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A Conversation With My Mentor: Why did you talk me out of law school?

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Will Tomlinson, we met in 2003 when I worked as a paralegal at your law firm. I was taking some time post-college to travel and work thinking law school was my next step. I remember the first day I walked into your office, against the advice of the other paralegals, and asked if you would go to lunch with me. They said you were super busy and not to take it personally if you said no. While I was nervously asking you to lunch I saw a book on William Blake and I’d like to think our friendship began fairly quickly after that. I remember talking about music and books, but law didn’t seem to come up very frequently in our conversations.

Q: What did you study in undergrad, and why did you decide to go to law school?

I studied English and philosophy in college. Even then – I graduated from college in 1980 – those weren’t great credentials for entering the job market. I went to law school because it seemed to offer a better opportunity for economic security than graduate school. There weren’t any lawyers in my family or my friends’ families.

Q: Do you remember when I asked you for a letter of recommendation for law school? You said “I’ll do it if you make me, but I very much recommend you do not go to law school. You can always do what a lawyer does, but lawyers cannot do what you do.” I think about that at least a few times a year and each year it means something different to me. But, I’ve never asked you, why? What did you mean?

You can always go to law school. Many law schools today are geared toward students who’ve been out of school for a while, who’ve pursued careers and raised families, and who have to work full-time while attending school. That’s a very positive development because not everyone who’s just out of college knows, or even suspects, that law school is for them. But once you’ve gone through a three or four-year law program, it can be very hard to undo the changes to the way you think (about everything). It can be very hard to keep or rekindle whatever creative spirit you once had. 

When I met you, you had that creative spirit. I remember three specific examples: 
(1) Your reading list. I’ve forgotten specific authors and titles, but I remember you turned me on to some writers I wasn’t familiar with before. (2) Your interest in William Blake. Most people who even know who Blake was run out of the room when you mention him because he’s so challenging. (3) You could talk about any subject intelligently. I’m currently re-reading Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” and at one point she refers to what “the French consider the test of a civilized society: … the art of general conversation.” (Viking Press 1941, p. 329.)

Talking you out of law school has been one of my biggest accomplishments. 

Q: What are one pro and one con of law school?

A “pro” of law school is that it hones your critical-thinking skills. As the cliché goes, you learn to “think like a lawyer.” You become very good at seeing gaps in reasoning, weaknesses in arguments, etc., both others’ and your own. That’s a good skill to have.

A “con” is the flip side of that: it doesn’t take long before you find that the only way you know how to think is “like a lawyer.” Your creative and empathic thinking atrophy and you view every situation “like a lawyer.”

Q: If someone is thinking about law school, what advice would you give them?

Work in a law firm or government law office for a year or so. See what the day-to-day life of a practicing attorney is like. Tell whoever you interview with that you’re thinking about going to law school, but aren’t sure, and you figured this would be a good way to find out if it’s for you. More people than you imagine will be thinking, “I wish I’d done that,” and will respond positively. And while you’re working, talk to the attorneys about what they do, whether they like it, how they got to where they are, etc. Basically, you’re gathering as much information as you can to help you make a big decision. Don’t decide to go to law school as a “default” because you don’t know what else to do.

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