It’s hard to escape the fact that we have too many lawyers in the U.S. One website pegs the total at a monstrous 1,000,000. In his book, The Death of Common Sense, author Philip K. Howard convincingly bemoans the negative impact of this huge number. It’s aptly subtitled “How Law is Suffocating America,” and one anecdote after another confirms its truth. The associated overbearing, nitpicking government regulation and bureaucracy are also exposed in the book.
In my own experience, I had three college chums who, having no real direction, decided to become lawyers simply because it was a way to “make a good living.” This says a lot: they had no interest in law whatsoever, no craving for “justice” in either a practical or abstract sense just a desire to make money. I had been friends with one of them since seventh grade, and never did he mention any interest in matters legal although on one occasion he did express irritation over the unjust nature of marijuana laws. (No, he didn’t become a “community legal services” firebrand instead he’s a well-paid litigator at a regional law firm with hundreds of partners.) Like it or not and I didn’t my friends were motivated solely by a desire to obtain massive amounts of legal tender. Thirty-odd years later, there’s no doubt that they’ve achieved their goal.
I, too, succumbed briefly to the “make a good living” mantra, after two frustrating years of pinballing around the job market of the early 70’s. The best of those opportunities had been a position as an inside steel salesman, where I never sold a single rod. Essentially, I merely produced quotes for inquiring customers. At Xmas time, I received a turkey and a $25 bonus, before taxes. Depressed and “nudged” by my parents, I took the LSAT and applied to several local, budget law schools and soon matriculated at the most logical.
I quickly discovered that my fellow law students were far more interested in becoming lawyers than I was. In fact, it was their sole raison d’être, and I found myself increasingly irritated by it. As had been the case with my buddies, their motivation was a craving for “career” rather than justice. I recall being shocked when I asked around after we’d been subjected to a psychological questionnaire, and found that the most important things on Earth to some of my fellow “justice-seekers” were happiness and friendship, as opposed to what I’d selected from the list: truth and wisdom. (Justice was a close third.)
It wasn’t long before I got into trouble. Bothered by the plight of a female classmate and potential ladyfriend who fared poorly under the oppressive Socratic method, I politely declined to participate when called upon in contracts class. Much drawing of breath and astonished “oohs and aahs” from my classmates followed (since “passing” was not allowed by first-year students). I immediately found myself in a petty power struggle with my arrogant and condescending professor, and facing swift expulsion from his little kingdom. Apparently “academic freedom” applied to the faculty but not the students, since my professor was permitted to expel me from his course for any violation of his rules, no matter how absurd.
My stand made the university newspaper’s front page two days running, and actually threatened to break into the city papers. I gave a modest speech about freedom in one of the lecture halls and met with the Dean. The second-year students supported and advised me; these were starry-eyed liberals, secure that they would finish their three years and pass the bar exam. No support was forthcoming from the third-year students, however they were too close to graduation and wanted nothing to taint the school’s reputation, and perhaps limit their job prospects. My fellow first-year students disapproved of my actions by a 10 to 1 ratio some out of fear, but most because I had been so “self-important” as to break the rules.
A faculty tribunal was quickly scheduled. The buzz was that the vote would be something like 20 to 3 against me. I’d be kicked out of contracts class and wouldn’t be carrying a full course load, which could lead to immediate expulsion from law school at the whim of the powers that be. At best, I’d have to re-take contracts during the summer, an unpleasant prospect. Then the second-year students brokered a deal: I’d only have to speak once more in my professor’s class, I could preface it with a speech about academic freedom, and I’d be appointed to some new student-teacher relations committee. Not a bad deal for me, I suppose, but what about my female friend, and others like her?
To my everlasting shame I took the deal. My speech was quite trenchant, full of power and glory, fairness and freedom, but it was lost on my classmates, whose shibboleth remained “must… become… a… lawyer….” Things went back to normal. The dean publicly claimed credit for brokering the settlement, when in reality he had been nothing but a nuisance. The student-teacher committee was a sham, and I left it swiftly. My other professors were careful not to call on me, fearing, quite rightly, that I would refuse to participate in their classes, just as I’d done in contracts. My potential ladyfriend struggled but got better over time (and she would, in fact, graduate), but I felt regret that while I’d succeeded in being left alone, I wasn’t able to help anyone else.
Moreover, I’d seen too much politicking over what was clearly an issue of justice, fairness and freedom. The dean was obviously nothing but a political animal, a glad-handing prevaricator who smiled out of every corner and cranny of his mouth. My professor was a pompous jerk who was concerned about absolutely nothing but winning our altercation. My other professors couldn’t have cared less about the entire brouhaha. “These are people I’m supposed to look up to?” I thought. “This is what it means to be a lawyer?” My fellow students were, by turns, whimpering toadies who always followed the rules, or save-the-world types who would soon morph into six-figure ambulance chasers. Yes, there were some who were human, but most were just sharks-to-be.
My little challenge had caused me to lapse in my studies a bit, which was a problem, but, more significantly, I had seen enough. On a chilly December afternoon, twenty minutes before contracts class was due to begin, I scrawled an unpleasant message on the blackboard and walked away. I didn’t have much respect for the law when I entered law school, and I left it with far less. Yes, there are too many lawyers, but at least I can feel glad I’m not one of them.
January 9, 2007
Andrew S. Fischer has worked in various fields.