Monday, May 10, 2010

Exam Time

  I'm cooling my heels in my squatter digs at the law school this morning while my bankruptcy students take their final exam. It is their last for the semester, and it rounds out the 40th year since I first stepped up to the podium. It's been a memorable year in the not-fun sense--students the jumpiest I have seen them since...

Since when? Let me think: well, since 1978. That was the high point of a different generation. The Law School was educating its first crop of female students. In my own graduating class just eight years before, there had been only one. By '78 we were up to perhaps 30 percent.

And this was the "transitional" cohort--girls (sic) who had set out to be wives and mothers and found out it wasn't working for them, and were desperate to re-equip. They were often excellent students and many of them went on to be fine lawyers but at this point, there were very insecure. A great many of them were just coming out of (or going into) a divorce--you could see it coming, the same way you used to be able to see a car crash coming as you stood and watched the two vehicles charged at each other across Trafalgar Square. Worse: the faculty was still almost all male, and we all reminded them of their ex husbands. In the Chinese-proverb sense, it was an interesting time.

All that is ancient history now: the student body is a bit above 50 percent female and the faculty is close to that. There may still be a women's caucus, but it's not on my radar. The issue today is, of course, jobs, in the sense of they don't have any. Oh, I exaggerate--in fact some have jobs--a few, just as good as they could have hoped for in any market. But even among those, there is a bit of survivor anxiety. Plus, they all read David Lat and they know that their good fortune might be snatched away from them at any moment.

And for the rest of them, zip; for most, not even a nibble or a hope. And I marvel at how unfamiliar such a world can be. That is: when sat down for my first class as a student in 1963, the dean welcomed us with the encouraging news that we were joining an under-peopled profession. He was right: at the end of World War II, a whole lot of veterans had piled into law school and the profession just wasn't able to absorb them all. So for half a generation, law just wasn't a particularly attractive career option compared to, say, high school teaching. Strivers used it as a method for career advancement up the corporate ladder. Others--well, you really had to want to do it, or you were going to find yourself pretty unhappy.

Starting in the mid 60s, everything changed. Lyndon Johnson funded legal aid to the (as we then called them) poor. The civil rights revolution gave lawyers an unheard-of glamor. And in 1968, Cravath jacked up starting salaries by half, from $10,000 to a stratospheric $15,000. Law school enrollments soared.

So here's the thing: from about the time I started teaching, any reasonably bright and diligent law student--and most of them were reasonably bright and diligent--any one of them could expect to find a job which, even if it did not promise great wealth (I don't think any of our grads ever went to Cravath), still provided a living and even a modicum of respectability. And here is the beauty part: you didn't even have to care that much about law. Just be successful in the negative sense: stay out of trouble, don't let your grades fall too low, don't call too much attention to yourself. Things would work out and life would be good.

For forty years or more, that was the pattern. But no more. This year, for the first time, we are surrounded by a bunch of kids who have--not just no great options, but very close to no options at all. Or so it seems (but cf. infra). And here's an aggravating truth: we on the faculty are virtually no help to them in this milieu because we've never seen this kind of world before and know nothing about it.

So I don't blame the students for being jumpy. I'd be jumpy too. I wish that there was more I could tell them (scratching up 40-year-old war stories is a device not often welcomed). So far, it seems, the most notable initiative we've taken is to bring in a motivational speaker to blow steam into their deflated of sense of self-worth. You will thrive, he told them. They did not find it consolatory.

I do, as it happens, hold strongly to one insight that I would intend as consolatory, though they might not see it so. It's not that they will thrive: maybe they will thrive and maybe not. My insight is just that the future lies ahead, and its corollary, something will turn up. These are, as I say, bright kids. And they have the potential to be resourceful, although they find themselves under constraint to deploy resources that they have never deployed before. They'll respond to this challenge not because they are so eager to do so, but because they have no other choice. Above I took a long view. I can end with an even longer view: recall how Caesar, to motivate his army to move forward, used to burn his boats on the beach. It's a grim sort of tough love, I suppose, but for the Roman army at least, it ended rather well.

PS: Oh, and did I mention that applications for places in next year's class are even higher?
Fn,: for a nostalgia trip through the history of the profession, go here. The Cravath number is on page 56.

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