It is still ugly out there in the legal marketplace. As law school commencement looms, I grow anxious thinking of the bright, hard-working, highly indebted students I know (including my own step-daughter) who will soon graduate without having secured a job just yet.
This downturn in the profession began just when I started teaching at the law school. Then, now—I have had reason to suspect that, before signing up to take the LSAT, many would-be lawyers did not let knowledge about what lawyers actually do influence their decision.
During my first year teaching in a law school, I was so unsettled by the tension between the expectations of new law students and the new realities of the marketplace, I decided to investigate. I took an informal survey of my fifty, super-bright law students to assess why they had decided to go to law school in these trying times. Most of the responses I received were fairly prosaic; some might say naive. They had decided to go to law school because:
• “I like school.” or “I like to argue.” or “I like intellectual challenges.”
• “I wanted to make a difference and make money.”
• “I love Law & Order!”
• “I wanted to follow in mom/dad/granddad’s footsteps.”
• “I always wanted to be a lawyer. Not sure why.”
• “Other people kept telling me I should be a lawyer, so I finally gave in.”
• “I didn’t know what else to do with my undergraduate degree in ___________.”
• “Law seemed like a practical choice. Oops.”
My (thoroughly unscientific) data confirmed my suspicion: Despite all the evidence out there about the diminished demand for high-end legal services, some really brainy people with impressive academic track records had decided to make a big investment in a career track requiring commitment to rational analysis based on little more than flimsy hunches. Most had not been “called” to the professional by a nuanced understanding of what lawyers actually do for a living.
These days, would-be law students need to realize that a straight path from on-campus interviews to a lucrative job on the partnership track is not so readily available—even for the top performers at top-tier law schools. Then perhaps more who sign up will be inclined to think hard about what they really want out of practicing law before they start practicing. Once they are forced to accept that the “easy” path to “easy” money through a job in Big Law is not a default option, perhaps law students will have to dig deeper to discover what might make all that debt worthwhile in the end.
This economic imperative to do some professional soul-searching at the outset may ultimately accrue to the benefit of the profession as a whole. Surely, having more people enter a demanding profession with sounder expectations about what they bring to the table, what they may eat when they get there, and what kind of food is most likely to sustain them long term—that has got to be a good thing. Right?
After all, the law can only do so much for people. It cannot mend a broken heart, resurrect the dead, or even restore trust between estranged business partners. All it can do is provide one of a few discrete remedies. In the civil context, the limited options are a court order or an agreement requiring someone to stop doing something, to start doing something, and/or to pay something.
In short, the law does not promise much in the way of orgasms. So if you don’t enjoy the ride, you are in for a rude awakening.
Which reminds me of Macbeth. (And this really isn’t the non sequitur that it seems.) Lady M urged her man to “screw [his] courage to the sticking place”—and trust me, the connotations of that language could not have been lost on Will Shake-speare (or Freud). In response to this urging, Macbeth found the macho prowess he needed to do nefarious deeds. The Macbeths did what they thought they had to do to further their ambitions. And what they did was pretty distasteful—like killing a king as he slept as a guest in their home and then trying to frame the servants for the bloody act. But, ultimately, the Macbeths realized that their dream of power/social clout/prestige/wealth wasn’t worth the sacrifice of integrity. As a result, Lady Macbeth went nuts; Macbeth was left alone—angular and flinty—as he faced a certain, violent death.
One truly beautiful moment in Macbeth is more profoundly wrenching than all the violence that precedes it. This moment comes when Macbeth admits just how futile his professional quest has been. In that moment, he believes that the emptiness he feels in the wake of his pointless quest for power means that life itself is devoid of meaning; thus he seems resigned to death:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Those 9.5 lines—which do not scan per Shakespeare’s standard iambic pentameter—constitute some of Shakespeare’s most anguished, most “modern” poetry. Alas, when we had to memorize that speech back in high school, its haunting beauty was probably lost on most of us. Yet those lines capture perfectly the human tendency to conflate professional failure with existential failure. At least in English, that is easy to do—because statements about what we want to “be” when we grow up or what we “are” are understood to refer to a profession. What we want to be or what we are = doctors, lawyers, chefs, teachers, musicians, accountants, actors . . . .
That fact—that speakers of English treat “what we are” as synonymous with “what we do for a living”—is why Karl Marx really hit the nail on the head in one sense. He may have been a lousy economist, but Marx recognized that the way people relate to their own labor is key to their identity and thus to their happiness. He understood that, if you hate your job, it is hard to feel great about yourself and thus life in general.
So to those who would be lawyers I say: “The rest is labor which is not used for you [to do something more]” than pay off those student loans. (Macbeth, 1.4.45). What we choose to be when we grow up has to be something more than a means to obtain a paycheck; otherwise, a Macbeth-style existential crisis (if not murder spree) will surely be in the offing at some point.