academic distinction. We are not a part of the graduate division, nor involved in the sciences (though why there weren't more J.D./Urban Planning or J.D./Masters of Public Policy mixers...). But in any case, we are kindred spirits. We pay (a lot) more for our schooling. We expect greater pecuniary remuneration from our degree. We are professionals, hear us roar.

But there is another way in which we feel an acute kinship. All J.D.s and M.B.A.'s suffer a unique, private-yet-collective hell. Witness the following advice column on the subject (yes, I read advice columns), aptly titled "I have found hell on earth: an "MBA" program" :

Last year I got into a big-name, fancy-pants business school for an MBA on the East Coast. I started school in August, and I hate it so much I cry daily at home, at school in the bathroom (where my classmates/snakes can't see me), on the walk home. I snap at my parents, my siblings, my friends. I was supposed to be in the wedding of an otherwise lifelong friend and I backed out two days before in a panic induced by a looming midterm.

I am watching myself turn into a creature I despise, and I feel too cowardly to do the only thing I can think to do, which is walk away. I'd like to take my $70,000 in debt (student loans are expensive) and head to Vermont, or West Virginia, somewhere where there is grass and perhaps some horses too. Maybe even Maine, where I can see the ocean again.

There is no small part of me that screams, "Stay the course! Survive, make it through, get your degree, get a job to pay off the loans, and then the world is yours! Don't let them chase you away!" But the thought of having to work with those manic people, or even worse, my classmates, and then slave away to pay off these monstrous debts, and spend years doing so before I can be free again, is more than I can bear.

I think this sounds like every half-crazed cry of desperation I've ever heard from anyone who'se ever contemplated dropping out of law school (myself included, although now I'm ironically going to more law school to get an L.L.M. and applying to S.J.D. programs). But I particularly liked the sensible if Gradgrindian advice that the often-meandering but poignant Cary Tennis gave:

What this is teaching you is the only thing that matters. Write about what this is teaching you. Write about how you came to be this person who is in business school and cannot stand it. There may be something funny about it, or something surprising or ironic. Perhaps you are the one person who never would have gone to business school and yet you went. How did that happen? Perhaps you got a notion. What did you want to conquer? Who did you want to show? Was there a dream of cash? Was there a dream of conquest? Was there a dream of service? Where is the humor? Where is the hidden wisdom? When you cannot read any more textbooks, write about what happened, how you got here, what your idea was.

There's not much else to do now except study and get your degree. You can do other things later. It's not like you can decide whether to go or not. You're there. It's about coping. That's what I'm saying: You cope by calling upon the self that knows there's really nothing to worry about, the one that can sit for hours looking at a flame, looking at a painting. When you contact this self things will slow down; you will see your fellow students rushing down the hallway, and they will appear like space aliens plodding in incomprehensible slow motion, possessed, deluded, insane. It will all appear as it is: a charade. But you are not above it. You're in it, too. You picked it. So live it out. Do it one day at a time. Do the next right thing.

If you read the "Since You Asked" advice columns on regularly (and I do), you'll know that the best parts are in the reader letters, which offer a vast array of perpectives and sometimes sounder advice than C.T. Personal stories. Anecdotes. I haven't read all 114 letters on this column (yes, that many), but I read a fair few, enough to get the picture of polarization between those that tell the letter-writer (LW) to, well, "suck it up" and lie in the bed s/he made, and those who tell her to run for the hills, and for good. Some are in the middle, sympathetically agreeing that yes, B-School sucks, but here are some coping mechanisms, and there will be a better day. Some are bitter with axes to grind, and tell the LW that if it sucks now, it will only be worse later in the real world, when her fellow snakes actually occupy positions of authority and financial power. A lot, a LOT of the reader responders are lawyers who compare their law school experience to LW's business school hell.

So that's one more thing we share: a feeling that we, like no other, suffer a particularly pernicious hell, becuase Satan is not just waiting for us, but is all around us. That not only is the grass greener on the other side, but it's free of snakes. It's kind of interesting, this belief that half of our colleagues are genuinely evil. I wonder if medical students feel that way.

My take on all of this? Yes, law school, B-School, any school can be hell. There's an entire online store devoted to the particular hell of graduate school. I know this hell well. I learned how to cry in law school. I still cry to this day, despite my naive belief that things would be better, school easier, and people less dramatic or more mature in an L.L.M. program. I have not blogged for months because of school, and school drama (sorry Jim), I nearly said no to my best friend when she wanted to come into town a month before my first colloquium, and I constantly wonder whether I should drop out and study literature or get an MFA in creative writing. I was a public-interest, civil-rights oriented (and a snobby one at that) J.D. who thought most of her classmates were evil. But I stuck with it. I'm going for more. I'm going all the way (the S.J.D. is the highest degree possible).

I know some of my co-bloggers regret their decision to go to law school. I often do as well. But even as I am a professional student who is trying to break into the ivory tower (call me Ganghis Khan) I recognize how different my education has been, how I consciously made the choice five years ago to not use my rocking GRE and English Literature GRE subject test score for my even more rocking LSAT. I could have studied something else, been a graduate, rather than professional student, and not be expected to mask all my "weakness," my frustrations and disappointments with a black robe. I didn't. But I would rather change the institutional culture of first-year virtual hazing, drunken loutishness, and quasi-patriarchal disdain for any signs of weakneass or emotion than quit the institution entierly.

At this early stage in my life and career, even with time to change and not yet a life behind me to regret, I am trying not to set myself up for regret. I made that choice, I made my bed, I am lying in it. I sometimes view the law like the institution of marriage, a religion, or some other type of fundamental commitment: it's a daily choice to be in that state or of that persuasion, a commitment you have to keep making over and over again if you are to stay the course and be at peace with yourself. Some days I really regret my choice, other days I'm happy with it, and so generally I'm no more happy or sad than any other person about my career.

So oddly, I agree with Cary Tennis. While I try not to encourage anyone to go to law school without eyes wide open, if you are already in law school and miserable, I would actually urge you to stay the course. To enjoy the study of law for what it is---and the study of law is great. To watch the grotesque parade of we-are-lawyers-and-we-drink events (bar reviews, the law school prom, kegs in the courtyard) for the Thomas Mann-like macabre carnivale it is, to watch the snakes and pray for their souls, and to realize that you're as much a part of the carnivale and that you can hopefully turn it into a rainy-day parade. To change the institution and the ways it makes you unhappy than quit it. To turn each tear into a word that goes into your short story. To cope, as best as you can, with a choice you made then that still might be good for you in the future. We are, after all, professional students, and so apparently we are supposed to be profesionals at coping with misery.

Next post: the story of why someone who hated law school would actually pursue advanced graduate degrees in the law.

(Picture: Albrecht Durer's Harrowing of Hell)