Law in Contemporary Society
I watched this video yesterday and thought some of you might also find it relevant to our discussions in class about "splitting" specifically and our career goals more generally. The video is a TEDTalk featuring Larry Smith, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo. The goal of his talk is to explain to people who think they are going to have a great career why they are going to utterly fail at doing so (he says that people looking for "good" careers are also going to fail, but that is because good careers have, in large part, disappeared - all that's left are great careers and careers that are "high work load, high stress, blood sucking, soul destroying").

According to Smith, the way to have a great career is to pinpoint our passion from among our interests and pursue it. The reason we are going to fail at achieving great careers is that we constantly make excuses for not pursuing our passions: great careers are just a matter of luck; geniuses pursue great careers but I am not a genius; people who pursue their passions are strange, obsessive, and weird and I am not those things - I am nice and normal person and nice and normal people don't have passion; I value human relationships more than career accomplishments; if I pursue my passion I won't make a lot of money. If we perpetually use our fears as a shield, he says, we will never achieve great careers. Instead, we will wake up one day in what Tharaud describes as a "what-is-life-really-about? stupor" and have to explain to our children, who have come to us to discuss their own passions, that "I had a dream once too, kid, but I was afraid to pursue it." By that point, it's too late.

Smith's discussion resonated with me because I felt that it related a great deal to the idea of splitting and because his assertions make me uncomfortable. I worry that, on the one hand, I came to law school because I hadn't yet discovered my passion and on the other, that if law is my passion, I will make excuses for myself and fail to achieve a great legal career. I can recognize that any interest I have in pursuing a career in a large law firm (a career that Smith would almost certainly consider of the "high work load, high stress, blood sucking, soul destroying" variety) is based on fear - I fear that I will not be able to support myself if I don't work in a large law firm, that I will not be able to provide any financial support to my parents when they retire, that I am not creative or capable enough to strike a balance between "doing good" and "doing well." I can also recognize that these fears are (hopefully) excuses and that by relying on these excuses to hide from work that I might really care about I am in the process of splitting. That I am aware of my fears and that I am hopeful that they are excuses has, to my surprise, made me feel more complacent than motivated. I've begun to convince myself that I have at least accomplished something by becoming conscious of the splitting - that I am taking a step in the right direction and can sit tight for a while. Perhaps this is just another split. Whatever it is, I am not entirely confident about how to proceed from here. I accepted an internship related to women's rights this summer solely because the person who interviewed me was more passionate and animated about her career than any lawyer I had met before. However misguided the reason for my decision might have been (I realize that I cannot merely convert someone else's passion into my own), I think this was my attempt to make sure that my fears really are excuses and to see if I really have what it takes to pursue a great career.

-- ElizabethSullivan - 28 Mar 2012


Your post made me remember advice I got from a college professor my junior year. I went into his office to tell him about what I wanted to "be" when I graduated and he told me my focus was misplaced - that I should consider what I want to "do" (accomplish on a day to day basis) as opposed to what I want to "be" (a lawyer, a banker, etc). He said this was the only way to attempt to line up your aspirations with reality.

Smith's thoughts resonate with me because I do value human relationships more than career accomplishments and, in a way, that feels like something you are never supposed to say, excuse or not. I find it interesting that your self-recognition has made you complacent - in what ways? And do you think that it's possible that the patience we need to maintain right now, until we figure out exactly what we'll do at the end of this, may feel like complacency in times of frustration? Can there be an element of wait-and-see or is that laziness?

I also wonder - and this may be tangential to your point but it hit me while I was reading - if law needs to be something we're passionate about in order to make this all worthwhile. Or can law be used as the vehicle by which we "do" what we "do," and can our careers still be great, in serving a separate passion altogether?

