Law in Contemporary Society
When Eben talks about the fear and anxiety created by law school, grades, and dwindling firm jobs, does this resonate with you? How about fear that you won't find something that you are passionate about, that fulfills you, and that allows you to support yourself and your family?

I wished that Eben had spoken more to that fear and anxiety today in class, and more specifically, what to do about it.

Fair point. Let's take some time on this Thursday. There was too much to do today, even without opening the conversation on Jerome Frank, and I too was dissatisfied with the allocation of time.

I have never found an educational experience to be so stressful before. As an undergraduate, I felt that my education was an incredible luxury. To sit in the library and read work that inspired me and then to get to discuss it and write about it was a liberating experience - I understood for the first time what it was to have a life of the mind. I think my legal education is also an incredible luxury, but I haven't felt the same sense of freedom of inquiry. There are right ways and wrong ways to approach a legal problem, it seems, and they don't have much to do with artistry.

Maybe. Or maybe—inasmuch as the experience of the first semester was really just language acquisition, as I've mentioned—it's just that there are right and wrong ways to speak the language. In fact, as I keep trying to get people to consider, the actual legacy of our recent intellectual history as American lawyers is that there are no right or wrong answers, just political outcomes. In which event, if you take seriously what our realist interlocutors came up with, the stress you have is not about learning the one right way at all, but rather learning how to be just as creative in your thinking as a law student and lawyer as you were as a literary critic. Such creativity may be a little more difficult than slinging around cultural theory jargon, but it does more work in the world, too.

Maybe I've still got too much of the English major, too little of the lawyer. And don't get me wrong - I have enjoyed my classes so far and am excited to have a law degree.

I've also never thought much about grades before law school, and now you can't walk through the lockers without hearing something about them, can't apply for jobs without talking about them, and can't sit in class without watching the person in front of you compulsively check their grades on Lawnet every five minutes. That has been a strange phenomenon.

Yes. It's literally insane. Induced paranoia. As I started to say in class today but never got a chance to finish, I had no grades in my first semester of law school, in fall 1980. In the second term, spring 1981, I took four courses, including two law school legal history courses that were crucially important to what I understood to be my future because I was also beginning the PhD program in history next term; Criminal Law; and Political and Civil Rights. My Crimes teacher had literally torn up my work in my face the first term, so I deliberately enrolled in his Crimes course. The work was important to me in every way, and so—I suppose you could say—were the grades. I took the exams in May 1981 at the end of the term, and went about my business, working at IBM and going to school. The first time I checked my grades (which at Yale back then required going into the registrar's office to look physically at a transcript card) was the following Christmas.

The belief that anything requires you to pay frequent or apprehensive attention to your grades is utterly false. But the illusion is very strong. It requires more presence of mind than most of your colleagues have to press against the point apparently held to their chests and discover that it's nothing but empty air. (Hence the symbolic importance of such a moment in the ritual of induction into Freemasonry: men are prevented from attaining freedom by their substanceless fears and the deliberate illusions created to hold them captive.) Whether it is good for society to have its leading law schools training people who are too timid to be contemptuous of grades I leave for further discussion.

I'm not sure if this is the right forum for this kind of discussion, but I'd really like to know what you guys think about this process.

Your questions are good ones. I too hope they will be throughly discussed.

-- CarolineFerrisWhite - 03 Feb 2010

Part 1: Like most people here, I'm taking out an enormous amount of money to be in law school. I may be naive, but the thing I am most anxious about is finding a job that is going to satisfy me, not paying off that debt. I am certain that the debt will be paid off somehow, either by myself or by Columbia's LRAP, but finding a job that is satisfying is something I think about every day. I don't want the story of my life to be (in Eben's words) helping Company X acquire Company Y, but studying here is making me feel inexorably drawn to that work. When I came to law school, I told myself that I would not allow myself to get sucked into the firm culture, and I really hope to remain true to that (although I could see working at a firm for a few years to pay off some of the debt).

Part 2: During the first semester, I felt like an empty cup sitting underneath a faucet that was turned on full blast. Unfortunately, the faucet never stopped streaming water into the cup, so once it was full within the first few weeks, it was hard to find room to retain anything else. As stressful as the end of the semester was, I really enjoyed it because I felt like I was able to finally turn off the faucet and absorb all the concepts that had been thrown at me. I didn't start understanding law talk until late in the semester, but it was very rewarding once I did.

