Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Some Loosely Connected Musings on Passion, Regret, Law School, and Class Privilege, with Advice to Prospective Law Students

I remember finding myself in Charlie Nesson's office at some point during my 1L year, having a conversation that would haunt me for the rest of my law school career. As is his wont, he pointed a video camera at me (and I do hope he destroyed the incriminating footage -- I'm sure I looked like a complete bloody blithering idiot) (seriously -- Charlie -- can you make sure that tape's in the memory hole?) and asked me "what is your passion?"

I don't recall my answer, babbling featured in quantity, but I'm pretty sure the words "I," "don't," and "know" appeared in their usual order at numerous places. And that fact somewhat troubled me for quite a while -- at quite unexpected moments, the question would pop up and present itself for yet another nonanswer. And yet ... and yet ... and yet... somehow the synaptic connection didn't happen, the one that should have told me "maybe you shouldn't be spending years of your life and thousands upon thousands upon still more countless thousands of student loan dollars on law school when you don't really know what your plan happens to be?"

This is not to say that I regret having gone to law school. I don't. I don't necessarily think it was the best decision either, however. It's tempting to look back over part of one's life and indulge in regret or self-praise when really, all the strands in the whole web of decisions that make up a life in progress are deeply and irreducibly entangled, and one can't just chop one out without becoming a total counterfactual mess. (You may cite this as Gowder's Holistic Argument for the Stupidity of Regret. Thank you.)

But since the GHASR might not convince even if it's remembered, I'll offer a piece of more practical advice. Take two years off before law school. Ideally, even, take those two years before finishing undergrad.

Spend the first year working as a paralegal or something in whatever law context seems the most enjoyable for your long-term legal career. (Government, public interest, big firm, whatever.) As I'll discuss in more detail in a future post [11-16-07: the promised future post is live], one major reason that people might end up regretting their decision to go to law school is that many law jobs (and they're becoming increasingly hard to get) really suck for many people. Actually spending some time working with lawyers is a great way to learn whether your image of the day-to-day life of the law matches the reality, and how much, exactly, you'll hate it.

[And actually, this doesn't even apply only to people who are thinking of going to law school. It applies to everyone who is about to sink huge costs in time and in money into some life course without having experienced it first. It just so happens that law is the one with which I happen to be familiar.]

Then spend the next year making a start in the hunt for your passion. If you have an idea ("gee, I always wanted to try landscape photography") then go do it. If you don't, flutter around for a bit chasing the shiny things. Don't expect to "find yourself" or your life's goal. But do expect (I hope... I'd predict) to get a stronger sense of your personality and your preferences for both day-to-day existence and long-term goals.

My scheme might not be practicable for everyone. In particular, people whose families rely on them, who have poverty looming, who have other similar sorts of concerns, might not have the opportunity to spend time working out in the forest or studying Japanese or whatever looks pretty (even if it's selling stocks!).

I can't say much to people in those situations. But I can and will go out on a limb and say that it's a serious distributive injustice if there is a disparity in the opportunity to find out what will make one happy in life. And though the social scientist in me cringes at making this kind of generalization without data, I'll bet that the disparity exists. All the things that make it possible for people to find out what a good life looks like to them -- a broad and deep education, long-distance travel, exposure to role models in a variety of careers and lifestyles, socialization and encouragement to define one's own model of success and bring it about -- all of these things come easily with money and difficultly without. And this needs to stop. How can a child learn that s/he has a talent and passion for art without exposure to the works of others? How can a college student learn what careers s/he might match with (or cobble together a strong resume) if s/he can't afford to work for free in one of those outrageously immoral "unpaid internships" that are becoming all the rage even in massively profitable corporations that can easily pay enough to make it possible for people who can't rely on mummy and daddy's bottomless purse to eat and pay rent while they "build experience?" Time costs money, and we ought to be doing more than we are to provide that time to people who really need it.

It seems to me (yes, I'm working on a paper about this) that there's something about character development -- about finding your own idea of what it might mean for your life to go well -- that is inherently first-person and experiential. You can't just sit around and imagine what might make you feel fulfilled and happy in life, and you can't just rely on the experiences of others. You have to go out and do it yourself.

And so?

[Hi, everyone. This should be a good month. (For me at least.) Thanks to Belle for having me over! And she really does make wonderful chicken soup.]