Monday, September 21, 2009

Whoa there, Perry Mason?

Philosophers Anonymous had a lively discussion recently about whether we should encourage philosophy students to continue on to grad school. I think about that issue from time to time, but the number of students I teach who are both interested in, and qualified, for philosophy grad school is too small, in my estimation, for me to lose much sleep over the matter.

Law school? Another story altogether. Seemingly every one of the majors I teach at least casts a sideways glance at law school. I'm certain that students who consider grad school in the academic fields labor under many illusions about what they're getting into, illusions that I think it is my obligation to dispel. But I've also begun to think that students have many equally powerful misconceptions about law school and the legal profession. This post at Crooked Timber, with many comments by lawyers, highlights many of these misconceptions.

The author, Harry Brighouse, quotes approvingly from Derek Bok's book, Our Underachieving Colleges. Bok argues that colleges don't help students understand the day-to-day realities of life in various professions, with the consequence "that students are rather ignorant of what different careers involve, what they are likely to do within them, how those careers contribute to the society, and what contribution they would make to their own wellbeing." In reference to the law in particular, Bok sayeth:

For students who begin their legal training hoping to fight for social justice, law school can be a sobering experience. While there, they learn a number of hard truths. Jobs fighting for the environment or civil liberties are very scarce. Defending the poor and powerless turns out to pay remarkably little and often to consist of work that many regard as repetitive and dull. As public interest jobs seem less promising (and law school debts continue to mount), most of these idealistic students end by persuading themselves that a large corporate law firm is the best course to pursue, even though many of them fund the specialties practiced in these firms, such as corporate law, tax law, and real estate law, both uninteresting and unchallenging…..

Almost half of the young lawyers leave their firm within three years. Many complain of having too little time with their families, and feeling tired and under pressure on most days of the week. Many more are weary of constantly having to compete for advancement with other bright young lawyers or troubled by what they regard as the lack of redeeming social value in their work. Within the profession as a whole, levels of stress, alcoholism, divorce, suicide and drug abuse are all substantially above the national average.

I'm not a lawyer and don't have close connections with the legal community, but Bok's remarks resonate with me. Defending others' legal interests is a noble calling and one that puts to use many of the skills students learn from studying philosophy. But most lawyers end up as the janitors of human affairs, cleaning up other people's ugly problems, rather than as crusaders for social justice. And oftentimes, it's damn hard work to boot.

How do all of you advise prospective law students? Do students enter law school with their eyes wide open? I try to provide students a balanced picture of law school and of life as a lawyer, but I fear that it rarely sinks in. For that reason alone, I think I'll be directing students who ask about law school to the CT post. It provides a more credible, on-the-ground picture of life in the legal profession than I can provide.


  1. Excellent post and advice. What is not written about by Bok, the media and commentators on the legal profession is the role that the law schools play in diverting their students from pursuing justice and serving the legal needs of the public. Here are a few articles you might suggest your students read. Request to be Appointed Law School Industry Czar and other articles on my Lawyersatisfactionblog and Overcoming Law School’s Defects

  2. Sorry about that. The HTML didn't work. To read the articles you will have to cut and paste the URLs.

    The Request to be appointed Law School Industry Czar can be found at

    and Overcoming law School's Defects can be found on the front page of

    or at

  3. As an attorney with a background in Philosophy (and an adjunct professor in philosophy, as well), I can attest to the general truths of this piece.

    I started out in law school as a progressive, activist student with ambitions of being a progressive, activist attorney. As I was saddled with student loan debt to achieve that goal, I became more and more aware of the reality that I would not become a social justice attorney.

    An attorney in the public interest will make a modest salary at the prosecutor or public defender's office, but Legal Aid and the like pay about as well as an entry-level sales position at a small company fresh out of college. With undergrad and law school loans, this is virtually impossible for all but those with the most fortitude.

    I am happy with my career choice, mind you. I practice primarily in estate planning and enjoy my work. I also have the luxury of being able to teach philosophy part-time to entertain that part of my brain that loves the subject matter. Even though I decided to take a different professional path, philosophy is still near and dear to my heart and prepared me in a very special way for law school.

  4. As a philosophy major, I became fascinated with phil of law and went from there to law school. Sadly, they don't do much phil of law in law school.

    I'd warn budding lawyers who enjoy philosophy that law is a very detail-oriented and outcome-driven profession. If you like thinking about abstract matters and seeking the truth above all else, law will constantly frustrate you with its persnickety particularity and zealous representation of your client's interests, no matter where the truth may lie.

    I'd also advise them to go and sit in on a few law school classes at a nearby law school, if possible, and not criminal law or the 2nd or 3rd year seminars, which can be deceptively interesting (and totally unlike legal practice). They should sit in on civil procedure, real property, tax, and/or contracts. If they like what they hear in there, they might find law school more tolerable than I did. If I had bothered to do such reconnaissance, I might well have talked myself out of going.


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