Friday, July 18, 2008

Making the Transition from the Law to Grad School

This is the third in an N-part series, although it's meant to be something like the 6th. The series is meant to run something like this:

  1. Some Loosely Connected Musings on Passion, Regret, Law School, and Class Privilege, with Advice to Prospective Law Students
  2. Why You Shouldn't Go to Law School
  3. If you Must go to Law School, How do you Prepare, and What School do you Choose? (not yet written)
  4. So You Went to Law School. Now What? (not yet written)
  5. Considering Grad School: Should you do it? What Program Should you Choose? (not yet written)
  6. Making the Transition from the Law to Grad School (that is, this post)
  7. Law School and Beyond: Paul's Story (not yet written)

I won't promise to write #7, though I'd kind of like to. The other absent ones will probably be written sooner or later. This one is a slightly modified version of an e-mail that I sent someone in response to a question about going back to grad school -- that's why it got written so "soon."

You should also see Belle's How to Go Back to Grad School post, on this topic, and the Law School Advice Wiki generally.

I'm cross-posting this one to my new personal blog, Uncommon Priors (formal announcement forthcoming).

So You're Going to Grad School. What Can You Expect?
I'll assume here that you're a lawyer, and you've decided for whatever reason (to be explored in the post numbered 5 above) to go to grad school.

First, I have some good news for you. In terms of day-to-day life, there's just no comparison between grad school and legal practice. It's a wonderful refreshing breath of air to not have to keep track of time in six-minute increments, and to have deadlines that are manageable rather than insane -- to not be in a constant panic from crisis to crisis. (Admittedly, that might be a skewed comparison: my last law job was litigation in the federal courts in the Eastern District of Virginia -- a.k.a. the "rocket docket," so my law life had more panic than most.)

It's also great to be able to work on and study things that are interesting. There's some boring stuff in grad school, as anywhere, but the ratio of boredom to fascinating stuff is much higher, just because, well, one chooses what one studies. Some of that's the case in law school too, of course, but there are a variety of social and economic pressures in law school to, e.g., take lots of corporations and securities courses, so the same freedom to shape one's life isn't there. (I'm told in the hard sciences, in lab-based sorts of work, similar pressures exist to pursue topics based on the interest of someone other than oneself -- so be aware that my experiences may not generalize.) Relatedly, it's shocking how much you learn. At least, it was to me. I feel like I've learned as much in the last two years as in most of the rest of my life combined -- certainly far more than in law school.

I've also found the people more pleasant than either law school or the practice of law. I might have a skewed sample here: I'm in a PhD program that is very friendly, non-competitive, etc., with both wonderful faculty and talented students. It's important to be very careful in selecting your program. But my experience, at least, is completely positive interpersonally. Compare that to law school, where I know of at least one person who started a secret study group, to which he invited only the people he thought were smart, in 1L year.

Possibly the chief surprise is that it is a lot of work. I never did the big-firm thing, so I haven't had quite the hours in the law that some have, but I still worked pretty long days in the law. I was surprised to be spending similarly long days (and often longer nights) at work in grad school. That depends on your program in part, but it's rather a lot of work, especially at first, everywhere. Grad school can suck up all your time, as well as impose massive amounts of work and success-related stress. (In my cohort, for example, we had a massive wave of relationship breakups in the first year.)

Obviously, be prepared for a big financial adjustment. Long-term too -- academics get paid less than big-firm lawyers, obviously, and the job market is a lot tougher. But in the short term, even in a well-funded program (don't even think about going to a poorly-funded program), you'll see a massive income drop. This is so even for public-interest lawyers.

Also, and this is particularly relevant for us political theorists, be prepared for a big intellectual adjustment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the law encourages some very bad intellectual habits, which I've had to struggle to break, and which you'll probably have to struggle to break too. For example, things like "arguing in the alternative" are totally verboten in serious academic work. Similarly, it's often the case in analytic fields (especially normative ones) that one's arguments fail (i.e., one discovers a devastating objection), or, on the empirical side, one's theories don't pan out. The natural lawyer's instinct, from someone who has been trained as a partisan advocate (that is, if you were in litigation), is to try and batter things together as well as possible, when what one ought to do is to abandon the doomed position. This is important.

How to deal with these big adjustments?

I don't have too much to say about the financial adjustment -- I'm no financial planner. The best advice on this score is to save while you still have a real income. The point isn't so much to permit a soft landing -- you shouldn't save with the intention of spending down your savings in grad school by living above your stipend means. That way lieth disaster, because you always spend more than you should. Rather, the idea is to save so that you have a cushion. Surprise expenses -- medical bills, car repairs, etc. -- can really hurt when you're on a fixed, low, income and have no time to do outside work (many grad programs don't even permit it). But generally, live within your means. And be prepared for a trade-off between time and money. This can be difficult. Do you grab the quick (overpriced, unhealthy) bite on campus, or do you cook your own food?

The time adjustment induces two basic approaches, in the experience of people I know: strict self-discipline and complete surrender. The former means setting working hours (like in the real world) and, in most cases, actually sticking to them. This means working during those hours -- not surfing the internet -- and it means stopping working after they're done. The latter, well, it's self-evident. Work when forced (i.e., constantly), stop working when you run out of things to do or are procrastinating. I suspect the former is much healthier, but I don't know many people who have the self-discipline to do it. I sure don't. In fact, I can think of two people who do -- and I have no idea how. I suspect it's set by one's personality.

As for the intellectual adjustment, the rules here are humility and patience. Recognize, that is, that you will screw things up when you start. Take the criticism to heart. You've gone from being the person who gives the orders to being the neophyte who needs to be corrected. Even as a junior associate somewhere, you still are The Authority to clients, support staff, etc., as well as The Competent Adviser, etc. But when you're a grad student (at least until you start teaching), you're the neophyte. This can be a hard transition -- there are several ways to mishandle it. One way is arrogance -- to reject criticism as contrary to your self-image. Annother is timidity -- to take criticism personally as a sign that you're stupid, etc. The right way is to recognize that you're a beginner, and recognize that this will pass (never completely, but relatively) -- that you'll attain competence in this stuff in due course and if you do the work.

This is a principle about big life changes generally. Everything has a learning curve, but you can mount it. Remember that learning curve when you started practicing law? (I sure do -- I vividly remember the terror the first time I was called upon to give someone -- some poor tenant facing an unfair eviction -- actual legal advice.)

In short
This is an awesome ride. I've liked it so far. So, perhaps, will you. And remember that you've gone through fires before. For my part, after being shouted at by the chief judge of a federal court of appeals, in oral argument, for having the temerity to sue a school in federal court, talks and teaching hold no terrors for me!