So you want to go to law school.
You’ve spent years watching legal dramas, stomach tingling at every argument spoken in a Hollywood courtroom. You’ve honed your skills in argumentation, practicing on your parents, siblings and intellectually inferior friends. You’ve trodden through the history books, digging out biographies of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Jefferson. You know the speeches of Atticus Finch off by heart. “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand,” you keep telling the mirror, persuasively.
You don’t just want to be a lawyer; you can see it.
The image forms in your mind of your future self, standing in a courtroom. It’s the future so you’re taller and sexier. All of your exercise routines have paid off. In your lavish (pant) suit, you deliver a monologue in words so beautiful that they put Shakespeare to shame. This trial is an INJUSTICE, you say. The jury are clinging to your every word. The monologue lasts for two minutes, but somehow it says it all. The room is silent while you pause dramatically for the finish. My client is INNOCENT.
Someone in the public gallery starts clapping. Another person joins in and soon the entire room bursts into applause. The judge breaks protocol and bursts into tears. The jury stands, declaring the defendant NOT GUILTY. Your phone rings. It’s the U.N. They need you for their latest case. You’re the only man/woman for the job.
You are living the dream. You are fighting for the little guy against THE MAN. You are a pursuer of justice, seeking to change the world, to save humanity from itself, to right the wrongs and to heal the sick, or at least to secure their adequate compensation from negligent malfeasance.
I know your dreams. I know them because I was you, once. If you get one thing out of this article it’s this. Whatever you know about law school is wrong and whatever you know about lawyers is a fiction and not even a realistic fiction at that.
The vast majority of lawyers spend their days working on paperwork, outside of court, on morally neutral or negative cases. They are not working to make the world a better place. They are working to cement the existing system in place. Lawyers are typically not bastions of justice. They are bastions of the status quo, however unjust that status quo may be. Law school is a training ground for this role, a conversion process designed to take morally righteous young people and turn them into morally grey adults.
I knew of the term ‘selling out’ before I went to law school, but law school was an education in the extent and scale of the problem. To paraphrase Ginsberg, I saw the best minds of my generation degenerate into corporate hacks in office towers. Cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, naked with ambition and drunk on pride.
I remember having hope. I was like you once, remember. In my first-year, I remember sitting at the back of the class, looking around at everyone in the room. These were the intellectual heavyweights of my generation. They had scored over 99% in their high school examinations, for God’s sake. They were brilliant, organized and diligent, and many of them knew it and weren’t afraid to brag. I imagined the problems they would solve at graduation. Imagine what all this brain power could do if put towards the problems in the world, I thought to myself.
At the time, my hope was justified. When you survey first year law students, they universally want to help others, help the community, change the world and serve the public. Very few are focused on money, status, power and prestige. When asked about their careers, they point to law, charity, public service and human rights. Very few mention working in investment banks or oil companies. No one mentions consulting.
By the time they graduate however, things have changed. Instead of public service, they are focused on private practice. Instead of helping the community, they are focused on helping themselves. Instead of enriching society, they are focused on enriching their status, power and bank balance.
Graduate survey after graduate survey reveals a massive shift in priorities taking place in the intervening years. It is difficult to blame this on anything other than the education they have received. If law students become self-centred careerists during the course of their studies, then surely law schools are to blame?
Along with a newfound interest in money, law schools are increasingly gifting students another present at graduation: depression. In their first year, law students display the same levels of mental illness, on average, as the rest of the population. But by the time they graduate, they have three times as many mental illnesses as everyone else. It turns out that caring only about yourself is not only bad for society, it’s bad for your brain too. It gets even worse inside law firms, where 60% of lawyers say they either have depression or know a colleague who does.
So what the hell went wrong? In a profession that was once so closely associated with honour and public service, how did we manage to create a system that routinely churns out morally detached graduates, who have lost their way so profoundly that their brains are literally damaged? How have we churned out graduates so detached from society that they never question the law, no matter how unjust that law may become?
When I walk past a lawyer on the street today, I would like to think that he or she cares about the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalised and the oppressed. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, I know better.
Having worked in legal education for a number of years, I have come to the conclusion that most people working in law schools do not care about the moral and ethical integrity of their students. I have talked to dozens of law deans, heads of faculty, staff members and professors in the UK, America and Australia. In my experience, very few want to talk about the problem, let alone do anything about it. Even if law schools are a conversion process (from morality, ethics and authenticity to depression and profit), it is one that makes the law faculties rich. To many in the faculty buildings, students are nothing more than a number on a page, a box to tick and an annoyance getting in the way of their real work; writing academic papers that no one will read.
Just like their students, law schools themselves have sold out. You can see it in everything from the libraries to the ‘free’ student events. Free lunches don’t pay for themselves. Law firms don’t offer free boat cruises to students for nothing. There is a string attached to every deal, to every donation and to every consultation that law firms offer to the faculty. There is far too much of a vested interest on the behalf of our law schools for them to ever objectively see the scale of the problem that they have created. Instead, law schools are secure in the idea that they are delivering the right kind of student that the economy demands. So long as law students have the right skills, everything else is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what those skills are used for. Nor does it matter whether anyone benefits from the skills they are taught whilst under the university’s care.
I am writing this article in part as a message to my younger self. There is hope. There is hope outside of law school, in other careers that can contribute to society. There is hope inside of law school too, so long as you can cling onto your moral decency while your education attempts to rip it away from you.
If you fight for it, you can receive an education that will teach you how to think, how to criticize the law and how to form your own opinions about the things you study. You can pursue your dreams, pursue the job you want and resist the pull of free lunches, big salaries, famous paintings and million-dollar views. Now is the time to think about the person you want to be. Now is the time to change a broken system. Now is the time to demand a real education.
Now is the time to demand justice.