Years ago, when I was in law school, I had a curious experience, one that has recently echoed back to me from the son of a friend coming to the end of his 1L. I would attend classes for about 5-6 hours a day, then spend 8-10 more studying in the library. I was wired pretty tightly, well on my way to developing a host of stress- and anxiety-driven illnesses, a drinking habit, anger management problems, and a degree of generalized hatred for myself and all humanity. And I was one of the relatively soulful, philosophically minded, well-adjusted ones. You wouldn’t have wanted to spend 10 minutes in my presence.
The substance abuse in my first and second years was incredible to behold. It was comparable to the level of fear sustained in the students by the policies of the school, the economy, and their own Type-A personalities. At this time, jobs in law were just starting to become scarce. People were deeply in debt, had sacrificed everything to get there, and were obsessively, neurotically, pathologically motivated to succeed. The most popular directions were intellectual property, cyber law, and various other strains of corporate or business-oriented practice. Those interested in criminal law were viewed with a mix of wonder and contempt. The poverty law clinic people were considered idealistic rubes destined to live on ramen and hot dogs for the rest of their miserable lives.
And so it went. There was a suicide at the end of 1L, a hushed-up sexual harassment scandal involving a star professor, a few students dropped out, one to get married and become a suburban housewife, another due to undisclosed health problems, another after an in-class meltdown. The rest of us soldiered on because we had to. What else did we have? We were children who’d practiced the tuba for hours and hours and now we were in Advanced Tuba School. Take our tubas away and, we felt, we’d have to go sleep in the park.
I was no exception to any of this. The only thing that I had going for me was a tiny secret flame of creativity that I kept lit. Every Sunday morning, like a religious ritual, I took an hour out to read a short story. That was my church and my scripture. It was also another source of pain because it reminded me that somewhere someone not in law had written those words. My fellow students fantasized about opening surf shops, being school custodians, managing bowling alleys. The escape fantasies came thick and fast, especially around exams when the law library mostly reeked of coffee and body odor. I fantasized about these things, too, about being a writer custodian or a writer surf shop cashier.
One afternoon, sitting in a fern-laden restaurant I couldn’t afford with a drug lawyer who had become a mentor of sorts, I came to a realization. She was on her third glass of wine, telling me that I needed to love law school because it was only going to get worse afterward. She said, “When I was in law school, I got to the point where I thought that I might be able to get hit by a car and live. If my legs were broken, no one could blame me for quitting.” I walked out of that lunch feeling like I’d just visited the crossroads and the devil had handed me some solid advice: you can sell your soul, but why don’t you go home and think it over first?
In the grand synchronicity of all things magical, I’d gotten an email that day from a writer I admired. I’d sent him a few old short stories and asked the most annoying question a young writer can ask: “Am I any good?” But he was kind and honest. He wrote back and said, “Yes, in my opinion, you are. But the life of a writer is not easy and you should know what you’re getting into. If you want to come study with me, you’re invited.” Warnings and dire pronouncements were nothing new. I heard them every day. So the caveat made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. His opinion about my writing did. Shortly thereafter, I left law school to study creative writing and subsequently get a PhD in English.
Still, you don’t just walk away from that life. Law school makes a deep impression. It made me strong in certain ways, forced me to stop seeing success in law as a grand test of self-worth. Law school isn’t an IQ test; it’s not a metric for willpower, character, cleverness, or discipline; though, it draws on all of those things (like anything made artificially difficult). Law is generally taught poorly, often emotionally brutalizes students, and is unforgiving of human frailty in totally unnecessary ways. It’s also idealized when it should be analyzed. People worship law education because succeeding there is held up as an objective way to know one’s worth, which is tragic.
I want to say these things to my friend’s son. But I know I can’t because I see in him all the masochistic investment that I saw when I was back in law school. Instead, I will say it here and add: someone who seems stupid and unsuccessful in one respect will be smart and successful in another. Often these things will not be superficially evident. Until you can accept this—that there is no way to judge your worth apart from looking for it inside yourself—you will always be sad, scared, and beholden to the social power of others.
Be free. Let it go. Try to experience love. Try to discover small things that make you happy and look for ways to share those things with others. That’s when life really gets good. When you see someone who appears to be the smartest or most powerful person in the room, take a step back and widen your perspective until that feeling of being impressed and intimidated passes. Then look again.