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Question: I would like to know what I should do with my life. I am 22. I am thinking about going to law school because you can apply a law degree to many occupations. Do you have any advice for someone my age in my situation? Thank you.—Robert Cassel
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2. Next Year in Atlantis
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
—Henry VI, part 2.
In the United States there is one lawyer for every .47 human beings, as demonstrated by a recent case now working its way through New York State appellate court, Slitkin (R) v. Slitkin (L), in which the right hand of a woman named Naomi Slitkin is suing her left hand for giving it the clap. But a careful study of history shows that the current lawyer glut is an anomaly. In past ages lawyers have always been a tiny minority, persecuted for their aversion to sunlight and loathed and feared by the mortals upon whose blood they feast.
You’ve heard this:
“You know what they call 50,000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?”
“A good start.”
Did you know that this joke was first uttered in 1343 by an unnamed lawyer in the canton of Hümbruggé in what is now Flemland—and that it is no joke?
In the Critias, Plato described Atlantis as a society that, 9,000 years earlier, had gone to war with the citizenry of Athens, and upon defeat had been buried under the waves. Many scholars have wondered whether Plato invented Atlantis or based his ideas on some other tradition, but recent work has shown that he borrowed the idea from the creation story of the Kritesians, a little-known group of Athenian religious philosophers who considered the study of legal theory to be the greatest possible endeavor. Fragments of the myth have been preserved, written (like many early legal documents) on parchment made from the child-skins that early lawyers demanded as payment for their services. This section was first discovered by an anonymous Roman historian:
…we will go home
When Athens no longer suffers
for want of wise men.
Home to those wine-colored seas.
Where we fish-breathers thrived,
Until dry Athens begged for our wisdom.
We rose through foam,
And gave them our counsel
For five child-skins per hour,
Rather than being buried under the sea by the waves, the Kritesians’s Atlantis was a perfectly just underwater society populated by half-humans with gills who abandoned their home to serve mankind. Adherents believed that all lawyers were thus distantly related to those first fishlike beings that crawled out of the Aegean ooze—an unusual concept of heredity-by-profession. It’s possible that Plato’s Atlantis is an attempt to refute the Kritesians, and though the influence of Plato eventually overshadowed that of all other philosophers, traces of the Kritesian mythos appear throughout history. For example, Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Thomas More, both notable lawyers, wrote treatises on ideal societies on faraway islands (The New Atlantis and Utopia, respectively), expounding on the myth. And even today many people believe lawyers are not human. Finally, there is that 600-plus-year-old-joke by the lawyer of Hümbruggé, a witticism crafted to give a laugh to non-lawyers, and to bring forth a nod of recognition in the intellectual descendants of the Kritesians. Like Passover celebrants toasting, “Next year in Jerusalem!” the joke reminds lawyers of their heritage: “Next year in Atlantis!”
Sadly, most Kritesian philosophy is lost to us, but the little that scholars have been able to reconstruct tells us the sect believed that one day, when humanity had perfected its legal system so that all ambiguities were eliminated, lawyers would no longer be needed and would thus be free to regrow their gills and return to Atlantis at the bottom of the sea. All humanity would gather on the beaches to cheer the lawyers as they returned, and if any of them struggled, we would push them back under the waves.
3. Cassel v. the Future
“…the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”
Robert, let’s return to your problem. Were I in your situation, this is the second question (the first question comes later) that I would ask myself: What kind of lawyer should I be?
There are two kinds of lawyers: good, and evil. The good lawyer works for a nonprofit foundation or local government, faces a lifetime of crushing loan payments, burns out at 34, and opens a vegan bakery. The evil lawyer, working for a faceless real estate conglomerate, and with the help of crony judges, misapplies eminent domain to take over the good lawyer’s vegan bakery so the land can be developed into a pork-rendering plant that also makes guns. (Yes, there is evidence that some lawyers are neither all good nor all evil, but this evidence does not fit with my theory, so in the spirit of the legal system we’ll throw it out and pretend it never existed.)
Now for the first question: is it really worth it to go to law school because “you can apply a law degree to many occupations?” Frankly, you sound half-hearted. I’m not going to pile on the hoopla about living your dream. Dreams are stupid. If I lived my dream I’d be sitting on a train in Montana with my dead grandfather and every time I spoke I’d spit feathers. But law school, like starting a band, writing a novel, or having sex with a dolphin, is something that you should do only because you cannot imagine a life in which you have not done so.
Law school, like starting a band, writing a novel, or having sex with a dolphin, is something that you should do only because you cannot imagine a life in which you have not done so.Let us consider the major hidden cost of such a path: Studying law will require you to completely internalize our justice system. My grandfather (but not on a train) once explained to me the concept of a “blivet:” 10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. In this case, you are the bag, and the justice system is what fills it. Imagine yourself standing in a hot, dusty courtroom, explaining to a judge how a case from 1934 that involved two school bus companies applies to your client, who fed his own infant daughter to a tiger. Are you happy? Does defending this man fill you with satisfaction? Do you love the smell of photocopies and being screamed at by your superiors, who hold your future in their decrepit, legal-brief-stained claws? Or is law school simply a way to avoid dealing with the real world?
With regards to the real world, I am reminded of a story. Once, during my last year of college, I was dog-sitting for a couple who owned a huge piece of property at the edge of town. In the early evening of one cold, clear night I drank some wine and sprinted naked, save for my boots, up a long snow-covered hill, behind two yapping German shepherds. We reached the summit and I cried out in pure native joy, then the dogs and I raced down the hill, leaping 10 feet at a time. I came back to a hot fireplace, a warm bathrobe, and a roast chicken, and sat listening to music in gratifying solitude. Then, last week, I sat in a tiny, white office that is always too hot and programmed in Java for 20 straight hours, and when I could not see the screen any more I rode my bike home over sheets of ice to my overpriced and small Brooklyn apartment. When I got home at 6:30 a.m., my fiancée told me I stank of fear.
I live my life by two maxims and together, they form a complete philosophical system—not as complete as that of the Kritesians, but it works for me. The first maxim is an old Scottish proverb: “You might as well be happy now,” it advises, “for you will be a long time dead.” The second is from Lama Trungpa Rinpoche: “Life is suffering,” he explained. “You will never be happy.” These two proverbs appear to be incompatible, but that suits me fine; I feel no need to put them into opposition and judge which is better. On the other hand, my hours are not billable.
Robert, you asked, “Do you have any advice for someone my age in my situation?” And I can tell you that, having been there myself, and with 10 full, complex years of experience intervening, I can provide absolutely no counsel.