Above all, what I find have found most interesting about law school is the close connection it has with the real world. Every case we read is a story about something that actually happened, and actually affected peoples' lives, which is so different from what I experienced in college. Perhaps the cases we read now aren't as interesting as some of the literature we read in college, but the thought that what we are learning may actually allow us to do something powerful is inspiring in its own right.

Part 3: In some ways, I actually don't mind the grades too much because I find them to be a good source of motivation. I know that the motivation should come from wanting to master the concepts so we can apply them when we graduate, but that extra little push is helpful sometimes. I know a 1L at Yale right now, and she barely studied at all for her finals. Obviously everyone here is very motivated, but can we honestly say that we would all work as hard all the time if we weren't graded? At the same time, I am really unhappy about the harmful effects of grades. The goal of this law school should be for all of its graduates to have the greatest chance possible of success when they leave, and I really don't think that objective is furthered by grading us - especially in our first semester.

-- NathanStopper

@Caroline My fear is concentrated in the large amount of loans I am and will be taking out to attend law school. Eben pointed out today how bizarre on some level it is to be going into debt for groceries and basic living expenses (well maybe not so bizarre considering that 1/5 Americans could not afford food at some point last year: article).

The high price of upper-level education really does scare me. It's unfortunate that while accessibility of government loans is what allows many people to attend school, it is also what drives tuition prices up and up. I don't know the solution to escalating law school tuition and diminishing returns, but as long as there still are willing participants, I guess nothing will change.

I do feel that the fear regarding grades and job placements might not be such a terrible thing. Fear, as long as it's not overwhelming, may compel us to question, work harder, seek more meaningful relationships, and generally take full advantage of the privileges we've been offered. Kierkegaard said: "Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." I view angst as being somewhat tied up in the current human condition, not just a 1L phenomenon. wink

@Nathan I completely agree with you on how exciting it has been to be studying legal concepts that have such relevant and immediate application in the real world.

-- EricaSelig - 03 Feb 2010

For what it's worth, there's a seductiveness to the law firm. I was walking around Midtown today, and I began to notice a secret world. I've lived in New York for the past four years, and I've been to Times Square countless times. Today, for the first time, I noticed that Skadden Arps is located in the Conde Nast building.

Partially, this is because I had never heard of any of the "v100" law firms before law school, and by the same token, many law firms have silly names. To the uninitiated, if a company were important, it wouldn't have a name that ends in Flom. I have no doubt that I've passed innumerable halls of white-shoed greatness over the years, oblivious to everything but the occasional unfortunate appellation.

Now, I know better. Today, it was astounding to think that the simple fact of being a law student at Columbia could be parlayed into a job here. image006.jpg

The implication: work at Skadden, have a sexy life.

And so, I discovered a game. As I walked around Midtown, I shot a glance into any lobby or skyscraper that caught my eye. If there was a law firm in the building, the secret world of Biglaw earned a point. Without fail, any building that looked even remotely cool had a law firm with top billing near the front desk.

In short, law firms are selling instant success. Work for us, make six figures, get an office in Times Square/Fifth Ave./Mt. Olympus, and enjoy life. Couple that with the anxiety that most law students feel, especially regarding their lack of experience and qualifications, and it almost seems like a 2L would be crazy not to snap up a job offer-- lest the firm realize their mistake and hire somebody with actual qualifications. I felt the tug today, and I was just looking at buildings.

Gratuitous Example: Covington and Burling

-- RonMazor 03 Feb 2010

@Ron: I know what you are saying. I found myself in Midtown during workday lunch hour this fall and I've never seen anything like it. Thousands of people in suits running around, talking business on cellphones, attending lunch meetings, etc, etc.

A graduate recently told me that Columbia switched from an Excellent/Very Good/Good grading system to a letter system sometime in the 90's, in response to concerns that students weren't as competitive with out of town firms. With Harvard and Stanford joining Yale in abandoning the letter system, will Columbia follow suit? I know the arguments for doing away with letter grades, but I'm a cynic, and would think that the above schools only modified their grading system once they felt confident that employers needed nothing other than the brand name to judge a candidate. Grades serve as a way to shift the burden of ranking and evaluating job candidates from firms to law professors teaching 1L classes, and the letter system with plus/minus designations provides firms with even finer distinctions between students. The question is whether Columbia graduates are in high enough demand that they don't need the extra data.

It's also interesting to note that Harvard and Stanford retain a High Pass designation (Yale has Honors I think)- maybe because they recognize there are legal jobs that still require a line to be drawn between the best and brightest and the bestest and brightest?

