If you’re hoping to find an encouraging story about entering the legal profession, you might want to look elsewhere. My story is less than encouraging. Although I call it “enlightening” in the title, that word can be applied to bad experiences as well as good, and my exposure to the legal profession was as harmful as a third-degree sunburn.
Emerging from Law School (with $32,000 in loans)
I attended and graduated from Indiana’s Valparaiso University Law School. Far from a starry-eyed optimist, I didn’t want to free the wrongfully-accused but actually lock people up. Prosecution all the way. That in itself gave me edge in the legal profession, or so I thought.
Eight years of schooling, two degrees (English Education and Professional Writing) and then my Master’s in Criminal Law. I loved studying the history, the theory, popular cases and even the ubiquitous Latin. My GPA was very good, I had the right kind of references and enough professional connections to guarantee a job. I was poised to put away the bad guys.
Forget What You Learned in Movies, Books and Law School
Professional law is posturing more than anything. It’s a look. That’s the best way to summarize it.
I worked for a guy (it was actually an entire office, but an entry level job in any office boils down to ‘a guy’) who tanned too much, smoked too much, drank too much and wore expensive suits that were always wrinkled and had stained pits (later on, he would be fired for misappropriation of funds). I won’t say he made me work long hours, because he really didn’t. In fact, he rarely acknowledged me, until he got angry. Then he made sure everyone knew any mistakes made were my fault or a fellow peon’s fault. That’s true in almost every profession, and I accepted that.
What I didn’t accept was how much money was spent getting virtually nothing done. A team of six people worked on a single case (domestic abuse) for two months. It was a black-and-white case not even worth debating, but it so happened that the defendant had money and an expensive lawyer. Two months, probably $18,000 later, and the defendant received three months’ community service. For breaking his wife’s jaw. Twice. I could list a dozen other cases like that.
So What is Real Law?
Real law is perpetually-pointless paperwork. It’s musty offices and cheap desks made of particle board. It’s haystacks of Bic pens and legal pads. It’s days spent staring at a grainy computer screen. It’s a back so sore from bad chairs that you pop Advil like Tic-Tacs. It’s listening to long-winded stories that you know are as real as a $3 bill from a fifty-two-year-old guy with coffee breath and professionally whitened teeth. It’s shrinking before older lawyers and bowing down before the almighty judges. Being a lawyer means forgetting that you’re a viable human being for twelve hours a day, six days a week. Maybe it gets better. I don’t know. I quit after two years.
Am I Cynic or a Realist?
If you want to give law a shot, by all means do so. But I spent four years and thousands of dollars in school, plus another two years working for a prosecutor’s office, and wish to God I could get those years back. Some of us don’t get into it for the money or the prestige or the business cards. Some of us see ourselves as civil martyrs. If that sounds like you, take my advice: volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. You’ll do more good in less time.
If you’re lucky, one-in-ten people you work with might be decent and honest, but even that’s a stretch. Most people, other than the para-professionals (God bless them) are looking for the next rung to pull themselves up: even if that rung is imbedded in your back. That’s real law.