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f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

August 16, 2005

1L of a decision

Filed under: lawyer news or ethics,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 9:16 pm

[Welcome Blawg Review #22 visitors; see the sequel: the road to “L” is paved with inattention]

Although Prof. Yabut is on sabbatical, he asked us to post a few of his
customarily-crusty sentiments for the edification of new law students.
[They were prompted by an inquiry yesterday from Prof. Rick Garnett,
via Leiter.]

1L of a Decision

Because we’re all adults, I’m going to be totally frank in this short homily to prof yabut small flip
new law students: Your decision to attend law school is very likely to be one
of the riskiest you will ever make in and for your life. Law school will test your
and your sanity, leave you with a mountain of debt, and prepare you
(some say rather poorly) for a profession that is universally disliked, and is rife
dissatisfied, self-loathing and depressed individuals, who feel helpless to
redeem their lives and selfesteem. (see, e.g., the discussion
here and here)

His clients’ experiences have made lawyer and career counselor Ronald W. Fox
angry every time he hears the words “law school.” He explains

“They entered law school with confidence, talents, smarts, dreams
of justice and high hopes and left three years later with few legal
skills, limited awareness of the values of the profession, little knowledge
of the range of options for a career, not a clue about how to look for work
and a mountain of debt. They were transformed into cynical individuals
with a false, narrowed perspective of their choices and a dramatically
reduced sense of self-worth.”

As we reported last year, lawyer-author Steven Keeva has made a similar

“Recent research demonstrates how a majority of first-year students
who come to school with an inner motivational focus—that is, a desire
to help others, make the world a better place and so on—move rather
rapidly to an external focus, such as earning a lot of money or impressing
others. Such shifts typically coincide with plummeting levels of well-being[.]”

[The study, “Does Legal Education Have Negative Effects on Law Students?
Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values and Well-Being”, by professors
Kennon Sheldon and Lawrence Krieger, was published in Behavioral Sciences
and Law, and may be viewed here.]

boy writing If you did the Homework we suggested last Spring, you already knew the
risks, and you’ve done your best to minimize them by figuring out your own motivations,
adding up the true cost, assessing realistic job options if saddled with large debt,
and seeking out unbiased and experienced opinions about law practice. But, if
you’re among the multitude who didn’t do the soul-searching and legwork necessary
to choose law school intelligently, you better start doing them now. Yes, now, despite
all the other pressures of 1L life.

Why now? Because (1) the entire law school experience should be geared toward
deciding whether law is the right career for you (not your parents or friends!); (2) if the
answer ends up being “no,” you need to cut your losses as soon as possible; (3) if
the answer — after really working on the question — turns out to be “yes,” you will
have both a great sense of relief and a reassuring sense of direction for your legal
career; and (4) self-assessment about your career in the law should be a perennial
task, to help assure you’ll get the most out of it, while being prepared for a wide variety
of possibly upsetting surprises.

Derek Haskew presents what might be the best reason to start your self-assessment
— asking who you are and what you want from a law degree and the legal profession —
as soon as possible:

“[T]he person you are before you enter law school is certain to be different
from the one who leaves three years later. Given that, the question becomes,
what part of you do you wish to have around to celebrate at graduation?

“In retrospect, it is easy to see how nearly anyone who is accepted can
graduate from law school. The challenge is in not being changed so much
by the experience that you forget why you went there in the first place.”

I’m not trying to scare you, as you start law school. But, I do want you to feel very
uncomfortable if you are unable to say that you’re sure you want to be a lawyer,
that you know yourself well enough to know your career goals (or at least your
bedrock values), and that you’ve thought through the practical issues surrounding
graduating with a large amount of debt (if you will likely have that burden).

podiumSN Please don’t think that there are no satisfied lawyers.
For example, see here, here and there. I think many of the
satisfied are the kind of folk who would find a way to be
content almost anywhere. Unfortunately, most of us tend
to be easily disappointed and frustrated. We need to try
harder to avoid career angst and burnout.