I actually found the atmosphere here to be what I'd expected, just by envisioning what a class of 300+ hypercompetitive, highly intelligent people would act like when placed together. Unfortunately, I do not think switching to a High Pass/Pass/Low Pass/Fail system would ameliorate the anxiety. As long as you are ranking people, and their rank in the system depends on the outcome of one four hour exam, there will be high levels of stress. Even though the school has tried to soften the blow somewhat (by not publishing class rank or GPA values) people still obsessively check grades or figure out ways to calculate their rank relative to the class. I think eliminating the 1L grading system entirely is the only way to measurably reduce anxiety, and it's my hope this wiki can help us figure out a way to do that while still promoting the skills we as first year law students need to learn.

-- JonathanWaisnor - 03 Feb 2010

I think that the strict curve adds to the stress too, at least in part because it provides an alienation from the resulting mark. It would be one thing if my grade was the direct result of the work that I put in to learning the concepts that I'm tested on. It's quite another if it's a product of the work I did as measured against the work that other people did all filtered through an inherently (and necessarily) subjective grading process. Alienation effects aside I think that this method of ranking students fosters a highly competitive environment, and I don't think that's a necessary prerequisite of a highly intellectually stimulating experience. I can challenge my mind well enough without a Thunderdome-style law school throwdown.

-- AndrewCascini - 03 Feb 2010

In response to Caroline's first question: sometimes I wonder if I'm deeply in denial when I can't make myself afraid. As a first year I know that's not good - the lack of fear first semester probably caused me to learn the law not as well as a lot of my classmates who did realize that law school regarding a whole different level of learning and commitment compared to uncurved undergraduate classes. I also miss being an English Lit. major and taking seminars on Imaginative Literature and 19th century novels (Austen, Dickens, Brontes) that encouraged us to write papers on whatever we wanted to write about.

I believe everything will turn out fine, and I (we) will find a job(s)/career(s) both meaningful and interesting. Well, there is fear - fear of not knowing what I would find wonderful and interesting and meaningful in the long run, but mitigated by the fact that really any subject or practice of law can interesting. At least that's what the career counselor said back in November, telling a story about her securities or tax attorney friend and I liked to believe that. Please understand that I only graduated from college in May 2009; I've only taken internships that interested me and never suffered unemployment, financial distress, or the boredom and anxiety associated in popular media (such as Office Space or The Office) with full-time work. This is probably a symptom of the entitlement attitude Mohit brought up in class: belief in our intelligence, in our potential, in the impossibility of us being unhappy (in the long term) and failing (as in, not being able to feed myself after graduation). I don't know what to do about that. Perhaps law school should require of all applicants a year of real work experience.

Like Erica, I am also frustrated that universities private and public can raise tuitions so much because the demand is so high. Like a hypothetical person in one of those economic problems, I did not want to be that person who chose to find a lesser-ranked law school to attend for free when so most people were choosing the best school that accepted them. If the United State government funded all the top universities (converting private to public and maintaining the top public ones) such that all admitted students could attend for free, and thus due to limited funding had to eliminate half the universities the government does fully-fund, we would benefit, but not the students testing below the 80th percentile. The more options available provide more opportunities for social mobility right?

Some homeowners have been walking away from their mortgages. One homeowner's question: “I took a loan on an asset that I didn’t see was overvalued,” he said. “As much as I would like my bank to pay for that mistake, why should it?” When I saw the headline I had the thought, “Good for them!” but not after reading the article. I know Eben spent an entire class explaining 1) banks are not being unduly punished when homeowners walk away and 2) if even they are paying for the mistakes of the assetless, they should. I am disappointed that the 80% of hopelessly in debt homeowners who persist in paying their mortgages are likely the ones who honestly thought they could pay for their homes.

-- CeciliaWang - 03 Feb 2010

It would be an interesting question to survey Northwestern students, the majority of which (think was 90% or so) have at least one, most at least 2 years, of work experience. However, I do not think the answers do not differ till you are asking people who actually had a career. This may explain some of the different attitudes you see among members of the Older and Wiser Law Students (OWLS) than among the younger set. Part of this probably stems from the fact that those who took time off don't really have significant real world experience since such work is colored by the expectation that we will be going into graduate school shortly. I think a lot of the fear is not getting a job, but not getting the "right" job, which we are frankly not sure what the right answer is. What doubles the fear is the feeling that our whole future depends on one year of work, half of which is based on the very beginnings of law school when we haven't had time to learn the language.

