Letter to a Young Law Student Don't go to law school: But if you
must, take my advice. By Dahlia Lithwick Posted Thursday, August 15, 2002,
at 1:54 PM PT
I started law school 10 years ago this week. While you may be aware that I
consider the law to be mostly very funny, I take law school pretty seriously.
When I started law school I had no idea what I was in for: maybe some hybrid of
debate camp and LA Law. In actual fact, for me, law school was a cross
between boot camp and a cave.
Some small fraction of every incoming One-L class is comprised of people
destined to take the legal world by storm. These are the people who intend to
get straight A's, outline every case, make law review, clerk for a Reagan
appointee, and spend the rest of their days in a leviathan corporate law firm
where they will do whatever it is that's done in such places. These are the
people law school was built for: people who think in zero-sum terms about
everything—grades, jobs, and salaries. I wish them the very best of luck for
the next three years. This advice is not for them.
This advice for the rest of you—who applied to law school simply because
you took the LSATs, and who took the LSATs simply because the MCATs were too
hard. This advice is for the people who graduated college with the generalized
sense that they ought to be doing good works on this planet but were uncertain
how to go about it. In short, this advice is for those of you who, like me, went
to law school hoping that the experience would be stimulating and/or
mind-expanding; a liberal-arts grad school for political people. Because you are
doubtless trying to memorize the "blue book" this week, this advice is
pre-outlined for your convenience.
A. Know Why You Are Going
As noted, the majority of people who get swept up into the law schools of
North America are there as a result of inertia, career confusion, or some
combination of both, and not a searing passion for drafting complex
discovery motions. But that same inertia that swept you into law school may
just sweep you into a corporate career in which you never had any interest.
If you're at law school because you burn to work at a big firm, or because
teaching torts cranks you beyond all imagining, have at it. But if you're
there because your dad dressed you in Michigan Law footie-pajamas, or you
love writing, or you vaguely hope to do something about the rainforest,
you'll want to work hard to avoid being sucked into the screaming
centripetal force that is the corporate law firm.
So, write yourself a letter. Quick, while you still can write.
Write it, seal it, and then open it at graduation. Tell your post-law-school
self what you'd hoped to do with that J.D. Acknowledge that you'll leave law
school with huge loans, but you knew that going in. Tell yourself that if
you take a job you hate in three years to pay off loans that don't exist
until now, you'll emerge in 10 years in the same place you are today. Only
B. Know Why You Are Not Going
If there is one law of law-school thinking it's this: "If everyone
else wants something, I must want it, too." Not since the days of the
Tonka backhoe and Malibu Skipper will you have so lunged for stuff in which
you have no real interest, just because everyone else is lunging. Law school
manages to impose odd new values on virtually everyone. And each step of the
way, law students make choices—to interview with certain firms, take
certain classes, apply for certain clerkships—based on an impoverished
sense of other options and the fear that other people will get all the good
stuff if you don't grab it. This is hard advice to give and harder, I
expect, to take. Fear and conformity dig some pretty deep paths at law
school. Don't just follow because they are there.
Ignore your grades. I mean it. Recognize that you will take some class
pass/fail, study from the Nutshell the night before the test, and get an A,
whereas you will outline some other class to within an inch of your life,
teach a clinic on it, create an outline used by students for the next 70
years, and still get a C+ on the final. Why are all laws of intellectual
physics so utterly upended at law school? Hell if I know. Something to do
with forests and trees. But my advice is to just ignore the grades. Send 'em
home and have your parents call you if you failed something. You will get a
job. They don't matter. (Warning: If you don't look at your grades for two
years, do not go back after graduation and ask that your con law professor
change that C+ to an A. She will laugh very hard and tell you it's a
"badge of honor.")
C. Have a Life
Someone in my One-L class rendered me semi-autistic in the first semester
of law school by suggesting that I'd probably flunk out because I used an
orange highlighter. The only person stupider than the moron who said that
was me—I changed highlighters. No matter what your original values and
habits would dictate, within a matter of weeks you'll be convinced that
outlining every case, sucking up to every professor, and spending every
non-class hour in the library are the only ways to survive, and that
suffering is somehow rewarding and character-building. Mmm. Maybe if you're
I had, for the first six months of law school, only one vector. I traveled
from the dorms to the law school. After breakfast in the dorms I went to
class in the law library, and from there I went to dinner in the dorms,
which led inexorably to an evening in the law library. Another
trench—leading from my bed to the law buildings—from which I was too
freaked out to climb out. Somehow one night I ended up in some courtyard in
the pouring rain, and then there was a Rodin sculpture and after that, the
moon, and I went home and read some Shelley. The next day I felt like I'd
gone on a three-week crack bender. Or like I'd had the best conjugal visit
ever. Get out. Go to movies. Volunteer someplace. Make friends with the
people at Starbucks. Get drunk but kiss someone when you're actually sober.
Do anything to remind yourself that there is a life out there, and that
missing one night of reading will not turn you into someone who lives in a
garment box under the freeway.
All this advice is probably extreme and excessive. Your parents will probably
set my house on fire for providing it. But read it anyhow. And think about it.
Life is short. Misery is overrated. If law school is what you really want, then
do it as yourself and not as if you were in a movie about Harvard men in the
1920s. Learn, question, make a precious lifelong friend, ignore the guy in the
bow tie, and smile at the people hunger-striking for the ninth consecutive
cause. Use an orange highlighter. Dig your own path. You may pop out in the
moonlight. You'll probably be a better lawyer for it.