There are some excellent web resources for law students who are trying to find out
who they are and what they want in a career. The Decision Books Law Student Page
is very good place to start, with many free exercises to help with career assessment.
The Values Inventory might even be a good parlor game for friends on a weekend night —
letting you sort out and prioritize values, and hear the choices and commentary of your
fellow students.

Many college websites have an excellent Pre-Law Advisor, that was put together by
Notre Dame’s Ava Preacher and uses helpful input from career counselor and lawyer-
author Deborah Arron. Note that there is only One Good Reason to go to law school:
You Want to Be a Lawyer (and actually know what that means). Take a look at the
Things to Ponder” list of characteristics of contented lawyers and of those who might
be ill-suited for the legal profession. Be honest with yourself about how those lists
make you feel as a law student. [check our Homework posting for more sources; and take a look at Ron Fox’s materials on choosing a law school.]

tiny check No, none of these tools and exercises will spoon-feed
you answers and remedies. Sorry, it will take focused attention
and continuing commitment.

Don’t be surprised if you start wondering whether you’ve made a bad choice. Listen to
your gut and your heart. Cutting your losses is a lot better than “investing” in a career
and lifestyle that will make you (and your loved ones) miserable. If you think you need
more time to discover whether a lawyer’s life is the right one for you, consider asking
for a leave of absence (after completing your semester or year). Most schools will
be supportive.

penny smDerek Haskew‘s 1L of a Challenge, deserves special mention. Part of Steve Keeva’s Transforming Practices website [update: most content has been removed from the site, so links in this paragraph are outdated; Keeva’s book might be a good substitute], 1L of a Challenge focuses
on “Staying Healthy and Whole in Law School.” It has columns, Q&A
interviews, and occasional news on innovative approaches to humanizing
legal education. It’s a gem, and I was shocked that a Technorati search
turned up only one (very moribund) weblog link to 1L of a Challenge. Check
Security v. Acclaim, The Challenge of the Public Interest Fiction,
Should I go to Law School?, and Going to Law School, or Just Going Broke?

For another useful book see Should You Really Be a Lawyer?, by D. Schneider and G. Belsky (2004).

Rhymes with Google: While you’re in school and deciding your place penny sm penny over
in the legal profession, there is one very important way to lower your risk and any
losses: Be Frugal — not to mention
sparing, thrifty, and economical. This probably
sounds even more difficult than discovering the real you, but it is essential that you
keep your debt as low as possible, in order to keep your options as open as possible.
(See “Haskew’s “
Going Broke?” , and Sherry Fowler’s comment, with my reply, about
getting into and avoiding law school debt). After graduation, it is far too easy to allow
“golden handcuffs” caused by high mortgages and lifestyle/family “necessities” to
become manacles that keep you from finding a fulfilling career and balanced lifestyle.
Getting in the habit of making “sacrifices” (which are in fact far from draconian) is not
a lot to expect of responsible young adults.

As I told Scheherazade in a comment two years ago:

handcuffsG “To be honest, it seems to me that those handcuffs are self-imposed.
The key to releasing the cuffs is deciding that a less expensive lifestyle is
acceptable — including less expensive neighborhood and home, auto,
wardrobe, vacations, hobbies, and social life. It sounds like a rather flimsy
excuse for someone who does not yet have a family to support to say,
‘I want to use my degree to change the world, but my debt is too high.’

“Maybe I should blame my generation of middle-class Baby Boomers for
raising, on the whole, a generation of children who feel entitled to most of
the amenities of a successful middle-class lifestyle, even when first entering
their careers [and while still students!]”

Commentators such as LSF‘s John Steele scoffed at the article “Javanomics 101:
Today’s Coffee is Tomorrow’s Debt” (WashPost, June 18, 2005). In our
blurb, we

“John’s right that expensive coffee alone does not create the massive
law-student debt that so limits career choices. However, it is a very
representative symbol for a generation whose spending habits are so
impractical and unnecessarily expensive, that they price themselves out
of a lot of career options.”

