15 years hence

BY ROGER PAO

WHO WILL WE BE fifteen years from now? It’s often hard to imagine, but our 1L section recently got a glimpse into our potential future selves. During reunions weekend, Professor Hay, my section’s leader, gathered together about a dozen of his classmates from the HLS Class of ’88 to talk to us about themselves and their lives as lawyers. Each of the panelists introduced himself, which took an hour, and there was an hour’s worth of questions. It was fascinating, though more in the “profound human nature” sense than in the “happily entertaining” sense.

First, there was the fact that all of the panelists were middle-aged white male lawyers, most in litigation and a couple in politics. I’m only bringing up the fact that they were all white males because Professor Hay and several others brought it up themselves, and it became sort of an issue. (Professor Hay had tried to get some women on the panel, but none of them could make it.) More specifically, the lack of female panelists was troublesome when one of the women in our class asked about family life, and the all-male panel answered it somewhat awkwardly; one of the panelists’ wives, who was also a lawyer but had not graduated from HLS, volunteered to help out by giving a female perspective.

But here’s the interesting “profound human nature” part. Most of the panelists’ lives and personalities seemed to be infused with an odd severity, and their careers generally sounded dull and time-consuming. It was kind of sad. They said they worked long hours, they didn’t get rich and they had little or no time to spend with their families. Perhaps most interestingly, one guy said something like, “We didn’t used to be dull middle-aged white men who’re all alike one another.” And that was the thing: They seemed to have lost their humanity.

That’s a rather strong assessment to make, and by no means does it apply to all of the panelists, especially not the individual who made that insightful observation. By “loss of humanity,” I mean that many of them appeared to have lost their dreams, their introspection, the ability to stand outside of themselves, their wonder, their sensitivity and the curiosity and free time to explore their personal interests.

When one student asked the panelists what they did outside of work and family, and what their general interests were, none of them could answer the question. They just ignored it – not on purpose but quite naturally – and went back to discussing work and family. It was all work and family, and for most of them, it was only work. One guy worked twelve hours a day and conceded that he had little time to spend with his children. Another was divorced (which he attributed partly to spending too much time at work) and was now forced to fly across the country just to see his son once a month. Another said he loved his family, but with his busy schedule, it was difficult to see how he could really make any time for them. They suggested it was probably worse for women, many of whom, according to them, were compelled to quit their jobs once they started families.

Perhaps the scariest thing is that they all appeared quite happy with their lives. They couldn’t tell that at least some of us were a bit thrown off by the realism of it all, even if it wasn’t a total surprise. The only people who seemed to be able to stand outside of themselves were Professor Hay and the guy who made the “we’re all alike each other now” remark. Perhaps not coincidentally, the latter was also the only one who had attended Professor Hay’s class beforehand, and I think he sensed that the panelists’ passions for the intricacies of patent law, for example, didn’t really translate to many of us.

That said, I appreciated the panelists’ frankness about their careers and lives. I appreciated the fact that they held mirrors up to us to show us the persons that we could become. To some extent, our youth distances us from them, but even youth does not shield us from the knowledge that people change over time. When I look around our 1L classes, I find it difficult to envision us as bona fide lawyers and older, harder, wiser human beings with a different kind of simplicity and sophistication. Will we turn out just like them? Who knows?

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