Law in Contemporary Society


-- By AnneSteinberg - 22 May 2012

I am having a crisis of motivation. As in, I’m not sure that I have any motivation left and I’m not sure where to get more. I have never had this problem before, but the line of questions in this class always led me to one thought in my head: Why exactly am I here? The more I asked myself that, the more I began to question every answer I gave myself. I could almost hear myself speaking in class, describing why I am in law school, and hearing Eben respond, “So what?.” So far I haven’t come up with a good answer, although the question has been bouncing around in my mind for weeks now.

I would like to say that my lack of a good answer for what motivates me to be in law school doesn’t bother me. But it does. Without it, I am not confident that I’ll be able to resist selling my license and spending my career working for a law firm. This is the path of least resistance. If I don’t have a better idea of what is motivating me to get my license to practice law, I will easily give it up. I think to find an answer I need to start further back to discover what has motivated me to get to this point.

At Thanksgiving dinner when I was thirteen years old, I argued with my evangelical Christian uncle about why gay couples should be given the right to marry. For a few years I felt shame and embarrassment for questioning an authority figure and destroying a family relationship for my beliefs, until one day my parents confessed that was the proudest they had ever been of me. Invigorated by their approval, I began to devote a considerable amount of time to community service for the social issues, such as gay rights, that I cared about.

Looking back, this was the purest form of motivation I’ve ever had. The motivation and rewards were immediate and personal. I saw success in the projects I worked on, my parents respected me as someone who was firm in her convictions, and my brother knew I had his back when he came out to my conservative relatives. It was through this part of my life that I had my first inclinations to become a lawyer; I wanted a profession where I could turn my ideas and convictions into results. This motivated me to put care and effort into my schoolwork.

As an undergraduate, my motivation to succeed in school became more complicated. I spent more time on the abstract, learning about social problems but rarely getting actively involved in changing these problems. While I enjoyed took advantage of the opportunity to learn critical thinking and to question the world around me, my motivation to work hard became also became more abstract. Instead of being motivated by positive results of my actions, I was motivated instead by grades. I strongly believed in the value of what I studied, and grades validated and motivated me. My grades then gave me the opportunity to go to Columbia Law School, reinforcing the value I placed in grades as a source of motivation.

Yet, now I am in law school, the elements that have motivated me to succeed in the past are not present here. I don’t feel compelled by the concrete effects of what I am doing, because I am not actively contributing to society. Memorizing rules and doctrine doesn’t particularly invigorate me, because I don’t particularly exercise the critical thinking that I developed as an undergrad. Finally, because of this class, I’ve come to question whether simply getting good grades should be a source of motivation at all. Of course, getting great grades will help me get onto law review and will make me desirable to law firms. But is this sufficient as motivation? To me it isn’t—not because I know I don’t want to work for a law firm, but simply because I don’t know if I do. In the end, I may still choose that path. However, if I do, I want to be able to say that I did it because I consciously chose to. Not because I was too focused on getting good grades to choose anything else.

This hasn’t been easy to write, because in considering this topic I abandoned the ignorance I had. Once I was no longer ignorant of my own faulty motivations, I had no choice but to consider how I can alter the way I approach law school. Thus, I am thankful that this class gave me the opportunity to question and critique my motivations for being here. Recalling my past motivations illuminates ways in which I can improve my experience in law school. I need to learn how to incorporate getting actively involved in community service, or at the least, I need to find a way to more critically engage with the material I learn. Maybe with a concrete motivation for obtaining a license to practice law, I will better understand its value. Then when it comes time to decide whether or not to give it up, I will know what to do.

This is an important stage to pass through, and it is beneficial to have taken the time, and made the effort of self-interrogation, to have memorialized it. By now, having been subjected to the blast of meaningless but harmful condescension that is the Egregious Interview Program, you have realized that the motivationless structure of work, which Marx called "alienation," can indeed become a way of life even for apparently privileged young people with substantial talents and unfocused ambitions.

So you are now ready to make a demand on the educational institution, on its processes and its people. Courses, exercises and activities that respond to your need for work that makes meaning are good for you. Teachers who can help you connect the work you do to your process of becoming, who can help you to be part of something larger and more meaningful than your material insecurities, are good for you. When a course or a teacher, or an "extracurricular" activity ceases to be good for you, leave it, her or him immediately. Over the next two years, you will find ways to grow that will leave you far more sure of yourself, and of your ability to lead a meaningful professional life, if you don't compromise on what you demand from your teachers, and from the school.

Grades may have "validated" you, but they won't do it anymore, and you should not expect them to. You have grown up, and a gold star pasted on the front of your notebook, like a quarter from the tooth fairy, no longer satisfies the more sophisticated needs of your adult mind. You know when the work you have done has raised your game, taught you how to get more out of yourself, made you a more competent social actor, taught you something about how to be a lawyer. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. You know when you've slid by with nothing more than diligence, smarm, and a memory for the reading. When nothing important has happened in the course of a course, your judgment acquits neither you nor the teacher who allowed you to get away with drifting. So the good grade for not growing is just the insult added to the injury.

If you couldn't feel what you feel now, I'd worry about you. But I don't. You're going to remember what your best moments are like, and you're going to require that the talented people who teach you help you to have more of them. That way lies not only competence, but happiness in your profession.


Webs Webs

r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:47 - IanSullivan
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