-- SherieGertler - 28 Mar 2012


I totally agree with your proposition that the law could simply be a tool that we choose to use to serve our own passions. I think this speaks to what Eben says about the beauty of the law lying in the fact that it is one of the weakest forms of social control. Statutes and judicial pronouncements on their own are powerless. As Alexander Hamilton said, the judiciary “has no influence over either the sword or the purse; nor direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever…[it has] neither force nor will, but merely judgment.” The laws and the government bodies that posit and interpret them are, on their own, extremely weak. They only have the power that our social compact chooses to accord them through affirmation, respect and adherence. I think legal beauty lies in its inherent weakness because its power and efficacy is really at the mercy of undoubtedly social forces. It is therefore capable of evolving and growing with human values, at times preempting a turning of the tides and at others re-molding to adapt to existing ground-level realities. While you can obviously pursue your passion outside the law, the law is valuable as a malleable vehicle - if we know when and where to exert the right amount of pressure - through which to propel our passions forward towards eventual realization. Whether your interest lies in the environment, health care, LGBT rights or international governance, knowledge of the law and the human context in which it operates and is given force could be immensely useful if applied strategically and appropriately. I think Eben is right that our 1L summers should be a time for self-reflection. If we haven’t yet discovered what outrages or inspires us, there is no better time than now to do so. For those of us who see the law as an ideal path for pursuing these passions, we can then return in the fall and begin to piece together the puzzle of how to capitalize on the weaknesses inherent in the legal structure to extract a strength and force capable of bolstering and promoting our individual career goals.

-- MeaganBurrows - 28 Mar 2012

I think we've all heard some variant of this advice at some point - find your passion, do what you love, follow your dreams. Larry Smith definitely sells it well in the video above. Perhaps I'm making excuses, but I'm not convinced that it's great advice in isolation.

First, the things we are passionate about don't necessarily lead us to a specific career choice. I'm passionate about technology, but that doesn't really narrow my options for a career. I can be a programmer, a lawyer, or a writer and still find a way to incorporate my interests (although that may be a bad word for Smith).

Second, the process of finding the career you want requires more than pure introspection. I'm a firm believer that you can't know if you will love doing something until you actually do it. I'd argue that it is more important to be open to new opportunities and passions than to try to lock yourself into the ones you think you already have.

Lastly, I once received advice I liked from a partner at a big law firm with a bad reputation. He told me that I would know I was on the right track with my career when I went into work and continued to learn new things. Once I stopped learning, I would have a job and a reason to do something else.

-- SanjayMurti - 29 Mar 2012

Elizabeth, I wouldn't feel too bad about why your selected your internship. The reason goes to Sanjay's last point, which is closely related to Tharaud's view that true lawyers take the trouble to learn. We know close to nothing about what it is to practice law, so our second* best bet on actually learning something about the law is from someone who is clearly passionate about what she or he does. (*I realize this goes against the whole self reflection alternative) I would have done the same thing if I was in your shoes. I find this is true also because a number of lawyers from across different sectors have told me on separate occasions that they fell into what they were doing. I don't think there should be any shame in that or in not having been born with an innate sense of what one is supposed to do or become. Life wouldn't be called a journey otherwise.

And just to get out a lingering thought in my mind: I concede the view that law may be seen as merely a vehicle to help carry out our "passion." But then, I couple this idea with the understanding that law is a weak form of social control, the importance for us to "take it to the streets," the need for us to see the "essence of the thang," and wonder -- why am I in law school? I think someone in class brought a similar concern about this when discussing the this beautiful aspect of the law. I'm putting together what I feel have been some of the key takeaways about the law, and it seems like all these concepts raise such introspective questions that no sterile classroom setting can really address them. Indeed, it appears that the most productive way of getting closer to where we want to be professionally is to reflect on our own, away from law school, law professors, and even the law. My guess is that this goes to the idea that law school as an institution as become less about teaching us how to see injustices and do justice versus than how to get a job.

-- LizzieGomez - 29 Mar 2012

Sanjay, I totally agree with your point that the process of finding a 'great' career requires something more than introspection in isolation. I know that for me, it was only when I had actual experience working at a job where I was comfortable but where I realized I was no longer learning new things every day that I realized that my comfort could more accurately be characterized as complacency. Moreover, while I never had the experience of working until 2 A.M. only to be overtaken by a revelation that I was working for the wrong side, I certainly had a more gradual awakening where I realized that my feelings about my job were mostly sentiments of indifference but most definitely not of passion.

