Thursday, December 16, 2010

We All Suck at Law

 The good folks at Above the Law find astonishment and entertainment in the story of the former biglaw associate who tells the world that he just wasn't very good (="I suck") at law.  That would be Will Meyerhofer, "The People's Therapist," who, I suspect, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, can probably still tell you to three decimal places his grade average at  NYU.

As Meyerhofer obviously understands, he's not alone: lots of people suck at law, which shouldn't be too surprising in the sense that lots of people suck at lots of things, even the ones they have trained for, and even when they are sitting on 200k in student loan debt. One item of evidence that this proposition is true: the number of people who want to  escape law practice into law teaching.  I don't have exact numbers, but best I can tell, the number of applicants for teaching positions is rising even faster than the numbers of those trying to claw their way into law school in the first place.  And the quality, at least on paper--if you're not top ten percent at a top five law school, with a prestige clerkship to boot, you'd probably start making other plans.

Hah, you will say, those who can't do, teach!  But that's really not the point, at least not in the sense that you mean it.  The fact is a lot of these new professors are not mere refugee/mediocrities--as I say, look at the paper.  They're extraordinarily talented and hard working people who just can't stomach the life they thought they were (or pretended to be) training for.

Flipside: they may gag on law practice; they often are pretty good at the enterprise of being a law professor.  But being a law professor has little to do with being a lawyer: it's a whole different skill set, a whole different temperament.  And a core of it is the dirty little sotto voce that says: I am purporting to train you for a profession I do not have the stomach to do myself (exception: Yale, where don't have to pretend--they are not training lawyers, they are truly training others to be professors, just like them).

In terms of campus politics, there is a certain irony here.  The folks across the quad in Hom/SocSci, they mock us as a trade school, a barber college, teaching mere practitioners, not advancing the life of the mind.  Yet on closer scrutiny, it is they who are teaching by apprenticeship, they who are replicating themselves.  In that perspective, our life is much more abstract.

I don't mean to offer solace to the apprentice-masters over there in the culture factory.  As a serious student of polisci (say),  you may learn by apprenticeship, but the only thing you learn to be is another polisci professor, thus joining the great pyramid club of professors training professors to train professors.  And  I don't mean to pick on polisci: they same could be said about classics, or philosophy, or any of a dozen of those engines in self-replication.  Ponzi was a piker; if he'd come to us, he could have lived out his career full of years and honor with a festschrift and a pension at the end.

I'm not complaining, of course.  It's been a great life, this career-long avoidance of law practice.  It's given me endless opportunities to to think, to write, to follow my intellectual fancy anywhere it led.  I'm just lucky I had the chance.  For as they say, those who can't teach, do, and who wants that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sigh. I'm a law professor, and I think academia is really hard. Granted, I'm pre-tenure. Does this get any easier?

Weird politics among the faculty replace the greed/ambition of law practice, U.S. News rankings might as well be written on a stone tablet, and you could pop faculty members' egos with a pin.

It's a good job--post-tenure, I think. Before that, it's just another freaking rat race.