Law in Contemporary Society

The Kind of Lawyer I Want To Be

-- By ZaneMuller - 26 Apr 2018

I. Why I Came to Law School

I’ve spent most of my academic life coasting, although that changed a little bit towards the end of college. I found some real satisfaction writing opinion articles for the student newspaper - showy pieces that were fun to toss off but dilettantish and insubstantial. Things really changed when I had the opportunity to be the editor. I found that I really liked recruiting people, managing them, setting the ship’s course, making final decisions and being the face of the organization. I realized that I liked power, and that I could use it to make things happen.

Actual journalism, however, seemed like a bad bet, and the dirty work of reporting didn’t really interest me anyway. Various teachers and relatives had hinted to me over the years that I might consider law school, but I had a narrow view of what lawyers did and assumed it necessarily involved corporate drudgery. So I signed up for TFA, out of a vague commitment to social justice and the belief that I could defensibly buy two extra years to come up with a real life plan. They promised a challenge and also “leadership development”, which sounded good to me.

Teaching was a radically instructive experience. The kinds of racial injustice and social inequalities which I had previously read about and disapproved of became my immediate responsibility. Troubling statistics became real kids; my inadequacies became their problem, too. I learned about power in a room, a neighborhood, a complex bureaucracy. I learned how difficult it is to shoulder responsibility when the stakes are real. But, three or four years in, I felt my learning start to slow; I was suddenly a veteran at my school, and had hit the same walls as the people I had previously been learning from. There were various “pipelines” out of the classroom - school leadership programs, policy fellowships, “ed tech” jobs - but I sensed that each was a way of trading my own time and energy to further someone else’s goals. Law school seemed like a better launchpad.

II. What I Thought When I Arrived

When I decided to apply, I projected my career after law graduation along a spectrum: at the far end, if I could bring myself to do it, I might really excel and do something important: work hard, gain some real power, and use it for good (details TBD). Or, on the near end, law seemed hospitable to what I’d been doing for most of my life, that is, sound clever and coast, but with better prestige and pay. It was a safe bet but also a dare to quit selling myself short.

I had mostly accepted the received dichotomies of “the kind of law I wanted to practice.” My canned answer was litigation, probably general or appellate, eventually some kind of policy-impact litigation, probably big law to start but later working towards public interest, somehow, at some point. When necessary I embellished that description with a half-true tale about an epiphany I had reading about “this case in California where a group of low-income students sued the state because…” This one-two answer reliably separated me from that sad category of debt-ridden stooges whose parents made them come and moved the conversation right along.

III. What I Think Now

My first year in law school (and this class in particular) has clarified some misconceptions that I had coming in. I’ve let go of the idea that an entry-level biglaw job is an economic necessity - “enough” is a better lens, which I think for me means not luxury but reasonable comfort, the money to travel with some regularity, and potentially, the resources to provide any kids I might have with at least the same opportunities that I had. I would be willing to sacrifice a great deal of my time and energy for work that matters and I don’t think I’ll be satisfied in the long run unless I’m doing so.

I know the outlines of what I want my practice to look like: I want to use my abilities to speak, organize and motivate people to work for a more just society. I want to have decision-making power and use it well. That might be in the realm of public education, but I don’t want to mistake an area where I have experience for the area where I want to have the most impact. I want whatever I do to have lasting impact, meaning, I think, that I want to be working in an area of the law that is in flux, where there is live action.

IV. What Comes Next

The question now is identifying a billboard. I’ll be working this summer in the Labor and Industries division of the Attorney General’s office of Washington State, the theory being that labor law is both important and bound to change over the next few decades and that Attorneys General have a lot of power. I want to learn what it’s like to be a government litigator and whether I’m interested in the types of problems they try to solve, and more generally how government legal institutions work. When I’m back in the fall, the plan is to identify people to learn from. My working criteria are expertise in areas of law with broad social impact, experience practicing in the real world, and a commitment to teaching (as opposed to scholarly recognition). I might also try to make something happen here, just to see whether I can actually back up my grand delusions with tangible results.

This is very good, being what as you say you know how to do. I disagree that the question is identifying a billboard. One is too few: that makes it sound as the you are seeking the one true love, when what you are trying to do is assemble the starting components of your practice. The skill being built is seeing more widely, so that what is addressed to you cannot be missed because little is being missed overall.

That's not a fundamental criticism, only a semi-fundamental observation. There's not much revising to do here, right now. Rewriting it when you get back from the Northwest would probably be very productive for you, even if the occupation will not (as it will not) allow any change in your grade for learning occurring out of bounds, at the wrong time of the year.

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r3 - 31 May 2018 - 18:23:12 - EbenMoglen
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