Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

revised newspaper column (two new paragraphs at the end; the first half is mostly the same as monday's post)

I have a secret. And it’s getting more and more difficult to hide it. I think my family’s finally catching on. There’s only so much verbal gymnastics one can do before the truth is obvious. My friends here know my secret. It’s their secret too. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s okay to talk about it, but it’s embarrassing for other people to find out. I mean, it’s not our fault, but it can feel that way. Like we’ve done something wrong. Like we’re imposters. But I don’t think we are. I think somehow the expectations just don’t match the reality. People make certain assumptions. Heck, we make our own assumptions. But it turns out that the assumptions just aren’t true. And so we carry around our secret, a little bit ashamed, a little bit amused, a little bit concerned, a little bit puzzled, a little bit resigned, and a little bit angry.

Here it is: I don’t know any law.

That’s an overstatement, but not by much. I don’t know that I really thought about it before I started law school, but I feel like I must have assumed I’d graduate having more of a clue than I do. I’ve been noticing more and more lately. People cut you some slack when you say you’re just a student, but you tell them you’re about to graduate and they expect Perry Mason. After watching a segment on The Daily Show last week, I had a conversation with a friend about whether they would be allowed to film on the Harvard campus without permission. Neither of us had any idea. I have no clue what the difference between robbery, burglary, larceny, theft, and just plain stealing are. My cousin is a teacher. She asked me whether it’s legal to handcuff her students. I mean, it sounds illegal... but is that really a more informed answer than I would have given three years ago?

I plugged the words “what every lawyer should know” into Google. I found pages that tell me what every lawyer should know about today’s paralegal, what every lawyer should know about computer forensics, what every lawyer should know about electronic evidence and discovery, what every lawyer should know about the Florida code of judicial conduct, what every lawyer should know about reciprocal discipline, what every lawyer should know about title surveys, what every lawyer should know about the Plain English rules, what every lawyer should know about representing deaf clients, what every lawyer should know about winning and defeating summary judgments, what every lawyer should know about crop insurance, what every lawyer should know about Texas residential landlord/tenant law, what every lawyer should know about brain injuries, what every lawyer should know about lurking liability in business practice, what every lawyer should know about the role of psychologists in custody cases, what every lawyer should know about parliamentary procedure, what every lawyer should know about about anti-SLAPP motions under Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16, what every lawyer should know about trips and slips on public sidewalks, what every lawyer should know about minimizing and responding to attacks on corporate information infrastructures, and much, much more. I don’t know anything at all about any of these things, and can’t imagine too many of my classmates do. Yet we’re all going to be law school graduates very shortly (barring any disasters in the upcoming weeks). And if we pass the bar, we could actually represent clients. Yikes. If I was a client, I would not want me as a lawyer. Sorry.

It all makes me start to wonder about doctors. Now that I know what we know after law school, I have to ask – how much medicine do doctors know after medical school? Do they have to run into their offices after every patient and look up the difference between the kidney and the spleen? Do they need to double-check the number of toes we’re supposed to have? Are they not quite certain what color healthy phlegm is really supposed to be? It’s frightening if they know as little about medicine as I know about what’s legal and what’s not. Then again, they’re dealing with life and death. We’re only dealing with freedom and justice. So who cares?

But you know what? It’s okay. I’m cool with it. Because here’s what I’ve learned in three years of law school. We can all find the law. What I can do that I couldn’t before law school is make the arguments. I can make stuff up that sounds credible enough. I can make my uncle think I know what I’m talking about when I tell him it’s illegal to buy milk on Tuesdays. I can make my grandma think I’m serious when I tell her giving a tin of brownies to her friend without charging is a violation of the antitrust laws. I can use big words, compound words, Latin words to make stuff up. And if they know I go to Harvard Law School, they believe me. This is an awesome power, and I waste it by telling my mom she’ll forfeit her U.S. citizenship if she makes an illegal U-turn, or telling a friend that you’re allowed to steal cable as long as you file the right paperwork with the local public library. We have the tools at our disposal to say anything, and have people believe us. It’s crazy.

So what else have I learned in three years of law school? Let’s see: The law is whatever judges want it to be. The Socratic Method can be used very well, and very badly. Walter Gropius was a hack. Some of my classmates will get my vote when they run for Congress. Some of them will not. Boston winters are long. The Red Sox are awesome.

Okay, some of this is tongue-in-cheek. I’ve learned some law. And, more importantly, I’ve learned how to think about the law, and how to read the law, and where to look to fill in the gaps. I’ve gotten a better sense of a whole bunch of aspects of society and why they’re structured like they are, and what the road toward change would look like. I’m a more informed citizen, a smarter consumer of information, and a more engaged civic participant. Just as important, I’ve met a lot of people who care a lot more about the law than I do. I expect my classmates will go to do a lot of neat things (if they eventually escape their law firms), and, honestly, help to change the world for the better. That’s a cool thing to get to think. I’ve had fun. I’ve made some lifelong friends. I’ve gotten to try and fill a column each week with something that people will read. It’s been awfully rewarding.

When I stepped foot on campus 3 years ago, I’m not sure I had any idea what to expect, or what I sought to get out of this place. I hadn’t thought enough about what people did with a law degree, or why I even wanted one. I kind of hoped I’d figure it out along the way. People say that’s a terrible reason to go to law school, and it probably is. But here’s my other secret, and I think too many of us are loathe to admit it. For all the things law school can do better – and there’s a number of them: more exposure to what real lawyers do, better integration of legal writing into the curriculum, more dynamic teaching, better food in the cafeteria – it’s not a bad place to be. I’ll miss it, genuinely.