Law in Contemporary Society

Reflections on Splitting

-- By CourtneyDoak - 18 Jul 2012


The first seeds of cognitive dissonance that resulted in my split were planted, I think, on the day of my college graduation. Most of the day is painted in broad brushstrokes, but my commencement speech, given by Elie Wiesel, is imprinted in my memory with startling clarity. I recall the goosebumps I felt as I listened, captivated, humbled by the privilege of hearing him speak.

"You can do something", Wiesel told us, "even for one person. There must be on this planet at least one person who needs you. One person you can help. Don’t turn away; help".

For those minutes I sat, inspired by Wiesel, who suffered through and survived the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, who subsequently devoted his life to humanitarian efforts, to replacing intolerance with understanding, replacing indifference with compassion.

I wrote my law school personal statement about how I was riveted by the powerful simplicity of Wiesel’s message, how I understood the capacity each of us has to help someone in a way that changes that person’s life entirely. I wrote about how the lawyer who advocated for my sisters and me freed us from abuse and instilled in me a fierce desire to do the same for other children similarly victimized.

All of this is true: Wiesel’s words on graduation day succinctly capture why I came to law school two years later. However, this class made me acutely aware that my personal statement failed to explore my choices in the interim. I seek now to reflect on those decisions to better understand myself and to illuminate the path to a legal career about which I’m passionate.

Pre-Split: External Validation

I sat on graduation day thinking: yes, this is what I’ll do with my life; I’ll help children who need advocates. Yet I’d known for months that what I’d actually be doing was beginning a career as a financial analyst at a global investment bank, to work on behalf of the “high net worth” and the “ultra high net worth”.

Josh’s incisive paper? , “External Validation and the Success Trap”, helps shed light on why and how I could mindlessly have accepted this position. Basically, I graduated with a clear conception of the work to which I wanted to devote my life but instead pursued the most “prestigious” job I could find, seeking the external validation I’d receive as a byproduct. I recall the thrill I felt at receiving my offer, my elation at being one of the chosen “lucky few”.

This rush of external validation, however, couldn’t sustain me through the succeeding weeks and months as I continued to forego the career I desired. I wanted to help children in need; yet I spent my days analyzing financial statements. I felt discomfort from the dissonance of these realities.


Initially, I attempted to reframe my perception of my behaviors. I rationalized that working on the seventh iteration of a Powerpoint was ultimately helping our clients, somehow, meet their financial goals. But even if I’m helping them in some (extremely) attenuated way, I’d inevitably think seconds later, they certainly aren’t the ones I’m passionate about helping.

At some point, those thoughts – mental uneasiness, rationalizations to mollify my subconscious, my mind’s rejection of these rationalizations – ceased. I just went to work, ambivalent but not consciously dissatisfied.

Reading “Something Split” in Lawyerland was enlightening in helping me understand my experience. Lawyers, Wylie explains, must “do things, be part of things, [they] don’t want to be a part of” (Joseph 41). Consequently, cognitive dissonance takes root. This dissonance is sometimes eliminated through repression of the dissonance-causing thoughts, followed by dissociation – a psychic split.

When my first psychic defense mechanism (reframing my perceptions) failed, I think, perhaps, that I split. Because splits are subconscious, I cannot identify precisely when this occurred. What I know is that a time came when I didn’t regularly feel the crushing heaviness of my dissonance. In hindsight I worry I was unconsciously drifting into the easiest way of life, the narrator’s route in “Bartleby, The Scrivener”, a life where others would characterize me as “eminently safe” (Melville 1).

Wholeness - and Fissures, Revisited

Periodically, my subconscious desires cracked the fašade of complacency. Perhaps this indicates that I hadn’t fully split, hadn’t fully repressed my dissonance; alternatively, perhaps the nagging was in fact my ghost. Either way, I feel fortunate that the strength of my desires pulled me back together and brought me here.

During 1L year, I grew increasingly anxious trying to stick to my convictions, to pursue work in children’s rights upon graduation. As the reality of financial burden set in, I made hypothetical compromises: what if I work at a firm until I pay off my loans, then do what I came here to do?

I recognized the irrationality of these compromises, particularly because I've already been down this road: dissonance, rationalizations, splitting, coming back together. I was disconcerted by the possibility of beginning this cycle anew, splitting again, unconsciously living an eminently safe life haunted by a ghost I cannot see.

The Way Forward

Reflecting on my career path to date has made me more self-aware of the limits of my rationality, and has imparted greater understanding of how to take control of my life within the parameters of those limits. Ultimately I think the answer lies in Elie Wiesel’s message, which so inspired me at graduation.

For me the rationalizations fall away and it becomes easier to stay conscious and whole, on the right side of justice, when I realize there is at least one person - one future client - who I can help.

Essentially, that client is me. She is a child, or many children, in whom I see the reflection of my scared, helpless ten-year-old self. And so I will pursue a career on the right side so I may help those children, give them a voice where they might otherwise be rendered silent, just as somebody once did for me.


-- CourtneyDoak - 02 Aug 2012

(I would like to continue editing over the summer. Thank you!)

This is a beautifully written and compelling story. It's concise and relatable, yet has hidden beauty/emotion poking through in certain words and sentences (e.g. "Essentially the client is me"). As a reader what I was left wondering was how you realized you had split, or rather, what made you quit your job and want to come back to law school? If you were ambivalent about your work, was there something that shocked you awake or made you realize that you were cognitively dissonant, and thus encouraged you to apply to law school? If there was maybe this really was an instance of seeing your ghost?? I really enjoyed reading this and appreciate you sharing -- SkylarPolansky - 25 Apr 2012

Skylar, thank you so much for your comments, I really appreciate them. As I clarified in my paper above, there was not, as far as I can recall, a specific moment where I was shocked awake, or where I had an epiphany that drew me back to law school. I think it's more accurate to say that I periodically felt the nagging of my subconscious desires, which intermittently cracked through my ambivalence and reminded me that this was not the work I was meant to do or to which I wanted to devote my life. What I am not sure of is whether this nagging means I had not entirely repressed my subconscious desires and my cognitive dissonance, and thus had not completely split, or whether this nagging was in fact my ghost, haunting me intermittently and gradually waking me up to the fact that I was not making the kind of difference I wanted to make. Either way, I feel fortunate that the strength of my desires pulled me back together and compelled me to apply to law school. Again, thank you so much for your comments, and for inspiring me to think more deeply about what drew me here.

-- CourtneyDoak - 18 Jul 2012

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r16 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:50 - IanSullivan
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