The statement that investment bankers have replaced lawyers as the most hated professionals in America has become a common throwaway line, but it makes me wonder why lawyers apparently occupied that place to begin with. Like many Brown graduates before us, many of my friends and I will probably be headed in the same direction after graduation. We think of Brown as the type of place where it is possible to avoid joining the rat race at least temporarily; we can take all of our classes S/NC if we want and still get a degree. We read Marx over and over — I have been assigned "The Communist Manifesto" three times in college. So why do we go off to work for the Man? At least, this is what I feel like Brown students are thinking as they roll their eyes when I tell them I want to be a lawyer.
I think the objection to lawyers is primarily based on an undeveloped intuition that people have. One only goes to a lawyer when there is a problem, so lawyers are bad because they profit off of the misery of others. This objection fails spectacularly. It is not fair that life is such that marriages do not always last forever and people need to get divorced, or that we have to worry about unscrupulous behavior when engaging in real estate transactions. However, lawyers are not to blame for these facts of life; rather, they help facilitate the negotiation of this unfairness.
I suppose that people come by this prejudice against working within a legal or social system honestly; "The Catcher in the Rye" is required reading in many American high schools. We apparently have the sense that individualism is a good quality and that perpetual rebellion is the way to demonstrate it.
I personally hated Holden Caulfield's insipid whining. I was as full of angst as the next teenager, but I was frustrated with his obstinacy. He may have refused to participate in the "phony" adult world, but I was not convinced that his life was at all better because of this decision, or that he was intentionally making a sacrifice in order to do the right thing. He may have been original with his hunting cap and all, but his own life seemed pretty "crappy" to me.
I preferred "SLC Punk!" — James Merendino's 1998 film about a Salt Lake City kid's disillusionment with the punk scene and eventual decision to attend Harvard Law School. Even as a teenager, I had the feeling that joining the professional adult world does not make a person a poseur or a phony.
I do not think we all have to make extreme personal sacrifices to have good values and be decent and authentic human beings. Honestly, I simply do not have the energy for all the protest out there. Many teenagers (and Brown students) seem to wish that they did, but we can only reject so much about our society, and growing up requires us to reach this conclusion. As the protagonist of "SLC Punk!" says, "there's no future in anarchy."
I will not be "selling out" if I go to law school. I will be "buying in" — buying in to the idea that our legal traditions are part of the good American society. This does not involve accepting everything about the American legal system in practice or ceasing to examine it with a critical eye. It simply involves the acknowledgement that there is some good in the system and that starting over in an effort to build a utopia always fails. As adults, we have to start where we are rather than dismiss everything that came before us outright and embrace anarchy like naive teenage punks. If we have problems with the fact that less than five percent of criminal cases went to trial in 2002, for example, it is far more productive to work for change in small ways rather than to lose perspective completely and gripe like Holden Caulfield.
I realized a long time ago that I could do "a lot more damage inside the system than outside of it." It is true that the system will probably damage me too — long hours, boring meetings, some unsavory coworkers — and although that damage is not fair, it is just a part of life.
Emily Breslin '10 is a philosophy concentrator from Harvard, Mass. She can be contacted at emily_breslin (at) brown.edu.