-- DavidGarfinkel - 03 Feb 2010

I also wonder whether the fear and anxiety for some people is related to stepping beyond the standard amount of schooling into territory where you no longer can do what everyone else does, or what you're supposed to do. I remember (and I've seen this in many of my friends in their first one-two years out of college) feeling lots of anxiety the first 12 months out of college ... what am I going to do with my life? how do I do that? how can I find something to do that both helps others and meets my interests? Fretting over those questions for about six months (and I was fortunate enough to spend those six months in a remote mountain village without modern communication or pressures, but with beautiful wilderness scenery) helped me get used to wondering about those questions. Now, even though I wonder about those things a lot, the wondering causes me little anxiety. (note: this first 12-months out anxiety was quite noticeable in Teach For America too--people straight from college often had more difficulty adjusting to new sets of values in their schools/communities--but it's not nearly as poignant as in law school, probably because in TFA you know EXACTLY what you want in your work, and at least have a good idea of how to get it)

I suppose coupling the post-college anxiety with the high stakes of law school makes for a particularly anxiety-ridden experience.

But I do think time working before law school lessens the anxiety, or it certainly has for me. (I did TFA, teaching in a middle school in Starr County, Texas on the border before this). The first reasons that come to mind ...

**Responsibility shift--here I'm responsible only for myself and my future. At work, I was responsible for the safety and education of hundreds of kids each day

**Real-life consequences--if I don't get my work done here, little happens and I can make it up later. If I didn't get my work done as a teacher, I could mismanage a class and allow a child to make a mistake that would send them to the alternative center, or waste precious class time that my kids (3-4 years below grade level) needed.

**I feel so lucky to be here--for many reasons: I get to spend my day reading/thinking about interesting ideas and questions, I don't have to wake up early every day and spend the first hour wishing I were back in bed, I don't have to work 18 hours a day, and I have access to incredible minds, fantastic career opportunities (with promise of a life of reasonable comfort) and an amazing city that my students in Rio Grande City couldn't have dreamed of.

I'm not sure where this leaves us ... none of this probably lessens anyone else here's anxiety smile

-- MarenHulden 03 Feb 2010

Maren, you make a compelling case for maintaining perspective on this whole experience. I have taken a lot of time "off" (if you consider working full time "off"), both during my undergraduate years and before coming to law school, and expected that the experience I gained would hold me in good stead once in law school. It has, for the most part, but I am struck by how law school has revealed the chinks in my armor.

It's hard to keep perspective in the dizzying spectacle of Times Square, but Ron, have you ever known anyone personally who worked in one of those firms? It seems sexy from the sidewalk, looking up, but the view from the inside is something else entirely. When you're working all the time - and I mean all the time, 7 days a week, 12 or more hours a day - you don't have much time to flash your fancy self about the town. I agree with your formulation of the success big firms are selling, except for the part about "enjoy life."

It helps me to think about law school as a trade school, and I agree with the sentiments many have expressed about the real world application of what we're studying. It's exciting. It's exciting to contemplate being a lawyer, and I suppose that no matter how fearful or anxious we feel at times, lawyers we shall be.

I should probably edit this post and digest the comments and such, but I'm not quite sure how to go about that, so I'm holding off for now.

-- CarolineFerrisWhite - 04 Feb 2010

Very interesting discussion. There a few points I have some thoughts about.

+ Anxiety: What kind?

I think it's important to distinguish between different types. As Erica points out, there is a kind of anxiety that is inherent to the human experience. There is also the kind of anxiety that comes with dedication to doing an important job well. But there's another kind of excessive, unhealthy anxiety, and I think that's the kind that law school often induces.

Hans Selye, a McGill? psychologist (my alma mater! also - go Canada!), who did research on stress, distinguished between eustress, which is a type of stress conducive to grow, and distress, which is destructive.

I think that the traditional law school experience tends to go overboard into distress, beyond the normal quota associated with human life or striving for excellence.

+ Grades and Education Reform

I think part of the cause of this surplus anxiety is the requirement for curved grading based on a single high-stakes exam (tangentially I happened to have two closed book exams first semester - even worse in my opinion). Not only does this grading system not measure much of anything, I think it creates distortions in the substance of what we learn and how we learn it.

That's why I think the proper framing of the issue is not grade reform, but education reform. Evaluation systems can't be cabined off from the rest of an education system, because the evaluation system affects the other parts of the system. It's not just grades that are stake - it's really about education more broadly.

Taking a cue from Felix Cohen, we can consider that a thing is what it does. What the current system does is turn out large numbers of graduates who tend to work for large firms. The grading system as it is apparently serves that purpose well enough. As mentioned above, it helps firms sift through large numbers of applicants with minimal effort. Incidentally, curved grading based on a single exam also making teaching a lot less demanding for those professors so inclined.

