We are often fascinated by what we have not yet experienced. I grew up within commuting distance of a lot of great colleges, and never imagined myself one for dorm life. So while high school classmates less enthused with their home situations eagerly availed themselves of the “college visit” experience, I sat it out completely — as in never visiting any school, even the one I ended up at. So “college visits,” at least in the abstract, are interesting to me.
Sure, I enjoyed getting the post-PSAT academic recruiting letters from schools far and wide, and may have daydreamed about attending the University of Hawaii on full scholarship. But it was all just daydreaming. In hindsight, my relative lack of interest in college selection was fine. (And don’t get me started on the sham that universal college education actually is.)
Other kids at my high (-achieving) school, especially those who had given a little more of themselves to meet all the necessary high school academic benchmarks, took the process a lot more seriously. Many were hell-bent on licking the Ivy, or at least landing in some “specialized program” like a BA-MD-MPH degree-fest. So they hit the road, and drove, and flew, and visited. In the end, everyone went to the best school they were able to get into anyway. But they had the experience — of listening to a photogenic upperclassman spout eloquently about the joys of trudging from dorm to library in a howling blizzard. Of visiting a lecture hall with 300 seats, where the first three rows were full with the eager beavers, and the last three full as well with the “learners by osmosis,” while the 150 seats in the middle were as empty as a pre-Strasburg Nationals game against the Marlins in late September. Of seeing the gleaming “rec center” where the students actually looked fit, and seemed to be enjoying permanent recess. In the end, it is all about providing fodder for the daydream: “I could be here, enjoying every minute.”
So what does this have to do with Biglaw? Or law in general?
I propose the should-be-mandatory pre-law “grand tour.” As in, if you want to go to law school, with the requisite fantastic odds that you will end up indebting yourself until the next bailout jubilee — you show you are serious. And know what you are getting into. And not just doing it to collect another degree. One way to do avoid an expensive mistake? Go touring!
First, you should actually visit a law school classroom. Even if it’s at Cooley. The closest one will do. Try and pick something boring, like Tax. Or better yet, a first-year class. But don’t stop there, because law school classes have a way of insidiously appearing interesting when taken in measured doses. For instance, the professor will likely be smart. And engaged, even if only it is because he has a lot of energy from doing very little with the rest of his day. And it will be fun to watch others get called on. Bonus points when someone eventually says something stupid from the pressure of being put on the spot.
But don’t end your law school visiting with a classroom visit on a shiny Tuesday afternoon. Go back on Friday night. When it’s raining out. To the library. The week before finals. Soak in the misery. Then start thinking if law school is right for you.
Second, you should go to court. If you are lucky enough to leave near a federal courthouse, start there. Feel the majesty. Remember how this country was founded in law, and how the law has been shaped since then — in marble- and mahogany-clad buildings like the one you are standing in. Pop into one of the courtrooms. Watch the polished delivery of one of the AUSAs who doesn’t look that much older than you. See a smooth Biglaw senior statesman banter with an engaged bench in an expensive-sounding discussion. Even today, a day in court brings a spring to my step. And even clients get a thrill when they ride along.
But don’t stop there. Pick a cold or rainy morning and head over to your local municipal or family court. Don’t pay too much attention to the Jerry Springer-ish proceedings you may encounter. Instead focus on the lawyers (and I am not knocking traffic or family lawyers — they provide a vital service, and I envy the amount of time they actually get to spend in court on real, if repetitive, issues). Picture yourself as one of them. Could you be happy as a traffic ticket lawyer, huddling up with your clients for a few minutes as you angle for yet another plea-bargain down to a no-point ticket? Could you feel “successful” if your daily work put you so frequently in such hectic and drab surroundings? Continue thinking if law school is right for you.
For the tour’s final round, actually spend some time in an attorney’s office. Kids that want to go to medical school have all seen a hospital and a doctor’s office. In contrast, many law students start law school without ever seeing an actual attorney’s office — movies or television don’t count. If possible, start off with a visit to the office of the most successful lawyer you have access to (ideally in the field you think you are interested in — if you like criminal law, visit a DA’s office and then a defense lawyer’s.) Talk yourself into a Biglaw office if you feel like it. Spend an hour or two. Notice how many of the lawyers seem chained to their desks, and how little “happy conversation time” you see them engaging in. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the hierarchical structure on display. Don’t let the fancy furniture and technology blind you. Imagine whether you would be happy in this environment late on a Saturday night, putting together closing binders for a corporate client that you have no feeling for, while all your friends are watching the fight on pay-per-view.
Your next and last stop? It’s actually a drive-by of three or four attorney “offices” you see listed in the Yellow Pages. In the bad part of town. Also on a Saturday night.
Or better yet — treat someone you know that graduated law school without a job for a drink or dinner. In exchange for hearing about their “experience.” If you still want to go for law school after hearing from one of the recent victims of the law school pipe dream, then send in your applications.
Enjoy your tour.
How much did you know about law school and law practice before you jumped in? Let me know by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.