Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lawyer Boy: A Case Study on Growing Up - Rick Lax (2008)

"Write what you know."

That is the advice most writing teachers give.  Or at least that was the popular wisdom back in the late 90's/early 2000's.  Later on, there was a twist: you should write what you know, but also what you can learn and confidently write about as if you've experienced it yourself.  I do not think I will ever be able to do the latter, and for that reason I may never be a successful novelist--though that does not mean I will ever give up on my dream.  I know I wouldn't be able to write a law school memoir unless I went.

And it is a good idea, at this point in history, to publish a law school memoir.  Because the landscape has changed.  Rick Lax published Lawyer Boy in 2008, probably right around the moment the markets crashed.  Did he graduate in 2008?  I have no idea.  And one of my major complaints about Lawyer Boy is that it's only about the first year.

So it's basically very easy to sum up: One L but at a TTT turned TT set immediately before people started using those acronyms.

It could have been so much better.  As it is, it's pretty good.  It's definitely a page-turner.  But I don't think anybody who didn't go to law school or is planning on going to law school will find it very intriguing.  That is the problem with the law school memoir as a genre.  Still, I think Lax made better use out of his law degree than a lot of disappointed graduates nowadays.  At least it gave him good material for a book.

Then again, there is one non-nitpick critique I can make of this book: it loses steam in its second-half.  Lax seems to rush through the story of the spring semester.  Part of this is understandable: his school was not crazy and probably enrolled 1Ls in 3 credits of Constitutional Law and Contracts both semesters, instead of 5 credits in one semester.  So there's not a lot of new stuff to mention except Torts and Property.

But now we get to the fun part: comparing experiences.  Because it really is sad, how similar every law school is to every other one, regardless of ranking.  It's one of the reasons so many people criticize the proliferation of law schools today--because they are just so easy to plan.  There are too many of them and I have been saying for a couple years now that the ABA should limit the number of new graduates entering the workforce because that is the only way to prevent a highly-indebted unemployed glut of new graduates applying for the same few entry-level jobs that get posted.  The market will fix itself, some believe, and while overall enrollment has dropped, I think it's still way too high.  If it's unfair to close schools, then each should just be forced to reduce the size of their first-year class to a quota.  It might sound like a totalitarian regime, but it would be better for those choosing to enter the profession in the long run (it is really depressing to go through such hell for 3 years, take on a load of debt, jump through dozens of hoops, only to be laughed at because you're useless) and at the very least it would make for an interesting Supreme Court case.  I digress.

Rick Lax went to DePaul Law School.  I almost went there.  Now that I have chosen to live in Chicago, I wish I had gone there.  But I did get in and I could appreciate some of the details.  The book starts out very strong, with Lax describing why he wanted to go to law school in the first place, what it was like to take the LSAT, and what it was like to choose his school:

"I realized that my full-time immaturity shtick would one day inevitably turn from cute and charming to sad and creepy.  I realized that I couldn't live with my parents forever, that I needed a place of my own, and that magic wouldn't pay the bills--the ones I'd presumably have if I had a place of my own.  I realized that I had to go to law school...because it's not like I was going to get a job or anything." (9)

Of course, plenty of people on the internet will laugh at that paragraph as a supreme exercise in irony.  But this was in 2006 (or so).  Lax wanted to go to University of Michigan, which is where he went for undergrad, where his father went, and which was closest to home.  But he couldn't get in.  I could say the same thing about myself and NYU:

"Getting into the University of Michigan's undergraduate program was tough--I'd needed to transfer in.  Getting into their law school, I recognized, would be almost impossible.  The Supreme Court made that much clear in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger.  The case's opinion begins: "The [University of Michigan] Law School ranks among the Nation's top law schools.  It receives more than 3,500 applications each year for a class of around 350 students."  In Grutter, the Supreme Court held that state universities have a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body, and that this interest justifies the use of race as a factor in admissions.  But even without affirmative action, plaintiff Barbara Grutter, who had a 3.8 GPA and 161 LSAT score, probably couldn't get into the University of Michigan Law School today.  In recent years, the average incoming University of Michigan Law School student has had a 3.7 GPA and a 168 LSAT score." (12-13)

Lax got the same score as me: 163 and we didn't get to go to our dream schools.  But this is pretty much where our stories diverge.  He also applied to UNLV, DePaul, University of Chicago, NYU and Columbia.  He got rejected everywhere except for the first two.  And it probably would have been better for him to go to UNLV in the long run since apparently he lives there now (I know this through Twitter and I will post this review @him and hope not to get trolled) and it is probably the best place to make a living as a magician--which is the "hook" of this book.