But is this really the best way to educate lawyers? As Eben points out on his page about grades, lawyers used to be trained through apprenticeships, which offered mentoring and individual feedback. University-based legal education was supposed to produce a better outcome.

One thing that I have found frustrating is that it is difficult to find an entry-level job in public interest environmental law, my area of interest, without several years of experience. I wonder why, after three years of legal education, graduates are still considered unprepared for entry-level attorney positions. Part of this may be a matter of the job market - perhaps it is not that a new graduate would not be capable, but rather that competition for positions of this sort is such that groups can raise their hiring standards.

However, I can't help but wonder if a differently structured law school experience might produce graduates able to practice law at higher levels of effectiveness. Less “transcendental nonsense,” more individualized feedback from faculty and more emphasis on faculty teaching skills, not just research, might be a way to get more value out of the three years.

Education reform is a fight we all have a dog in, and I am very interested in thoughts about how we get there. In particular, I would be interested to know more about how and why Yale Law made their changes. Tangentially, I think moving to a High Pass – Pass – Low Pass – Fail system is just a cosmetic change. I mean, the traditional system is already predicated on sorting large numbers of students into four categories, so this is really just relabeling boxes. I don’t think that constitutes genuine reform. It might also be interesting to make a wiki page for the history of education reform efforts at CLS. Eben has mentioned some stuff about in class, and some info is also mentioned in a post above.

-- DevinMcDougall - 04 Feb 2010

Ok, so I just made the page: CLSEducationReform

-- DevinMcDougall - 04 Feb 2010


I really like your faucet analogy regarding the semester. Interestingly, I felt the same way about finals. It was the first time that I could take a step back and try to make sense out of what I was learning. I actually found it less stressful than I did much of the semester, as strange as it seems. The first 12-13 weeks of the semester I spent scrambling to stay on top of my reading, to make sure I grasped every concept brought up in class and in general worrying about whether I was falling behind and "not getting things". During finals, for the first time, this weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was able to work at my own pace, put things together and not worry about whether I was doing as well as the person sitting next to me.

My favorite part, however, was that the two classes that I found most boring suddenly became interesting. Because of all my worrying and the frenetic pace during the semester, I never had a chance to step back and try to put together what I was learning. Isolated rules and concepts are generally uninteresting, but when one constructs a comprehensive framework in his/her mind and considers the reasons that it exists and the implications of it, subjects become much more interesting. It was the first (and only) time thus far that I truly enjoyed law school, as strange as it may seem. Everyone told me I’d hate finals – in fact, I really enjoyed them. I wish Columbia would give us more opportunities to do this. I strongly believe that it would assist students in developing true interests, and when students have true interests in subjects, they are much more likely to try and turn these into career options than simply pawning their licenses.


I did work inside one of the types of firms that Ron posted for 2 years (as a legal assistant). My average workweek was ~77 hours, and this includes only billable time, not time spent inside the building. The view from inside is "sexy" and I think this is how the firms are so successful at getting people to stay. It was plush; we got all the free food we could eat; we were constantly told how spectacular we were. In effect, we were told that we were "enjoying life" because we had the opportunity to spend a Saturday night in the office, working on a due diligence project for a merger that likely wouldn't happen, while wearing expensive shirts and having our overpriced apartments cleaned by someone else. Looking back at my experience, the firm was successful in that I actually believed that I was enjoying life during my experience. I think that one of the big problems with the way the school operates is that it does nothing to suggest to students or demonstrate to students that there are other ways to "enjoy life", and that one of these is through a job that is intellectually satisfying and allows you to work on a cause you really believe about.

-- DavidGoldin - 04 Feb 2010

I've got to admit that I'm with Cecilia on this one. Forgive the platitudes, but we're at one of the most well respected law schools in America, at one of the more well-respected universities in the world -- one of the few universities, indeed, that has truly global recognition. We've all done different things in life, and apparently we've made it this far without managing to screw up too terribly. If we were going to totally fail, we probably already would have. As it is, we're still extraordinarily lucky to be where we are, students in a culture designed to reward the people who have somehow found their way to the upper echelon of the legal academy that we inhabit today. We have quite a bit of inertia, and I think that it will take more than a recession to bring us totally to a halt -- through no particular merits of our own. So we shouldn't take our current trajectory lightly, but we should at least allow it to temper our anxiety, which should be focused not on whether we will have jobs but instead on what those jobs might be.

That said, Eben, debt financing of law school is truly horrible, and I wonder what you think might someday be done to mitigate its effects on legal education and on the profession.

