Law in Contemporary Society

The Well-Meaning Law School Student

-- By LiasBorshan - 28 Feb 2020

Section I: Who is she?

This paper is about a fictional figure that I call the well-meaning law school student with student loans. She is bright, immensely privileged, insecure, anxious, indecisive, inexperienced, and ultimately unsure of many of her values. The well-meaning law school student tends to believe one of a few tales, most of which include her working at a prestigious and immensely rich law firm at some point. She may believe that in order to work for the public interest, she first needs to pay her loans by working at one of these firms, or that these firms are a necessary part of a successful (whatever that might mean) career trajectory in law. Regardless of which of the stories she buys into, being employed at a law firm at some point seems to her to be an inevitability.

It is not that the well-meaning law school student does not understand her freedom to decide who she will work for and to what end. Ultimately, she comprehends that it is not necessary that she works at a large law firm for an opening salary of 190000$ per year, even if she has student loans. It may be true that she is, for the most part, not consciously aware that she has that choice, but there can be no mistaking the fact that her freedom has been understood by her at a fundamental, subconscious level. Why else would her view of the world (her Weltanschauung to borrow from Freud) and her place in it as a future lawyer have been so meticulously constructed around rejecting that freedom?

Actually, not Freud. William James used this pretty simple German compound as an English noun in 1868, according to the OED.

Of course, it is not just that she does not want to accept her freedom. The law school itself and the myriad of law firms and donors who support the school would also prefer that she believe that her career path is largely inevitable. They even encourage this belief through repeated emails, dean’s addresses, lunch talks, and networking events. The focus of this paper, however, is not on the institution or its motivations but about the student herself and what she believes.

Section II: Why is freedom troublesome for the well-meaning law school student?

I believe the answer to this question is illustrated wonderfully in John Steinbeck’s analysis of the tale of Cain and Abel in his masterpiece East of Eden. In the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis, God discusses sin with Cain after he murders his brother. The exact words that God uses in this discussion, however, vary significantly between [English] editions of the Bible. In the King James Bible, God says to Cain “thou shalt rule over him”, implying that Cain’s triumph over sin is inevitable. In the American Standard Version, God says “do thou rule over it.”, implying that God has commanded that he rule over sin. The correct interpretation, says Steinbeck, is in the Hebrew word Timshel, which is the word used in the place of “thou shalt” or “do thou”. Timshel translates most appropriately in English to “Thou mayest”, which implies that overcoming sin is a decision that Cain has to make. As the character, Lee points out in the book, “if ‘Thou mayest’, it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not”, and that is exactly what troubles the well-meaning law school student.

The well-meaning law school student ultimately has immense difficulty reconciling her freedom with herself. After all, there is nothing more dreadful to the anxious, indecisive, inexperienced person than having to make a decision. Decisions are troublesome and heavy things. When you decide to do something you and only you are responsible for the resulting consequences of it and the well-meaning law student cannot have that. Freedom is simultaneously awful, grand, horrifying, and ultimately sublime because it contains within it infinite possibilities among which we may choose. Our student is much like the people in Samuel Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan. Our student crippled by the potential weight of making decisions prefers to close her eyes “in holy dread”, rather than stare into “the flashing eyes and floating hair” of freedom.

Does this reference add something? I don't actually think the comparison is as literal as you make it out, that your character is having an ecstatic vision, but rather something else entirely.

Section III: Her Weltanshauung! A Choice!

The well-meaning law school student is in very much the same position that the pious and the religious members of the Judeo-Christian tradition are. The religious person is ultimately faced with choosing which way that they will read the conversation between Cain and God. Their choice of interpretation will alter the very way that they perceive reality and convince them that they exist within a world of choice or a world of predetermination. The reader will probably have noticed the paradoxical nature of this phenomenon of choosing to believe that there is no choice, but that is precisely what our student has done. She has decided that reality is the inevitability of Big Law and thus decided on her Weltanschauung. This Weltanschauung is internally consistent, as the idea of pre-determination can be internally consistent. From it, coherent narratives develop that feel, look, sound, taste, and smell real and that explain her career trajectory to her and what she ought to be doing if she does not want to be a failure. Her life's course, at least for the two years after graduation, carries with it the certainty that those readers of the King James Bible have in the fact that Cain and humankind "shalt" overcome sin. She "shalt" go into Big Law, but the fact that it is necessary was her choice. It is in this sense that she understood her freedom, but rejected it. A Weltanschauung is ultimately a view from a particular lens or angle. She "shalt" do big law is the current lens that she stares through, but she need only step back to see that she "mayest not".

This is a good start. I think the way to improve the essay best is to be more direct about it. The idea, of deliberately not acknowledging the existence of choice in order to avoid the anxiety of choosing, can be expressed very simply. Much of the current draft decorates, rather than building upon, this idea. Genesis through the eyes of Steinbeck and Xanadu through the eyes of Coleridge are self-evidently decorative. If "Weltanschauung" were rendered as "perspective," the psychology, too, would be simpler.

The value of reducing decoration is the space freed for building. Yes, the application of these ideas to law students is consistent with what more than thirty-five years of experience with law school has taught me, and six point some fractional weirdness months of law school have taught you. So now what? That's really the point of departure for the next draft. Is it the anxiety or the perspective law school should be trying to deal with, and how?

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r4 - 12 May 2020 - 00:15:02 - EbenMoglen
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