BY ROGER PAO
“Why do you want to go to law school?” Before coming to HLS, I was asked this question, or a variation of it, more times that I’d care to remember. More likely than not, by the sixth or seventh time, I managed to develop what I felt was a socially acceptable response, benign and vague enough to be beyond reproach.
Typically, my response was, “The job market’s awful now, so I guess it’s a good time for law school,” and that usually helped get me off the topic, even if it seemed dissatisfactory to me. If pressed, I’d answer that many areas of law interest me, and now was too early to tell – an answer that’s apparently not too uncommon.
But my gut feeling is that, for many of us, none of these reasons effectively characterize the deeper essence of why we are here. I wouldn’t say that any of them are untrue or unreal, but I think that, for at least some of us, there was also a larger, more profound purpose that drove us back for another three years of backpacks and classes.
For me, this “larger purpose” has often been difficult to articulate, which may partially account for my reluctance to do so. I imagine that it relates to a desire for goodness and justice, words that seem way too heavy for me to toss around lightly. I’m not sure about the exact reason behind this heaviness, but it’s there. Maybe it has something to do with my fear of sounding “holier than thou.” Maybe, in a society that often appears to value cleverness and irony, I somehow suspect that a more sincere response would be shot down with cynicism disguised as humor. Or maybe it has to do with my own uncertainties in attempting to ascertain, balance and harmonize the realistic and idealistic.
But even in private, the “larger purpose” of our being here can be hard to pin down. Perhaps we were meant to become lawyers in order to help people and make the world a better place, but how? If I’m barely managing to hold my own meager life as a newly minted law student together how could I even begin to picture the dauntingly distant prospects of actually helping another human being and achieving some sense of justice in the world as a lawyer? What does it even mean to “achieve justice?” The answers are far from obvious to me.
I was given a glimpse into the possibilities of a “larger purpose” during the recent 1L public service orientation, which was attended by almost half the 1L class. As he apparently does year after year, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative gave a stunningly brilliant speech that delved into his work with death row inmates, and perhaps more importantly, into the importance of trying to achieve goodness and justice in an often cruel and unjust world.
After his speech, I felt a renewed sense of confidence in my decision to come to law school, but I was still left with the same fundamental question: “Why do I want to go to law school?”
In all likelihood, no one will ask me this question again. I’m already in law school, and most people will either presume that I know the answer already or that there’s no hope in trying to save me anymore. But I never want to lose sight of the question. Gradually, I’m learning more and more here to hopefully one day answer it to my satisfaction. And perhaps I’ve already learned that we each have to find and shape our reasons for being a law student, an ever-changing “why-ness” that cannot be reduced to a simple one-liner.
Roger Pao’s commentary on the 1L experience will appear throughout the year.