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1997, after three decades spent in academe, politics, motherhood, consulting, and journalism, I went to law school. In the fall, the Maryland bar willing, I’ll begin as a first-year associate with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson. When I first decided to become an attorney, I talked promiscuously about my career plans to lawyers and nonlawyers alike. From lawyers, especially young lawyers, I almost always got the following reaction, in haec verba: “You’re going to what?” And, more hopefully, “You’re not actually going to practice law, are you?” Then, after hearing that I did indeed intend to practice, the final incredulity: “You mean you’re going to be a first-year associate?” I understand their confusion, I really do. Morale in the legal profession is low. More specifically, the life of law firm associates is thought to be so grim and onerous that firms are offering them perks like stress reduction courses and massage therapy. But the question about an associate’s job is, in the immortal words of Henny Youngman, compared to what? Things in the rest of the occupational world are not so great. Things in the law, comparatively speaking, are not so bad. Believe me, I am aware of the many crummy features of modern American legal practice. In our family, in particular, there are no illusions about the spirit animating the enterprise. As a political scientist by training and a journalist by profession, I have written about lawyers and the legal process for many years. I know the horrible truth about how a bill becomes a law. I have seen, up close, prosecutorial misbehavior so egregious that it made its perpetrator the mayor of New York. My husband has had well-publicized dustups with a couple of large law firms with which he was associated. Some of the behavior of these outfits I would classify as evil if it were not so tacky. Our daughter, at the age of 8, decided to become a doctor mainly to escape the family business of law and politics. She is now 18 and has changed neither her intention nor her opinion. Law school, too, has provided some reasons to worry about the future of the legal profession, in spite of fine teachers I have had. For instance, it is evidently a standard feature of law schools today to establish elaborate programs to teach their students legal writing. Georgetown’s version made reference to what they call “modern legal discourse,” which they seem to think is different from English. Don’t get me started. Finally, beyond the quirks of law school, I know that lying in wait for me out in the world of legal practice are many hours of what people call demeaning scut work. Worse, I’m afraid I know, because of my advanced age, that much of this drone stuff could be eliminated if the assigning lawyers knew what they wanted in the first place. But come on, people, how different do you think things are in the rest of the world? My first career was in academe. I taught college for four years. Good schools, smart colleagues, bright kids, lots of independence. Aside from student evaluations, not taken too seriously in those days, no one interfered with what you did in your classroom. Academic life is a godsend for people of a truly scholarly bent. But boy, is it lonely. First, you spend a huge amount of your time teaching — surveying your field in order to prepare a course, organizing the material for presentation, being available to your students. They are very charming, but they are not colleagues. (Some college teachers claim they learn from their students. Don’t believe it for a minute.) You must also endure the nail-on-chalkboard tedium of grading exams. During this exercise your misery is compounded by guilt, which stems from your knowledge that after about the fifth exam you cannot tell one from another and are grading them essentially at random. The whole process would be best borne with the aid of drink. Even when you are actually engaged in research, it is often of the sort that makes the reading of law cases look like heart-thumping excitement. And the activity of scholarly writing is fundamentally different from its legal counterpart. Legal writing is usually produced under pressure as part of a collaborative effort. In scholarly writing, the pressure is largely internal and the activity largely solitary. For those not born or called to scholarship, it is one of earth’s most isolated and isolating enterprises. So I left academe for the world of political action. The foray was supposed to be temporary; I was supposed to go back to the university afterwards. But my department chairman warned me that if I left, I would never come back, because I would get too used to the ringing of the phone. He was right. In the world of politics, I found plenty of action — but not much in the way of coherent thought. In politics, you are excited all the time. In fact, you are convinced that you are at the center of the known universe. For anyone with even a residual sense of the honor and importance of public affairs, there is nothing like it. But this constant state of agitation has its drawbacks. Politics is physically grubby, mainly as a result of no one taking the time to make things orderly or comfortable. True, the political lifestyle no longer seems quite so grungy as it used to; but that is because our standards have declined. Today there shines before us the model of Silicon Valley, populated by pasty-faced, greasy-haired, T-shirted geeks whose idea of a lunch date is a trip to the vending machine. Still, politics is pretty bad. Late nights, bad lighting, worse food, meetings populated by work junkies who don’t want to go home. Politics also tends to prevent you from maintaining order in your personal life. You are tied umbilically to the big-time political figure, elected or appointed, for whom you work. This relationship is an invitation to permanent infantilization. You identify yourself to others by dropping your boss’s name. You