This experience helped to shape the contours of my understanding about what is not a 'great' career for me, but I guess my fear now is that I still don't have a sense of exactly what does constitute a great career. Like Elizabeth, I'm hoping that self-awareness (in my case, self-awareness that I seem to know what I_ don't_ want to do, but not exactly what I actually want to do) is a first step to finding a career I really love. But like you, Elizabeth, I'm also not entirely confident about how to proceed from here. I like Smith's idea that the way to do this is to pinpoint my passion from among my interests and pursue it. I suppose I worry about the possibility that my passion (children's rights) won't translate into a 'great' career, or that I'll choose to pursue the wrong option from among the many possible career choices in the field, and end up in a "what-is-life-really-about" stupor despite my best efforts to avoid that.

In beginning to think through how to overcome this somewhat paralyzing fear, to continue to try to pursue a 'great' career rather than surrender to excuses for failing to do so, I think that our 1L summers will be a really good starting point and I think that everyone above offers important perspective on how to make the most of our summer experiences. I totally agree with what Eben has said and Meagan reiterated that this summer should be a time to reflect. Sanjay, I think your point about being receptive to new or different endeavors is critical, because you never know which of those new opportunities could open your eyes to an entirely new passion. Sherie, I think that your point relieved some of my anxiety that going to law school wasn't the best way to strive to "be" something I'm passionate about, or that the summer position I accepted was not the best way to facilitate my pursuit of a 'great' career. When you posed the question as to whether the law can be used as the vehicle by which we "do" what we "do," and whether our careers can still be great in serving a separate passion altogether, it resonated with me because I think the answer is yes - so long as, like Lizzie notes, we have the capacity to see "the essence of the thang" and to identify injustice where it exists.

Ultimately, as Meagan suggests, the beauty of the law is its malleability in serving as a vehicle to effect change and ameliorate that injustice within many disparate fields. And so this summer, I want to make a conscious effort to focus on how exactly the law can be used as a vehicle to effect change within the field about which I am passionate. Furthermore, I want to make a conscious effort to identify and recognize injustices in that field, and to align my aspirations to alleviate those injustices (what I want to "do") with occupational realities (what I want to "be") in the manner that best allows me to pursue a 'great' career.

-- CourtneyDoak - 28 Mar 2012

(I’m quite late in viewing it, but I really appreciate you posting the link Elizabeth, I found it very relevant)

I do not accept Smith’s “pursue your passion” (or, more precisely, his “you will not pursue your passion”) lecture uncritically. The implied premise that eternal passion alone can lead to practical application is tenuous. I wish to reference two popular works of fiction, The Great Gatsby and Man Men, to suggest that true eternal passion (as distinguished from an interest) is an intellectual idea that can only be borne into practical application with favorable circumstance.

The gist of The Great Gatsby is that Jay Gatsby directs his entire life towards recreating the romantic passion between himself and Daisy Buchanan. Born as James Gatz to a poor Midwest family, the protagonist spends his early life recreating himself into a man who can appear a part of high society. He unites with the debutante Daisy and experiences a romantic encounter with her that he spends the rest of his life trying to recreate. He sacrifices his morals (gambling on the 1919 World Series) and relationships (he has no friends, only the guests at his home who do not come to his funeral) only to discover that even Daisy does not match up to his memory. I interpret the work as suggesting that there was no interpersonal passion between Daisy and Gatsby. Instead, there was only Gatsby’s intellectual passion for the feeling of being included, by a beautiful young woman, into a high society into which he was not born.

