Law in Contemporary Society

-- By JessicaWirth - 16 Apr 2012

I've Seen the Other (White) Shoe Drop

In December, 2008, my brother, then in his 3L year at another New York law school, got a terse email from a partner for whom he had worked the previous summer. The email doesn’t require an “in a nutshell” summary because the email was itself a nutshell: the partners were defecting; the firm was dissolving; his offer of full-time employment had been revoked.

He was caught in the crosshairs of the disintegration of a system promulgated by law schools and the firms into which they fed. This system promised with a wink and a nudge that if one played by the rules – took the loans to go to the top school, got the grades, summered in the rights places –one would be just fine at graduation. When the other (white) shoe dropped because the subprime mortgage bubble burst and the economy retracted, young lawyers like my brother found themselves adrift, struggling to define what their law licenses were for. They soon learned that the rules to which they had adhered were about prestige, not building the skills necessary to sustain a legal practice. Indeed, at the time the firm rescinded his job offer, my brother had only ever represented two clients and he had only done so to meet his pro bono graduation requirement. More troublingly, he had never questioned, and his law school had never asked him to question, whether “just fine” was worth aspiring to.

I saw from watching my brother twist in the wind what every person in this law school ought to know: the associate cogs in the big law machine are expendable. Especially as corporate clients become unwilling to pay billable hours (particularly for associates, who, it turns out, don’t know how to do much of value,) big firms are struggling to maintain profits per partner. Rather than assess the sustainability of their financial models, they have proven all too willing to turn to cheaper workers. Those squeamish about India can easily hire contract attorneys in West Virginia for $12 an hour and no benefits.

I lived through the ramifications of the changing legal sector with my brother, who is still angry about what happened even though he has long since given up looking for legal work. That I am considering pursing a position in a law firm for next summer and potentially for after I graduate, having lived this with him, is causing me significant psychological tension and pain.

Waking Up

Before this class, I numbed myself to this pain by relying on reasonable-sounding excuses. I alternated between reminding myself that I need to earn a good salary to pay back my student loans and reassuring myself that a firm job would only be temporary - a few years at most! Upon closer examination of the functional significance of these rationales, however, I discovered their weaknesses. That I will graduate with hundreds of thousands of student loan debt tells me only that I will need to pay this money back on some time table, so I must use my license in part to generate revenue. It doesn’t tell me that renting my license to a law firm is the preferable way to do so, the faster way, or, as is quite obvious from the recent past, the more certain way. Moreover, that a career path is appealing solely because of its limited duration says everything worth saying about it.

Cohen's functionalism woke me up, jarringly, but it was not liberating. Instead, I berated myself for making an irrational choice. I chalked it up to a character flaw: if I were stronger, I wrote, I would skip EIP; if I had more confidence, I would get off the prestige hamster wheel and invest the rest of my time here in learning how to practice law; if I were fully present in my being, I would stop repressing the parts of myself that scare me and learn from the discomfort they cause me.

This if/then construct was a convenient tautology: I cannot prove or disprove that if I were more confident, or stronger, or more self-aware, anything about me or my choices would change. I seek to move beyond it because it is a false understanding of myself that assumes a degree of control that I simply don't have. I am still working on the "how."

Toward an Unconscious Life, Consciously

In the course of writing and revising this essay, I never asked myself why I felt compelled to share this personal story with the wiki universe, populated by dear friends but quite a few more acquaintances or names to which I could not put faces. In retrospect, though, I can see that I thought the colored ink would reiterate what I supposed to be true: I was, indeed, being irrational, and I should will myself to behave differently. Because I expected additional confirmation of my failing, the initial version of this essay was but another form of self-flagellation.

Instead, I received empathy. It was equally jarring, and incredibly powerful. Contextualizing my struggle as part of a broader human tendency to discount or ignore the subconscious allowed me to absolve myself of blame: I was not failing, I was simply being. This was a significant recognition for me, and will also be critical to what comes next. I've been reflecting on other areas of human life where people are denigrated for failing to rise above their subconscious desires, like human sexuality, and I've been considering that the concept of control is far more limited than we socially believe it to be; but I still have not turned this reflection inward to interrogate my own subconscious so that I may figure out why I am willing to cede what control I do have to someone who would dictate the lawyer I will be.

This was the charge given to us all in our final class of the semester, and it is for me going to be an ongoing process, an internal conversation that will likely never end.

(Words: 994)


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r11 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:32 - IanSullivan
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