Law in Contemporary Society

A Lawyer’s Lawyer

-- By BrandonJoseph - 12 Jun 2018

The Path to School

After graduating from college in 2012, I first worked at Manhattan Criminal Court as an advocate for incarcerated young people. To help validate my plan to attend law school in 2014, I asked every attorney I met the same question: “given what you know about law school, would you still make the choice to attend law school today”? Interestingly, almost every attorney that graduated from law school from 2007-2012 responded with some form of “no”. Every attorney that graduated law school before 2000 responded with an unequivocal “yes”.

The younger attorneys cited unhappiness with their work, and the recession, as their reasons for urging people to avoid law school. Their responses, combined with burnout from working in Criminal Court every day, motivated me to delay law school. Advocating for young people helped me understand the importance of lawyering for change, but I learned that the everyday pursuit of justice in Criminal Court would consume me in an unhealthy way. I later took a job as paralegal—and eventually, policy analyst—at the Counsel to the NYC Mayor’s Office. There, I realized that specializing on policy passions and using the law to push for systemic change could be fulfilling and effective ways to achieve justice. I decided to attend Columbia Law in 2017 in order to stay connected to the issues plaguing New Yorkers while in law school.

The First Year

I found the initial transition from five years of work to school unsettling. After a year at Columbia Law, I have learned that law school has little to do with life as a practicing attorney. First year-courses are designed to teach students how to read cases, write in legalese, and understand how the law works in theory. Outside of the classroom, students join and operate clubs as in college, and interact in front of lockers like high school students. Career-wise, law school presents a menu of absolute paths to students. Top grades allow students to do “anything”, including the most “prestigious” big-law jobs, clerkships, and public-interest fellowships. Students with middling grades can obtain the less prestigious versions of what students with top grades receive.

After a semester a school, I began to feel the stress of the prospect of choosing between leading an unhealthy life working for justice back in the Courtroom, or life as overworked big-law associate working only for himself. I hated having to pick between paying off debt, helping my family, and helping the underserved that inspired me to go to law school in the first place. I stopped reading cases the first few months of my second semester of law-school, figuring that my path to post-grad employment had already been set. Why read property when I’d end up working in pre-determined fields that did not require specialized knowledge from law school?

In March, Columbia SJI asked me to introduce this year’s recipient of its annual public service alumni award—my former boss at the Mayor’s Office, Maya Wiley. As I prepared for the introduction, I thought about how Maya always sought make social justice a part of her practice. At the award dinner, I spoke with many alumni that dedicated their careers to public service, and 3Ls entering the public sector. Speaking with alums and 3Ls that veered off the common Columbia path helped me see that that no matter what I do after law school, I can find fulfillment if I set my own path to affect change.

The Path Forward

I’m coming back to law school for my 2L year so that I can build the skills necessary to help others my own way. Pursuing justice and earning money are not mutually exclusive, but I still will have to work hard to obtain both. First, I plan on tackling issues related to digital inequities in communities of color, starting in New York City. Before coming to law school, I worked on initiatives aimed at expanding broadband access in NYC. I believe that I can best help underserved communities by improving and applying those advocacy skills. Advocating for digital equity requires a combination of communal and political connections, private investment, and specialized knowledge on broadband access and adoption. I will look to mentors from my career to help with connections. At Columbia, I will seek out courses that broaden my understanding of digital properties and concepts. I will also look for guidance from professors with practical technology or advocacy experience. Finally, my short time as a legal intern at Salesforce has taught me that tech companies are willing to invest in well-connected and successful projects designed to promote technical development in underserved communities. If I build successful projects, investment will follow.

At least in the short term, I would make little to no money advocating for digital equity. As a result, I will find ways to supplement my advocacy with income from outside sources. In July, for example, I’ve arranged meetings with consultants that specialize in prep school admission services for affluent NYC families. I hope to leverage my past as a boarding school and Princeton alum to consult part-time while in school, and full-time after graduation. I will also study at Columbia Law, Business, and SIPA schools to specialize in a particular area that touches on digital issues – such as copyright – so that I can provide services to individuals on an ad hoc basis.

Overall, I aim to become a lawyer that students view as a model for success, one that combines an entrepreneurial spirit with the relentless pursuit of justice. I hope to become an attorney that others respect as a master of his craft—a lawyer’s lawyer. After a year in law school, I realize that I can help people both in and outside of New York City without Columbia’s blueprint. No one has ever bettered the standard of living of hundreds of thousands of people by following a steady career path outlined by someone else.


Webs Webs

r3 - 12 Jun 2018 - 18:49:07 - BrandonJoseph
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