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Friday, February 06, 2009

Teaching Self-Awareness

We have all seen the reports about how unhappy many lawyers are, how many people drop out of the profession, describe themselves as "recovering lawyers," and so on. And we know that lots of law students are unhappy, stressed, and confused about what law school is supposed to be doing. It seems that wherever you find someone who hates what she is doing, you also hear, "I thought this was what I wanted, but I didn't want this." So in line with a recurrent theme here at Prawfs, what role should law schools play in teaching students to know what they want and exposing them to what the real world is going to be like?

Personally, I think we play a big role in both, which is why I often require my students to do some kind of reflection exercise, sometimes the same exercise, at least once during the semester. My favorite is also a good icebreaker for seminars or other meetings. I ask the students, "If time, money, and skill level were no object (in other words, you have enough of all of that), what would you be doing with your life and why?" Not surprisingly, almost no one says, "going to law school," but the answers can tell the students a lot about what they need out of a career. And knowing what they need out of a career can help them tailor their law school experience towards those attributes, which will make the law school piece (and hopefully the career) much more fun or at least easier to tolerate. And this question can create a lot of productive internal dissonance for people not used to reflecting. For example, recently one woman I asked got very agitated when I told her that she could not consider obligations or other people's expectations in her answer. But the point was, how do you know what you want or need if you're always doing things based on what others want or need?

So, if time, money and skill level were no object, I think I'd be working at a specialty cake bakery like the one featured on Food Network's Ace of Cakes. Each cake is a single project with a beginning and an end, the environment is full of of really creative people, the work is very tactile, you can see your progress, and the end product is so beautiful and often visually calming, with smooth curves and symmetrical patterns. Plus, who doesn't like cake?

What about you?

Posted by Marcia L. McCormick on February 6, 2009 at 10:43 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Much of the the disaffection also comes from the age that most people enter law school. In our early 20's, most of us have not yet thought about who we really are and are still trying to please our parents - literally or even figuratively. (Many people, for the entirety of their lives, are living out a life envisioned and encouraged by their parents.) Much of growing up is figuring out who you are, and sometimes it's hard to know who you are until you know what you don't want to do.

I am often sad when I see law schools cutting their evening programs. I have met some fantastic (and happy) lawyers who decided at midlife to enter the profession. Many were able to do so, though, only by taking night classes. Perhaps we should make it easier for people to become lawyers later in life? Maybe representing other people and helping resolve disputes are roles that can be played very well by people who are graying? Could new older lawyers be the future of our profession?

Posted by: Brian J. Foley | Feb 10, 2009 9:29:40 PM

An interesting dynamic is that students are only exposed to successful lawyers who like their jobs. Professors, as a group, love their jobs. Adjuncts and part-time LRW lecturers are, as a group, successful in their practice and only teach because they really enjoy it. They probably are not a representative example in many ways -- including ethical standards. So no matter how many people try to warn them about what they are getting into, what they see speaks louder than the words. Live and learn - it is their right.

Posted by: The Ticket Clinic | Feb 10, 2009 7:10:30 PM

John, I would be terrible as a baker. It's the skill level thing that's the problem. But most of these attributes (and more), I can get in teaching. I have almost constant intellectual engagement, which is, essentially being surrounded by really creative people all of the time. I'm working to impose order on chaos by trying to help my students make sense of cases, statutes, and doctrines. Classes and articles have beginnings and ends (sort of, even though there may not always be crisp boundaries). The only thing I'm missing is the visual appeal of the cake itself. That I can get elsewhere. So to give a more general answer to your question, it's not the answer of what I would be doing that in my view matters. It's the why pieces that tell me what I need to look for in a career.

And Tim P., I think that you're right to think that law professors themselves may not be the best sources for exposing students to what long term practice is like, since some of us never practiced, and few practiced very long. But professors can push their schools to create clinical and externship programs to help students experience different kinds of practice, and we can partner with practicing lawyers in a number of ways to provide more exposure. And schools as a whole definitely should have people who can help students maximize this exposure--law professors should be fully supportive of those efforts.