Because see--if I wanted to write a law school memoir, there wouldn't be a "hook."  It's that extra little something that makes a literary agent think that your book is going to be special or memorable or something.  And some of the magician anecdotes are funny, but sometimes it feels a bit like "padding."  First there's the appendix, which has a couple tricks that I am pretty sure you wouldn't be able to do just from reading it (I think with magic you need an in-person demonstration from someone willing to show the secrets).  Second there are the numerous jokes about how no self-respecting person chooses magic as a profession, which okay, was probably true in 2006, but in 2014 no self-respecting person chooses law as a profession, unless they are sure they're really, really smart and are going to be in the top 10% or going to one of the very best schools.  Sorry--must contain my cynicism.

But the details about DePaul are pretty priceless, and as a resident of Chicago, I can say the book is certainly true to life.  First, there is the t-shirt:

"As expected, the University of Las Vegas accepted me, and even threw in a $9,000 annual scholarship.  DePaul University College of Law in Chicago trumped that with an $18,000-a-year offer, accompanied by a 100 percent cotton XL school T-shirt."

I got the same one with a $20,000-a-year offer, four (?) years later.  So still, we're in the same boat.  However, there is a sad anecdote later on that I have trouble believing:

"On Monday, I wore my complimentary XL DePaul T-shirt to Con did Dan and two of the other serious students.  I figured we'd all run out of clean clothes at the same time.
'Lookin good, Rick,' said Dan.
'You, too.'  I turned to Nadeeka, who wasn't wearing a shirt, and said, 'It's DePaul T-shirt day.  You didn't get the memo?'
She hadn't.
'Congratulations,' Dan said.
'On what?'
'Your scholarship.  You got the shirt with the scholarship, right?'
The shirt went with the scholarship.  Ah.
'You mean they didn't make you pick between the two?'
At the start of the semester, everybody must have assumed a handful of Section 2 students just happened to buy the same ill-fitting DePaul law school T-shirt.  By the second week of class, most people had figured out what the T-shirts meant.  By that week, wearing the shirt was no longer considered just a fashion misstep; it was considered a statment about the wearer's refusal to hide or apologize for her intellectualism." (82-83)

I think it is just incredible that DePaul would be so callous as to give scholarship students T-shirts, and non-scholarship students nothing.  Perhaps the practice changed after a few years, but it just strikes me as a really cynical (maybe the wrong word?) thing to do.  I got mine, and I liked wearing it to class because it was sort of a message like "fuck you, I hate this place and wish I went to DePaul" but I don't think anybody got it (and truthfully I didn't hate my school--just my first year, and I hate myself for what happened after--I actually have ridiculously fond memories of my second and third years).

Which is why I felt like Lawyer Boy was missing something.  Of course, a lot of people say "1L is all that matters" and sure that's true for jobs--but I felt that the ending of the book was inaccurate.  Lax writes about people getting jobs at big firms as if they're working there the summer after their 1L year.  That's not the way it works!  It's misleading.  Maybe a couple of his friends got to do that, but I know basically no one that worked at firms during their 1L summer.  Then again our school gave out a (fairly generous, at the time) public service grant so maybe most people did that because it was close to a livable wage.  Basically this book ends like 1L is the end of law school and that's just not true--there's two more years of crap, and at least in my experience, the social aspect gets really interesting at that point because people stop spending 90% of their free time studying (maybe 90% is inaccurate but it felt like that for me) and start having social lives.

Still, it was funny to read about how similar our experiences were.  One notable example was this introductory exercise, a welcoming speech from the Dean:

"Head Dean Glen Weissenberger spoke last: 'You've heard a lot about us, the faculty, and you've heard a lot about DePaul, but now I'd like to talk to you about something else: you.  All two hundred and forty of you.  Some of you came here from state college; some of you came here from Harvard.  One of you has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, another of you has one in materials engineering.  One of you even designed spacecraft parts for Boeing.
'One of you is the president of a gospel choir.  One taught English in Ghana.  One survived testicular cancer.  One lost over one hundred pounds in two years.  One was attached by sharks.  One worked for NATO in Kosovo as a counterintelligence agent with the U.S. Army.
'One of you is a professional magician, and that particularly excites me because I used to be a professional magician, too.'" (52)

Any of my classmates will recognize this ritual.  It is almost as if the law schools feel obligated to perform this tradition--just like the obligation to retain the same first year courses, though some of them (*cough*property) are basically niche areas filled with arcane nonsense.