A popular contemporary take on fading passion within relationships is illustrated in Mad Men. The show depicts the experiences of agents working for a high powered, 1960s NYC ad agency. Infidelity plays a prominent theme. The show has depicted personal relationships (marriages) as perfect, only to reveal in a future episode dissatisfaction and infidelity (Don Draper’s second marriage, Pete Campbell’s first). I interpret the work as suggesting that the male characters are not truly passionate about their wives. They are passionate about the presence of a woman that “fits” into their lives. Don is originally passionate about his third-wife Megan when she works at his agency because she caters to both his professional and personal needs. When that circumstance changes, his passion no longer corresponds to the actual relationship.

I interpret these works as suggesting that passion is abstract and only corresponds to practical application when circumstance allows. Sanjay’s point that passion does not necessarily lead to a specific career choice is well stated and captures my critique of Smith’s lecture. The type of passion that lasts for a lifetime, in my understanding, is not an idea that can be pursued on daily routine. I am passionate about the intellectual idea of cooking (using your hands to create something that another individual may savor at his most primal, vulnerable level). But that idea does not correspond to a career. A head chef may never witness his patrons enjoying his creations on a day-to-day basis.

Similarly, one may be passionate about the intellectual idea about immigration law, but I do not think that this may be pursued on a day to day basis. The passion for immigration law likely stems from its potential to be used to improve the lives of immigrants. It’s an extremely worthy passion and an immigration lawyer likely derives a great deal of satisfaction from her work that contributes to human welfare. But whether this passion is activated on a daily basis depends on the attorney’s circumstance. Does she meet any of the individuals she helps? Does her work directly affect their well-being? Will her policy work benefit future immigrants? The answers to these questions, which depend on circumstance rather than “passion,” will largely determine her professional satisfaction.

Perhaps Professor Moglen’s point about being creative towards the law operates at the level of circumstance. We should discover our passion (labor law), what circumstances are needed to activate the passion as frequently as possible (meeting with the impoverished and witnessing their satisfaction when I can improve their lives), and then what we have to do in our careers to make those circumstances occur. Perhaps Gatsby’s problem was that he pursued passion rather than circumstance. He chased the girl, rather than the circumstances (her being single, her being close with her wealthy family, her being young, her being X Y or Z) that actually activated his passion and made him happy. Perhaps many attorney’s fail to achieve great careers because they pursue their passion (labor, immigration, X) and stop asking. Perhaps they also have to figure out the circumstances that make their passion worthwhile in the first place.

So, after an hour and a half of thinking, writing, and editing, I realize I am simply offering support to Sherie’s advice that we should focus on what we want to “do” rather than on what we want to “be”. Perhaps a minor contribution could be my conclusion that there are (1) ideas that make us happy (passion), and (2) circumstances that allow us to explore those ideas (circumstance). My suggestion to, well, myself, is to try to discover both and then work towards having both in my life.

Note on framing: I appreciate and wish to note Professor’s Smith’s framing in the lecture. He argues that we will not have a great career because we will find excuses not to pursue our passions. Using the word “excuse” already puts dissenters on the defensive, because it frames any critical response as an “excuse”. Given Professor Moglen’s commentary in class that framing should not be necessary for the most insightful analysis, I’d be curious to his response to the framing.

I think a major problem is that we are taught to quantify success. Think about grading or how promotions almost always mean a larger salary. How many books have you written? How much money did you win? I've never heard someone say "Today at work, my happiness increased by 5%." I think the first step towards having a great career is learning to measure greatness by other means. Contrary to Eben's advice, I'm working this summer. I get to work early every day, not because I'm trying to get face time or GTO, but because I like going there and being there. Not only am I learning, but I'm producing something, contributing to something. I think figuring out what you would like to learn, what you would like to contribute, and what you would like to produce is the foundation of that great career. I see some of you saying well I like X, but X could lead to any career. What about X do you like? What about X do you want to know more about? How do you want to contribute to the field of X? The career is in the specific. Yes, we've all heard follow your dreams. I don't have them, so I guess I have to figure out what interests me at the moment. Maybe long term dreams limit people, because as they evolve, they cling to the same goals of someone at a different point in life.


Webs Webs

r10 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:05:11 - IanSullivan
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