If you take a hatchet to those living expenses — especially entertainment and
meals outside of your home — you just might have an extra hundred dollars or two
a month for life’s true necessities once it’s time to pay back those loans.

I want to end with a bit of tough love, by repeating a message for law students
from New Jersey Appellate Judge Jose L. Fuentes: If law isn’t your passion, get out of
law school! More expansively, Judge Fuentes pleads (emphasis added):

To all these unfortunate souls: to the perpetual child, to the risk manager, to
the ambitious social climber, to the mindless would-be robo-lawyer, I have but
one [piece of] advice: GET OUT! Get out now while you can still leave with
your soul intact.
Do not allow life to catch you from behind, one day when you
least expected and are least capable of resisting.

Get out now and rediscover yourself. Ask the hard questions that you avoided
asking when your parents told everyone that their child was going to be a lawyer.
Ask, who am I? Not what am I going to do? [At] no other time in your life are
you ever going to be as free as you are right now to make these hard choices and
then act upon them.

Well, you’ve got you’re foot in the door of the legal profession. Now, make sure it’s the
right door — and that you have an exit strategy.

Best wishes, from the Old Professor

update (Sept. 4, 2005): Don’t miss the sequel, the road to “L” is paved with inattention

baby sparrow
so quickly you’ve learned
to eat and rut

introducing their children
to society…
strutting sparrows

Kobayashi ISSA, translated by David G. Lanoue

admissions week-

two fat envelopes

and two skinny ones

……………………………………. dagosan

prairie twilight…

the glow of the cattleman’s

branding iron

………………….. Ed Markowski

during discussion

on the meaning of life . . . the crunch

of a student’s apple

George Swede

boy writing neg


  1. Just as people may go into law school intending to be a lawyer, and change their minds, there are also people who start studying law with no intention to practice, and change their minds later – like me. Fortunately for me, living in Australia means that a law education (at even the most prestigious of universities) will not cost me tens of thousands of dollars that I have to repay no matter what. I just think that people may want to keep in mind that not only is it possible to find out that you actually hate law – it’s also possible to discover that you enjoy it more than you ever expected.

    Comment by sarni — August 17, 2005 @ 5:49 am

  2. Hi, Sarni, It’s great hearing from you. You make a very good point. As you suggest, though, being pleasantly surprised by an affinity for the legal profession is a luxury that a rather small portion of American law students can “afford.” For most, using law school as a default choice or a holding-pattern is simply not a viable life or career option.

    Comment by David Giacalone — August 17, 2005 @ 10:51 am

  3. Right on. The expenses part really resonates.

    I feel like an old fart talking about walking to school 8 miles in the snow barefoot when I tell my kids over and over that in law school in 1980-82 I lived in a $100/mo. room in a boarding house; sharing a kitchen with roaches and other boarders; sharing a bathroom; and eating a lot of fried egg sandwiches, pb&j, corn beef hash, etc. But I got away with a $69.61 monthly debt payment that was a piece of cake to pay off.

    Comment by George Lenard — September 2, 2005 @ 6:31 pm

  4. Hey, Oldtimer, it’s nice to have you in the club.   That $69.61, is $135 a month in current dollars.   If you were getting out of school nowadays with an analogous amount of debt, you’d have a lot of options on the job market. 

    Comment by David Giacalone — September 3, 2005 @ 12:50 am

  5. I studied law for 7 years and ultimately went on to become cynical and jaded with no life (I was earning a lot of money though). I am now using my legal background to help others and am still able to put food on the table, have a life and sleep at night. It is possible to have a win/win and whatever you give you get back tenfold.

    Comment by Dominique Grubisa — February 24, 2009 @ 12:22 am

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