-- GloverWright - 04 Feb 2010

The above reads a lot more naively than I'd like, but in the interest of discussion I'll let it stand. My main point, though, is that unlike the majority of law students in America right now, we're in a pretty strong position, and we shouldn't lose sight of that fact. Moreover, we're studying in a place that can enable us to work anywhere in the the country -- and indeed the world -- that we would like to go, including a lot of places where grades might not matter so much. And relative to most people in this country, the deck is still stacked pretty much in our favor.

And one more thing, probably the most important: as Eben as suggested, there will always be work for people who are are very good at what they do. The trick lies in finding what that particular thing is, and generally speaking I don't think that finding it is something that can be forced. It may take time, but it occurs naturally. And I don't think that anxiety about finding it is particularly helpful -- in fact it's probably the opposite.

-- GloverWright - 04 Feb 2010

I am quite anxious after reading all of this. What is bothering the most, I think, is Nathan's memory of sitting in the library and just going on an adventure. I used to do that all the time. I do absolutely none of that now. When I think I have the time to, I end up saying to myself - why now join an extracurricular? In which you probably just listen to panels (although I'm sure a lot of them are interesting) and socializing with like-minded people who might just want to have the extracurricular on their resume. I rarely find myself going above and beyond intellectually...I remember as an undergraduate something would catch my eye when reading and I'd mark it down and then spend the next day or two just researching it or figuring it out in my head. Having grades unequivocally reduces my desire to do that...and even creates cognitive dissonance about it because I don't think any employer is really going to care that I'm intellectually curious or "take initiative" when all they say is "Please update your application with your 1L grades" --- and then wait for them to say nothing. This is of course a means/ends problem...but my sense of urgency with this 1L summer job thing is really clouding my mind and perhaps deluding me.

-- JessicaCohen - 05 Feb 2010

@Erica: Loved the quote from Kierkegaard.

Extending on Glover's point, not only are we in a good position compared to other law students, we are also lucky to even have the ability to pursue a grander goal beyond the concerns of day-to-day living and survival (although our student loans provide a persuasive counter-argument). It's a little disappointing to feel like we're being herded into the big firm job. Paying back loans and pursuing riches definitely seems like the default course here, so that we can reach a point where we've 'bought back' our freedom. In the end though, the anxiety of that freedom persists. Calming the first of the two fears described by Nathan at the beginning of the discussion is only a way of deferring the real decision. I really would like to believe Professor Moglen's pitch that it doesn't have to be a choice between firm job or economic bondage/loss of freedom. It will take some knowledge, creativity and time to figure that out.

-- JeffKao - 06 Feb 2010

Jeff- your point about "buying back our freedom" really resonated with me. I hope that we can talk about loans one day in class, Eben...practically, how will taking a meaningful job that pays less money (but doesnt qualify as "public interest " in Columbia's eyes) allow us to pay off our debt?

-- JessicaCohen - 06 Feb 2010

So, I'm down in D.C. this weekend -- or maybe I should say stuck in D.C. this weekend -- visiting a (1L) friend at Georgetown Law, and I've had a couple of conversations with both him and a few of his fellow students about fear and anxiety in law school. And the interesting thing is that they don't seem to have much -- at least of a certain kind. Most of their anxiety is concentrated on the present, not the future -- and though what misery they have that stems from grades and the curve seems to bear a close relation to ours, it is by no means of the same degree as some of us seem to be experiencing. They are, as far as I can tell, much more chill.

Regarding jobs, my friend related a story from the first day of his constitutional law class, when the professor asked how many people intended to pursue public interest careers. About 100 of the 110 or so students present raised their hands.

The students I talked to were worried about finding summer jobs, but not overly so. And none of them had given much thought to their actual career opportunities -- by this I mean real jobs they might apply to -- aside from gesturing towards things like national security, criminal prosecution and defense, policy think tanks, etc. Nor were they particularly worried about the demise of firms, because, by and large, they had no interest in working for them.

Now, Georgetown's a big school, and by no means was this a representative sampling. And of course its location in D.C. lends itself to a certain appreciation of the possibilities of government and public interest work that, to an extent, we perhaps miss out on in New York. In many ways its probably on the opposite end of the spectrum from Columbia Law.

This is by no means a well thought-out post, but I guess I'm not so much trying to assert anything as I'm wondering to what extent New York in general -- or maybe I should say Manhattan -- and Columbia Law's culture in particular, are responsible for fostering the neuroses that seem to be plaguing several of us. How much of this is law school, and how much of this is this law school, in this place? I think probably a lot. And so it helps to get out occasionally and realize that not everyone, and not everywhere, is so crazy, and that in many respects we spend our days in a pretty parochial place.

