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Saints & Superheroes

In helping people apply to law school, I need to know EVERY problem in a file -- minor in possession of alcohol, reckless driving, auto accidents in which the client was found at fault.  One of my clients thought this was absurd; he said, "I didn't know I needed to be a saint or a superman to study law.  I simply want to expand my career opportunities."  

My answer was, "Oh. Well, to be a lawyer, you have to be a saint or a superhero."

A law degree is not just a bigger and better MBA.  

Law is a profession.  At the very least, that means you have to be licensed.  You have to pass a "fit moral character" test.  And once you pass that hurdle, you swear an oath... in front of a judge... that you will uphold the constitution and laws of the United States and of the state that's granting you the license.

In fact, in a brief search of the internet,  I found these remarks by Justice Peter T. Zarella of the Connecticut Supreme Court:

In a few minutes each of you will take an oath that evinces the high standard of responsibility that is inherent in the office to which you have aspired. The deceptively simple words of that oath are as follows:

"You solemnly swear or solemnly and sincerely affirm, as the case may be, that you will do nothing dishonest, and will not knowingly allow anything dishonest to be done in court, and that you will inform the court of any dishonesty of which you have knowledge; that you will not knowingly maintain or assist in maintaining any cause of action that is false or unlawful;

As Judge Newell Jennings said in his address to the candidates for admission to the Connecticut Bar in 1933:

"The very fact of your taking this oath sets its mark upon you. Its character, while not perhaps unique, is certainly exceptional. If you want to open a delicatessen store you do not have to make oath that your butter will be 16 ounces to the pound and your vinegar two pints to the quart. If you decide to operate a taxicab you make no promises whatever. But you may not become a member of the bar without taking this oath. Furthermore, you take the oath voluntarily. No one has required you to become a lawyer. Plenty of lines of activity were open to you which involved no obligation of this character....This being so, you should take it, not only without any mental reservations whatever, but with the sincere and earnest intention to strive to conform to all its provisions in every particular. It calls for active, not passive, compliance."

Law Isn't Justice  

As the Sopranos went off the air, there was a lot of media conjecture on why the show had been so popular.  One of the many reasons was that for some people the Mafia represents justice when the legal system fails.  When the soccer coach was having sex with a fifteen-year-old, Tony says that if the coach goes to jail he'll be out in two years, doing this to some other little girl in Connecticut.  "If I handle it, it will stay handled."  When Dr. Melfi is brutally raped, her assailant is caught -- and let go on a technicality.  She chooses not to tell Tony, knowing that he will get her justice, but that she'd rather support the legal system, even if it is imperfect.  

Law isn't Justice.  It doesn't promise justice.  It promises a system that will be even-handed enough that we can choose to support it instead of the Vigilantes and the Mafia.  So if you want to be a lawyer because you're tired of seeing your family and friends be treated unfairly, you're likely to be disappointed, perhaps burn out in short order.  Law can be a vehicle for social change, but it isn't a direct conduit to any set of results. Or, as my mentor in law school used to say, "The law has no special magic for achieving justice. You can change the world by being a teacher, a social worker, or even by standing on a soapbox on the corner and making speeches."  

Not all lawyers are honest, of course.  

A lot of lawyers, and a lot of law firms, think their primary goal is to make money. But most law school admissions officers, and most licensing organizations, think that upholding the law is something sacred, or close to it.  They think that upholding the Constitution preserves the American way of life. So of course they think it's a job for saints and superheroes.  

In particular, they expect their students to take the oath seriously, including that part about informing the court of any dishonesty of which you have knowledge.  Here's a true story:

Student A and Student B are classmates. They are both trying to write on to law review.  There's an honor code that says you can't offer or receive help, and if you know of a violation you must report it.  A decides not to finish the competition and offers to give B the work done so far.  B accepts.  A few hours later, B also decides not to finish the paper.  

No harm done?  WRONG. A offered the paper, B accepted it, the violation was complete then.   A and B are both no longer law students.

How did the authorities find out? Student  C, to whom A also made the offer, reported them.  Did C do so because of the honor code, or simply out of self-protection, thinking that if A were broadcasting an offer of help, sooner or later somebody would blow the whistle, so C might as well be on the winning side?  We don't know.  What I do know is, NEVER say those terminally stupid words, "No one will know."  Anything that can be done can be discovered.

Many a lawyer has been dishonest.  Many have been caught and disbarred.

If you want to make a lot of money and still have a future if you're caught with your hand in the till, go get an MBA.  

If you want to help shape society and still take kickbacks or receive fancy gifts of appreciation, go get an MPA.  

If you want to do both, at the price of knowing that your obligation to serve society ranks higher than your desire to get rich, law school might be the right place for you.

Professions vs. Impressions

"I want to go to law school.  It has to be a top law school so I can get a good job.  And my grades and LSAT are only 2.x and 15x."  

A lot of great lawyers, at great law firms, making a lot of money, come from lower tier law schools.  In 2005 I had two clients who were friends.  One's father was a millionaire.  He had gone to UMKC law school (Missouri Kansas City).  Her aunt was even richer; she graduated from Loyola Marymount Law School (in Los Angeles). The other's boyfriend's father was a millionaire.  He went to Brooklyn Law School. Yet they both were fixated on having the right name on the diploma.  

I know it's silly of me to try to convince you.  But if you really, really want to be a lawyer, you'll figure out that you can do that from a school outside the top fifty.  

Professional Behavior

After the LA Forum in 2006, we had drinks with an admissions officer who told us that she has a serious problem making offers of admission or scholarship to applicants whose e-mail addresses and phone messages reflect a high level of immaturity.  She said that if she goes to e-mail an offer of a seat at her school and sees "sexy girl," someone else is going to get that seat, and if she calls to offer a scholarship and hears "whazzup dude," she hangs up without saying a word.  

It's amazing how many admissions officers think that lawyers are supposed to be responsible adults, and furthermore, that responsible adults do not have pierced eyebrows or tongues, blue hair or mohawks, or spandex business attire.  And how will they know if you allow yourself these small expressions of counterculture? They will go online and look at your facebook profile.  They will Google your name, read your posts on law.discussion.org, and check out your favorite quotes from Snoop Dogg or Jessie Ventura. 

So if you want to go to law school, you have to pay the price:  clean up your phone messages and web pages, censor your public comments, and at least pretend to be a person who knows how adults behave.  

In addition to changing your phone message, here are a few other hints about cell phone behavior:  

  • Don't talk on the cell phone while you're waiting in line to talk to a law school representative, so that no one else can hear what the person is saying.

  • Don't answer your cell phone while you're talking to an admissions officer.

  • Don't call an admissions officer to ask questions, then put them on hold to answer your call waiting.  

  • Don't answer your cell phone while you're introducing yourself at an admitted students weekend.  

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