Weissenberger was later dismissed from the law school in 2009, so apparently Lax used real names.  I'm not so sure about the other professors.  While most of the professors are generally treated quite well in the book, the Legal Writing professor seems like one of the biggest jerks on the planet.  I wouldn't be too surprised if this was an accurate portrait, but I'd be surprised if Lax didn't use a pseudonym.  While Legal Writing assignments are graded anonymously, there is a fair amount of discussion of how the professor knew which assignments Lax had turned in, and so maybe it wouldn't make a difference if Lax used a pseudonym or not: the professor obviously must have known it was written about him/her.  But apparently Devenpeck is a pseudonym.  This is only interesting to me because Turow used pseudonyms for his professors, and as I toy with the idea of writing a law school memoir, I tend to wonder about the "libel" aspect.  I wouldn't write anything bad about any of my professors, but I still feel weird writing about them, period, whether using pseudonyms or not, in a memoir.  But if you don't use pseudonyms, you're pretty much obligated to only say nice things.  Whatever.

The only other aspect I want to mention is that Lax seems to exhibit what a good percentage of my law school classmates also did: complete disregard for fiscal responsibility.  This is mainly due to where he chooses to live, and how his parents are able to pay for it.  Also I don't think he mentions taking out any loans.  So a very important part of the puzzle is also missing for aspiring law students.  This is also why I wish the 2L and 3L years were also included in this book.

One other thing I like about this book is that Lax provides snapshots of some of the cases he studied, and generally he picks out interesting ones (while also including a fairly concise summary of Marbury v. Madison, though I think someone else probably did a better job).

Finally, Justice Scalia is not mentioned until page 206.  At least he gets mentioned.  But any law school memoir in the late 20th or early 21st century has to say something about Scalia.  The thing I like most about him is that most law students hate his philosophy, but still love him because he can be a very witty writer.  Justice Douglas is not mentioned at all, and I will still persist in calling him my favorite.  He may not be the wittiest (though there is usually a humorous sentence or two in each of his opinions), but I still think he's one of the few who lived his life according to his judicial philosophy, and so he is automatically interesting.  

In the end, I can only give a lukewarm recommendation for this book.  I don't want to say "not recommended" because I think it does about as good a job as can be expected, and I shouldn't judge it because I wanted to see it do something differently.  However, I would be curious to know why Lax didn't want to include the 2L and 3L years.  Maybe that is a blessing, because perhaps the law school memoir that is an exhaustive account of the entire thing has yet to be written.  Perhaps I haven't really been looking for it, or just wouldn't want to read it, but I have to believe that a law school memoir published in 2010 or later from a non-T14 student/graduate could be a contender for the Pulitzer Prize due to tragic content.  I pray for all of us--that we make something of our lives, and that they are not cut short by psychosomatic tragedy.


Anonymous said...

This reads like it's from the distant past already -- or should be. It's hard to believe Langdell's case method has survived for so long, and it speaks of the inertia of legal education and the American legal establishment in general that the experience has changed so little while everything else has changed.

Maybe the crisis will cause some radical rethinking of the curriculum and methods, but I doubt it. In my experience, many of the people who most loved law school hate legal practice and many of those who hated it love being attorneys more than anything. It takes a certain mindset to really want to examine Palsgraf as if it were Finnegans Wake, and it really don't help when you've got to draft that franchise agreement by morning.

There are problems with medical education, but it's changed more with the times.

I'm guessing you hate the Adelle Waldman book I suggested? Maybe try Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding? Just take any chapter and you'll see how Harbach can do things that Tao Lin can't, or won't.

And Harbach can make every member of a Midwestern college baseball team talk so that you can tell which person is talking even without the notations. You'd probably like it better than the Waldman book. . .

JK said...

I'm not going to pretend I am an authority on law school reform, but the 1L year will probably stay the same forever.

But I wanted to respond to say that I do not hate the Waldman book. I am about 100 pages into it and find it reasonably provocative. A review of "Nickel and Dimed" will come next, but "Nathaniel P." will follow.

But thank you for the new recommendation and I will check it out soon.