-- GloverWright - 06 Feb 2010

I agree with Ron that the there is an “apparent” seductiveness about working in a big law firm, but as David pointed out, the image they sell is completely false. I worked in one of those firms and my experience was that after working the whole day seven days a week, in which your life is completely controlled by other people, you simply forget why you got there in the first place. I did not have time to do anything else and if I had some free time I was so exhausted that I did not have enough energy to do the things that I used to enjoy.

I know that I am at a different stage in the educational/professional process than the rest of the class (I am “the” LLM in the course), but I believe that the fear and anxiety are still the same. I have to choose what to do with my life now (I can stay here or return to Chile and I have to find a job here or there) and I am terrified about not taking the right decisions. I do not want to look at this moment in the future and to think that I should have done things differently.

My main concern is not about finding a job. I agree with Glover and Jeff that there are many chances for students from a “top” law school as Columbia. My concern is to fall in the stereotype of the lawyer of the big law firm who literally “lives to work”. I am not saying that I want to work little, but I want to be able to have enough time to do the things that make my life meaningful. Among other things, I would like to have enough time to be with my wife and my child (he is 20 months old). I would hate to be an absent father and husband no matter how much money I could make. At the same time, I do want to be a very good lawyer and to make a difference through my work. The problem is that I do not know if it is possible to achieve all that or even if it is doable at all. In the meantime, the anxiety is growing and growing.

-- FranciscoGuzman - 07 Feb 2010

Just to clarify, I don't actually think that working in a law firm is enjoyable. What I was trying to convey is that, despite knowing that firms are sweatshops, the vast majority of us still sign up for OCI. Even worse, we soon start to measure ourselves based on just how high we can reach in the firm pecking order. I'll guarantee, come next fall, people will be debating the relative merits of working for the no.4 litigation firm in Chicago vs. the no.23 firm in New York. As though these rankings actually have meaning.

In short, I was trying to remark upon the transformation that a lot of law students go through, and which I was starting to observe in myself. Suddenly, the game of where you can get hired becomes an end in itself. Suddenly, our sense of self-worth becomes tied to the relative prestige of a job offer, even though no one you know outside of the law bubble has ever heard of these firms. And the biggest irony of all is that most of us don't even want these jobs. That the firms can be so successful, despite the fact that we know these jobs are barely short of hellish, speaks to their great skill at playing off of our fears and anxieties. They present us with a manicured image of success, and we bite.

-- RonMazor - 07 Feb 2010

My first job paid $19,000 a year, and I was able to pay all of my bills and was truly happy (and I lived in Manhattan). My biggest fear right now is that I will spend a huge amount of money and put in three years of hard labor here and end up making myself miserable (or at least less happy) in the end. Eben's story of the drunk driver with a horrible family life terrifies me more than the prospect of a B- or not making $160K in 2013.

Also, Ron: I like the law firm lobby thread. I think many firms need to create a false (and posh) reality for the bright young things working for them. You're right: no one outside of the firms has heard of most of these places. On a related note, I worked on the support staff at a big firm for a while and was shocked to really feel for the first time in my life the presence of a CLASS system. There was an amazing divide between "attorneys" and "staff," and it really shocked me. My background is privileged by no stretch, but I had never been in a situation where someone flat-out treated me as a total inferior without a second thought. The divide was reinforced by the firm in countless subtle ways that I think were designed to mask the anxiety and tell the associates that they were really important ("See! You're far superior to the secretaries and the receptionists and the woman who fixes your blackberry!").

-- CourtneySmith - 07 Feb 2010

Reducing my own post: (1) maybe we should stop blaming the firms for supposedly trying to lure us in and make decisions for ourselves and (2) law school anxiety is probably just an aggravation of pre-existing insecurity.

-- RorySkaggs - 08 Feb 2010

I'll submit that the anxiety level is probably the same -- and also to Severo's point, made in person, that many (most?) of those people who on the first day said they wanted a public interest job will more likely than not end up working at a firm upon graduation. But I do maintain that there is something particularly coercive -- and sometimes noxious -- about certain elements of New York's legal culture. And I wonder still how much our exposure to that culture early on bears on what we end up doing with our law degrees.

-- GloverWright - 09 Feb 2010

@Rory I think that the level of anxiety that has been discussed here does not depend entirely on the city or the university where you are. You mentioned that it was similar in Gtown and I know it is also the same for many people in my law school in Chile, a completely different culture and educational system.