Posted by: Marcia | Feb 8, 2009 12:09:15 AM

I'm not so sure it's self-awareness that's truly needed so much as "what the practice of law might actually be like"-awareness. I think it's great that you are raising these sorts of issues and think that it's commendable that you encourage students to think reflectively about what they really want out of life/career. It's a start, at the very least, to productive thinking about settling into a career.
I'm not sure how many law professors are well-equipped to help students understand what the actual experience of lawyering as a full-time, long-term, vocation might be like. Or perhaps I'm being to cynical.

Posted by: Tim P. | Feb 7, 2009 1:51:23 PM

Marcia, as a somewhat serious question, why don't you quit and start a cake business?

Posted by: John Greenman | Feb 7, 2009 1:17:10 PM

Would-be law students should not only engage in self-assessment, but they should also be given an opportunity to make an informed assessment of the institutions, rules, regulations, laws, and professionals who make up the legal system (but is this possible without going to law school and practicing for at least a couple of years?). There are many students who come to the law because they truly want to serve justice, but they become frustrated with a system that calls them “whiners” when they complain that the ideals of the law do not match its reality. Let us not blame the messengers or victims (dissatisfied law students and lawyers) for the faults of a profession (law schools included) that may not be living up to its potential or responsibilities. I do agree that, prior to entering law school, students need to be warned that they are about to enter a profession that currently boasts a high level of dissatisfaction and ill-repute. They should know that many of their future peers may have been attracted to law practice solely by the promise of high financial remuneration and they will make the lives of those who do not share their perspective miserable. Some future colleagues may be narcissistic individuals who seek to enter a profession with a proven track-record of preparing its members to attain positions of power. They also should know that their job prospects may be decided even before they graduate from law school (law school rank, individual rank, family connections or lack thereof). Some of them may have to work long hours for little pay (considering their law school debt and the fact that they will most likely not get over-time or comp time). The working conditions may be degrading and pose a risk to their health. But, ultimately, we also need to let them know that the legal profession is only as good as its members and that their presence and their willingness to seek change may make a difference. An idealist, pro-change lawyer, and former law professor won the presidency, so idealism and positive changes may be appreciated once again. We should not forget that it was idealism and revolutionary ideas that became the foundation for the United States of America. We need more revolutionaries in the legal profession so we can make the changes that need to be made and good lawyers hopefully stop departing from the practice of law. But, lawyers must first speak honestly and without fear of retaliation about the legal profession’s taboo subjects. Thank you for this blog.

Posted by: Lady Justice | Feb 7, 2009 12:04:50 AM

Some sort of behind the scenes new yorker editor who contributes the odd piece.

Posted by: keitht | Feb 6, 2009 4:09:02 PM

Dictator of the world.

(Seriously, though, this is a great post. Far, far, too many people end up in law school unreflectively, and then have unhappy working lives. Hopefully exercises like this might help some of them.)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Feb 6, 2009 3:21:41 PM

Thanks for your thoughts, Rob. I agree with your point about interconnectedness, and would just say that it's not possible to recognize that you are shaped by those commitments without recognizing that you have chosen not to abandon commitments. For example, I might say that I have to work because I have to take care of my children. But this is an obligation I've chosen. I could abandon those children, but then I'd lose the benefits of that wonderful relationship, I'd be responsible for possibly uncorrectable harm to them, and I'd also suffer the social and legal consequences of that choice, all of which would cause me serious pain. Acknowledging that makes me value a career that allows me to provide for my children, rather than resent having to earn a particular living. So, I push people a little to decontextualize only to the extent that they can look back to see that context.

Posted by: Marcia | Feb 6, 2009 1:54:19 PM

Commissioner of Major League Baseball; if that spot is taken, law school professor would be my second choice.

Posted by: Marvin Longabaugh | Feb 6, 2009 12:54:26 PM

I agree that it's important to help students know themselves and to know what they're getting into with a legal career, but I'd probably speak up for your student who became agitated. As Charles Taylor puts it, "a self can never be described without reference to those who surround it." Recognizing that I am shaped by my commitments to those around me is not to obfuscate my "true" identity; denying those commitments is what can produce a skewed understanding of myself. I'm not suggesting that we push students to meet others' expectations, just that I'd be wary of pushing my students to decontextualize themselves.

All that said, I'd be a law professor.

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Feb 6, 2009 11:22:02 AM

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