“Professions are performed only by individuals, and the integrity of professional practice is not easily isolated from the integrity of a whole character, the habits of valuation, judgment and perception that guide a person through the world.” —Jedediah Purdy,“For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today”
Good lawyers, lawyers with integrity, have an interest in the law that extends beyond their retirement date. This is because good lawyers understand that practicing law is not just a job, defined by its attendant paycheck, but a profession with public and moral responsibilities that survive them. Thus, good lawyers care deeply about the young lawyers who will rise to take their place. And because of that, good lawyers are very worried these days.
It is hard to imagine a seemingly less auspicious time to begin the study of law. We have all seen the stats. Law school applications have declined by almost half in just the last few years. Many law school grads cannot find a job and cannot pay the massive student loan debt many of them graduate with. Law schools are cutting the size of their classes and the highest scorers on the LSAT are disproportionately choosing not to actually attend law school. The lives of most of the “luckiest” law grads, those who score jobs as associates in top law firms, are lives of unremitting, soul-sucking toil, with little prospect of attaining the coveted partnership.
Then there is the problem of those who are actually practicing law successfully. It pains me to say that too many lawyers are not particularly admirable people. Too many have become ends-versus-means people. They have lost sight of the connections between how they practice law, their own personal integrity, and the very concept of justice.
And yet, perversely, I want to argue that there has never been a better or more important time to go to law school and to become a lawyer. Prospects for the accumulation of lucre may have faded, but the central importance of the role played by lawyers in making our democracy work has never been greater. Here are some of the reasons why I think this is so:
All the great social and political issues of our times will be decided by lawyers. Just pick up, or log on to, any decent newspaper and you’ll see what I mean. Every major story, every one, is in some sense a story about lawyers. One may think this is something to be regretted, but it is a fact nonetheless. If you want to be at the center of the action, you want to be a lawyer.
Lawyers have become society’s conscience. Again, one may regret that this is the case, but I believe that increasingly lawyers help guide and steer our political and economic institutions into doing not only the legal thing, but the right thing. You ought to want to be on point.
Being licensed to practice law means you can always be useful and helpful. People and organizations always need lawyers, even if they cannot always afford one. The opportunity to be of service to people who need you is a rare and valuable thing.
You will never be alone. If you decide to become a lawyer—a good lawyer, one with integrity—you will find other lawyers who share your sense of the profession and its obligations to others. Together, you can make the world a better place. Case by case, deal by deal, client by client. Isn’t that what you want?
“Work”, Jedadiah Purdy observes, “should affirm our lives as things decent in possibility, against the keen perception of their possibilities of indecency.” I believe the practice of law presents you with an incredible opportunity to affirm the possibility of decency in our lives. I don’t think there is much more that we can ask of our work, of our lives. If that sounds appealing, then go to law school. We’ll be waiting for you.