Regarding the source of the anxiety, I believe that the particular character of the person plays a significant role. There are people who are more obsessive about their own future and have a stronger need of certainty (maybe more risk averse?) than others. At the same time I have met people here in Columbia and from other law schools that seem to be more relaxed about their grades and their future and who are very good students at the same time. Unfortunately, I cannot think of many students of this latter type and the majority fits better in the former classification.

The other factor, which I consider the most important source of anxiety, is the pressure to be successful imposed by society. Apparently, at some point the only choices that students face are to be successful (measured mainly, if not only, by grades) or a complete failure. But I do not believe that this is an exclusive characteristic of law schools. I know people in other careers facing the same situation. In my case, even in high school I felt a very strong pressure to have a good performance in order to be accepted in the university that I wanted. Therefore, I think there is a whole system which threats students with the idea that if they are not among the very best, they have no future at all.

-- FranciscoGuzman - 10 Feb 2010

@Francisco- unfortunately a lot of the things I would have said in response to your last paragraph were lost in my failed attempt to edit the WhyICareAboutGrades topic, but I'll try to sum them up here. I think it made more sense to care about grades in high school than it does now. Grades are probably most important to other institutions that gives grades, so while you work your way up the education ladder they probably have more significance than in the working world. Hence, given that law school is probably the end of the line for many of us in terms of formal education, I think they take on much less significance, but perhaps many of us have not learned how to let go of them yet.

I also agree that a great source of anxiety is the craving for success, though I worry that too many people structure that around what 'society' defines as successful, and not themselves. First of all, I don't know what society really defines as successful- are lawyers successful? Some make a lot of money, but most people hate them. What kind of success is that? I also worry that this drive for success blinds us to what we really want for ourselves. One example I think of was applying to college. How many college students in America really thought about whether they wanted to go to college or not? My guess is most of them went without even thinking about any other options- the next step was college, and it was unthinkable to not take it. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with going to college, but it just seems a little strange when we no longer even consider why we're going.

Lastly, I think the anxiety definitely comes from the fear of failure. We can't even conceive of the idea of failing (mostly because our lives have been set up thus far for preventing that possibility), and when faced with it many of us seem to think there is no way to overcome it. That is probably why the more work/life experience people have had, the less they are concerned with grades-- because they realize that life is full of small (or big) failures, all of which can be overcome if you work hard. And that includes grades. Ten years from now, nobody will care about our grades, but they will care about the person we are and how well we deal with adversity. The sooner we realize that failure is OK and is really just a speedbump along the way, the better off we all would be.

-- RorySkaggs - 10 Feb 2010

In support of Rory's concluding paragraph, Shon Hopwood - 5 time armed bankrobber, Supreme Court advocate. I feel fairly confident in saying that any "failure" we fear pales in comparison to armed bankrobbery and 10 years in prison. If the work's good enough, we'll be ok. And, at the risk of putting too much faith in the admissions department, if we work at it, it will be.

-- StephenSevero - 10 Feb 2010

What I find curious about all of our discussions about grades, license pawning, capitalism, and the like, is the lack of discourse about how one’s views on these topics is profoundly shaped by the lens through which they view the world. In other words, class and culture are the pink elephants in the room that make the refrain, “Don’t pawn your license”, in many ways, overly-simplistic and naive. The ability to “not pawn your license” and, on the other hand, use it to save baby seals, for example, presumes a position of privilege. If I had my way, I know exactly what I’d do with my license and my life. Unfortunately, the reality of family circumstances and what I have been raised to pursue and value in life, which is largely informed by my culture and socio-economic status, runs counter to the refreshing notion that one should just follow their passion. For those who are concerned about money, like I am, it is difficult to step out on faith, clinging to the gospel that if you do what you love the money will come. This is because this has rarely, if ever, been modeled by the elders in my life. Many in my family live to work, not vice versa, miraculously outpacing home foreclosure, the “repo man”, and every Tom, Dick and Harry who has their hand out waiting for a piece of their non-existent pie.

Considering this, it is no wonder that my mother is proudly telling her friends and extended family, “Jennifer will be working in a New York law firm this summer, making x amount of dollars a week. Yes, I know girl. She will be making more in ten weeks than many people make in an entire year!” To my mother, at least, if I’ve set myself on a path to pawn my license even as a 1L – no matter the sacrifices I will ultimately have to make – financial peace is the ultimate return. After all, in her words, “everyone has to pay their dues” and, in mine, “charity starts at home”.

-- JenniferGreen - 23 Feb 2010



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