can’t plan your schedule because it depends absolutely on what the boss decides to do next. Most important, politics keeps you from ordering your mind. There are always crises, one pouring over the other, each keeping you from giving sustained thought to the one that preceded it. After a while, you consciously or unconsciously welcome the constant interruptions precisely because they keep you from having to think hard about anything. You not only have the attention span of a gerbil, but like it. Journalism is not so bad as politics in this regard. Journalists, after all, make their living by putting words into intelligible sequence. But journalism is ultimately unsatisfying for much the same reasons as those that plague politics. I had a terrific job in journalism, writing anonymous editorials (in which I foamed at the mouth) and signed columns (in which I was the soul of moderation). But if you write a column, say, once a week, you must have an idea once a week. The problem is that most journalism does not allow you to pay attention to anything for long enough to develop a new thought about it. Columnists respond to this dilemma in three ways. Number one, some of them, against all odds, do come up with endless fresh ideas. These people are veritable fonts of novel notions about new ways to look at things. I do not know many such individuals. Number two, some columnists say the same thing again and again. I know more than a few of these people. I tried the strategy myself for a while, until I became fatally embarrassed. This led me straight to option number three, which was to quit. There is another, more general reason why the dearth of new ideas is so acute for today’s journalists, at least those who cover politics. Political journalism, which feeds off public events, almost never transcends them. That is, it almost never becomes more significant than the happenings that gave rise to it. In times of great public excitement, political journalism is also exciting. But in times when politics is not exciting, political journalism is stuck. It has no intellectual momentum of its own. Today is just such a time. The most interesting events take place far from conventional politics in, fields such as business and science. Trends in these areas are difficult for even a journalistic specialist to cover compellingly and are largely inaccessible to political journalists. In contrast with business or science, American politics in recent years has been defined mainly by its scandals. And (as I discovered in writing a book on the subject) when you’ve seen one scandal, you’ve seen them all. Now take another look at the practice of law. Having worked at a number of firms, I’ve discovered that one of law’s virtues (apart from the undoubted benefit of being able to earn a decent living) is that you can strike a balance between solitude and collaboration, thought and action. Law is a cerebral profession. In practicing it, you depend on the quality of your own brain. But you do not have to do all your reasoning in isolation. The converse is also true. Even though you will usually work with others, you can — with a little care in choosing your colleagues — escape the worst of the team-think that afflicts most large organizations. You also have choices in combining thought with action. Though your job essentially consists of thinking, the thought does not float away into inconsequence. Conversely, even though the thinking you do will be in the service of some course of action, you often have the opportunity actually to learn something about something. You may even be able to think about it long enough to generate an original idea on the subject. This may seem a sanguine view of the law, but it comes from having seen a lot of compared-to-what. Raising a child, for instance, puts your priorities forcibly in order. The idea that a partner may yell at you loses its power to terrify. (Your kid choking on a grape — now that’s terrifying.) You have seen real scut work, and being asked to comb through 50 state statutes does not qualify. In the same way, when you have pored over reams of nineteenth-century census records looking for population trends in large metropolitan areas, your threshold for boredom rises way, way above the level of most legal research. When you have been a consultant and forced to deal with the praetorian guards that surround most corporate CEOs, general counsel’s offices look benign by comparison. Most important, it strikes me that the law, as opposed to other disciplines I have encountered, is full of enduringly fascinating puzzles. This opinion, right or wrong, is probably the mark of someone who should have been a lawyer in the first place. I know that I have advantages in picking my way through the landmines of legal life. Chief among them are age and the friendship of lawyers who know the difference between a good attorney and a mediocre one, between a firm run by tolerably decent human beings and its opposite. I also know that many younger law students do not have these advantages. They do not know why they want to become lawyers. They will go to work for firms that place little value on decency and that want the type of bright associates they can use as legal cannon fodder. These associates will acquire large salaries. Then they will acquire spouses, houses, cars, kids, private schools, boats, and psychotherapists to match. They will wake up at the age of 40 wanting to jump out a window. If someone they know decides to go to law school, they will react, “You’re going to what?” Maybe the law, like youth, is wasted on the young. Suzanne Garment is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, class of 2000. She is an editor of the legal periodical, The Green Bag . In September Garment will become a first year associate at the Washington law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson. She is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.”

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