I’m tempted to either leave it blank, or launch into an enormous, comprehensive, and water-tight essay. As both responses are exemplary of perfectly acceptable law school mindsets, I will take the difficult middle-ground of doing “some” and thus exposing myself. (Although I may err on the “enormous essay” side as it reflects pre-law school loquaciousness.)
So. Law School is a relatively closed society which thinks it’s a meritocracy; in reality, it is the highly socialized academic community through which you must pass to (attempt to) enter the monopolized and protected legal profession. Here, you’ll learn both legal cant and how to select from balanced sets of conflicting arguments which rest on certain presumptions. The ability to identify (or assume) those presumptions and select the set of arguments that suits the outcome you wish to achieve is what law school basically teaches you. This is sometimes called “thinking like a lawyer.”
At first this new perspective can be overwhelming, but gradually, it recedes. People are still people. They still act in the same ways people do (both inside and outside the legal profession). They still have the same vanities and arrogances, and their societies are still as strictly ordered. There are also those heart-melting generosities, and the people who, when push comes to shove, do the right thing by others.
And yet, the culture you daily participate in seems to be colored by “the law.” It’s all you talk about. It informs everything. This law school society, the population of lawyers and would-be-lawyers from whom you’ll learn, is a very specific sub-set of the general population that selects for certain skills and backgrounds (some schools more than others). This homogeneity, along with a desire to simply “get the right answer” in a hide-the-ball environment, creates an enormous pressure to conform to a few narrow role models. This dynamic plays out in a grossly paternalistic atmosphere. It’s really like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere. (You think poetic egos are huge? Please.)
Sometimes you can actually watch people slowly slipping under – in just 1, or 2 or 3 years they’ve adopted a completely different set of goals and standards than they previously held, and somehow convince themselves that their new pursuits are what they’ve always wanted, and always will want. Sometimes you watch people gloriously resist – and believe me, it’s resistance when any show of non-conformity is generally greeted, even by the liberals, with those rapid eye-dart back and forth checks of “this isn’t really how the idealized lawyer/lawyer-student would do things.”
A lot of this pressure gets channeled into how you feel about yourself. For example, at the present moment, I feel like I’ve made more than half a bungle of law school, depending on where I locate myself. From the academic-gpa viewpoint, I did OK, but didn’t study (hard) enough to rise to the top of the class. From the academic-social viewpoint, I know some people but didn’t schmooze enough and hold my tongue enough to really make strong connections with the professorial network. From the social perspective, I didn’t go out with my peers as much as I’d like to, and I allowed my own particular social circumstances to dictate my participation in class activities as a whole. From the clinical perspective, I could have learned more, been better prepared, picked up more clients, etc. From non-law perspectives, I could have written more poetry (instead of working in fits and bunches), I could have biked more consistently, I could have used my limited time to start some kind of seed projects that would have borne fruit by now.
In the end I came out of law school with a bunch of ‘halves’ instead of a solid whole. But that’s OK. That’s who I am. I do a lot of stuff as best I can: classes for the JD, clinic demands, 2 poetry manuscripts, novel fragments, not regressing physically/health-wise, taking on some difficult situations, and mostly (not always successful) trying to be there for the people who really needed me. That’s enough, right? That’s an OK way to spend 3 years on this planet.
However, it does not really feel “OK” right now. I’m kind of embarrassed I didn’t get a better deal for any one of my clients. I’m kind of embarrassed I didn’t score higher. I’m kind of ashamed at my personal conduct with my peers – getting pressured into being whom-I-am-not in small but (to my mind) significant things. My confidence is moderately shot, my motivation is sometimes lacking, and occasionally I have no idea why the hell anyone would want to employ me or count me as a friend. It seems that my few successes have all been greased in unmeritocratic ways, and my failures are all too plain (ironically taking place in perfectly meritocratic environments). I feel grossly under-educated and under-skilled to the point where it borders on fraud, and I think that somehow this must be my fault, that I have a (or a complex of) personal flaw(s) that has somehow prevented me from being where I think I ought to be in terms of understanding.
((I know I’m not assessing my own experiences rationally at this point, but that’s how it feels. And I certainly don’t mean to whine or beg for sympathy by writing this; I’m sure I’ll bounce back quickly enough to my usual pain-in-the-ass self. However, I do want to note (publicly) that law school, for me at least, was a grind. A grind that leaves me feeling a bit raw. If others can read this and see something useful in it, so be it.))
But the countervailing point is that to be any one of those “perfect things” I’d have had to make very different discrete and particular choices. And those choices implicate my values. Granted, I screwed up some of them here, as we all do, but the basic drift of my life – the decisions to speak or not speak, to do or not to do – well, I have to come back to the idea that I was actually doing OK (again, not that perfect punkster/poet/biker/jazz-cook saint-like existence the Scoplaw strives for, but OK) *before* I entered law school. I’d like to think that I had spent *some* time thinking about my values, about who I was and what I wanted to do. I’d like to think that I had a clue or two, and one of those clues was that you can't put off your life till later - it must be lived now, as you intend to live it.
Law school, and the situations I allowed to be created around me, led me to doubt some of that more than I should have. And I think that doubt was not the healthy kind of open self-questioning doubt from many perspectives, but rather a kind of snarky-social/intellectual corrosive doubt from a narrow standard, and that doubt manifested itself in a kind of reciprocally corrosive way (sometimes even unintentionally).
The solution, of course, is time, thought, moderate consumption of beer, poetry, biking, cooking, talking with friends, watering my new tomato plant, playing with El Gato Perfecto, appreciating the sunlight, getting decent sleep, and thus decompressing to the point where I do not feel that I have to be looking over my shoulder for the next crisis, every second of the day. While all personal balance/centeredness may ultimately be illusory, some states are closer to that center point than others. We’ll see what it takes to (re)find mine. Although in typing this out, I’m feeling better already.