Monday, January 01, 2007

"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)