Law in Contemporary Society

Returning to Law School in the Fall

-- By GillianHo - 05 Apr 2023

The Question Itself

Over the course of the semester, Eben has consistently challenged us to think of whether we would return to law school, and if so, why. Instinctual responses to this question included the time, money, and tears I had already committed to gaining entry into Columbia Law, the thrill of the intellectual challenge that law school posed, job security and income stability, the pragmatism of having a law degree regardless of whether one wants to work in the legal industry, and finally, my family’s pride and satisfying their return on investment. Returning to law school was a foregone conclusion.

However, when Eben opened office hours with “What can I do for you? Why are you here?”, I was taken aback. I scrambled for what I had written in my law school application—creating accessibility to the law for those who had been obstructed by cultural and linguistic barriers—yet it rang false: I could see no way in which the paths Columbia has set out for me nor my experiences in this past year have led to the fulfillment of this desire. I gawped, unable to answer the simplest question demanded of any law student. Suddenly, I was forced to seriously confront the question of why I was here, let alone why I would even come back in the fall.

Choosing Free Will

At every step of my education, whether through formal instruction at school or through culturally-imparted teachings, my perception of fulfillment and happiness was conditioned to be the satisfaction of certain “checkboxes”, possession of hallmarks of success, and adherence to tried and true paths. The neuroticism with which I chased down these checked boxes led me to “success” after “success.” It brought me to Columbia, after which I would attain a job in Big Law, likely get married at 28, have children, and subsequently place my own children on the cursus honorum. However, as we read Joseph’s Lawyerland and encountered characters who had also followed the well-worn path to prestigious careers, I began to recognize the dissonance between the characters’ aspirations of what they had set out to do in law with their achievements in myself. Like them, I had been so busy ticking the checkboxes and constructing a neat framework for my life that I failed to see that all I had done was trap many of my original goals and desires into a self-contained gilded cage. Suddenly, it seemed like this purported path to success and fulfillment would instead obstruct or contradict the very things that I had personally thought would bring me joy.

But like the prisoners in Plato's cave, why would one wish to leave what they knew as reality—even if that reality were a gilded cage—and confront the looming depths and malevolence of the unknown? Instead of unboxing the various selves I had hidden away, perhaps I could wait until some revelation happened upon me within the confines of the cage itself. However, I was quickly reminded of life's brevity when I rushed onto a 16-hour flight to be my grandmother's bedside. There was a certain irony in my grieving for my grandmother's helpless fight against her fate and my resignation to go along with what formal education, my family, and my culture had deemed fated for me. In relinquishing my free will and allowing institutions to dictate my future, I became my grandmother—helplessly hoping and waiting as my life proceeded and withered before my eyes.

Approaching Free Will with Creativity

Throughout this year, I told my friends that one of my takeaways from 1L classes was that Originalism was one of the laziest methods of legal interpretation, as justices who followed that path only thought creatively within the confines of the legislation and judicial precedents written by dead hands. Regardless of whether one agrees with this statement or not, it would be hypocritical for me to call these justices lazy given that I had essentially taken the same approach to my life. If I was now choosing to embrace my free will, I cannot simply examine the institutions around me and idly follow guideposts to a stable destination. Instead, I must take the initiative to communicate frankly with my selves, including those which I had cast aside in pursuit of checkboxes, and understand the origins of my ideas of fulfillment and how I could manifest them with my legal education. Then, reconciliation. The instinctual responses I gave as to why I would return to law school still remain valid. Although Columbia’s proposed Big Law path is one way of achieving them, I must challenge myself to use my imagination to try and create an alternative practice where my happiness and concrete goals can be compatible.

Returning to Law School

Returning to law school in the fall is daunting, particularly when confronted with the vast and endless possibilities. But with two years to explore options and experiment with few risks attached, I am determined to make my own guideposts as I craft a practice that will unify my interests in the law with the life I would like to lead in future. By taking classes and participating in clinics that use the law as a window to other aspects of life, I hope to better understand how others have used their imagination to carve out paths that lie outside of the checkboxes Columbia has neatly laid out for us. Through speaking to a range of legal practitioners or individuals who have obtained law degrees, I hope to understand how others have identified balanced compromises with their non-negotiable priorities. But most importantly, through questioning myself as to what I value most, I hope to then use my imagination to try and piece together a life with happiness. A happiness that I can take creative ownership of without solely deferring to the definitions and structures that I have unthinkingly examined and abided by all my life. A happiness that I can call my own.

Hi Gillian! Thought this was a very interesting account of your law school reflections. I've also dealt with similar thoughts regarding my family's ROI on my being here, and their constant stories of them telling other people in our life what I'm up to, always pridefully. Especially as an only child, I feel the pressure I put on myself to live up to that image. One of the more daunting aspects of next semester is also the one that excites me the most. Actually being able to choose all of our classes presents a great opportunity compared with the rigid structure of our 1L courseload. However, it's also daunting realizing that I need to structure my remaining classes around my existing interests and new areas I'd like to explore, rather than just taking torts, civpro, and contracts because I've been assigned them. I hope that the road ahead ends up being more fulfilling than that of the sixth-year associate in Lawyerland who was the only one that didn't realize he wouldn't progress to the next level. That said, I'm happy to be here, especially given the versatility of a law degree, and getting to choose my own schedule has me feeling optimistic. Thanks for sharing!

- Michael


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r7 - 16 May 2023 - 18:43:30 - MichaelPari
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