My Fake Law School Commencement Address

by Ben Carter in

Here’s a speech I’ll never be allowed to give, but that law students desperately need to hear:

Good morning, thank you for inviting me to give the commencement address to the University of Kentucky College of Law’s class of 2012. This is going to be a real downer.

I don’t want to be this guy. 90% of this speech is just going to be bleak. I can’t help it. Most of what’s happened to you and most of what you’re facing is bleak. 10% is going to be hopeful. I want you to remember that. Hold on to that 10%, because we’re going to start with the other 90.

Here’s the situation: many of you do not have a job. Many of you have massive debt–hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Many of you–most of you–have no marketable skills to speak of, even those of you with jobs have been hired mostly for your potential.

It’s no secret that the prospects for graduating attorneys have never been worse. I have good news and bad news. The good news is: as an attorney, you can employ yourself. The bad news is: nothing in your education has prepared you to employ yourself.

If you’re like me, you went to law school because you graduated from college and didn’t really know what you wanted to do with your life. Law school seemed like a good idea because it would “teach you to think like a lawyer.” I didn’t know what this meant before law school, but I was tired of thinking like a Capitol Hill intern slinging tacos at night. “Thinking like a lawyer” had the added bonus of the tantalizing lure of exclusivity. I could join a club and, once in, the mysteries of society would be revealed to me.

In fact, in my admissions essay, I explained that because our culture is a language I expected to learn its grammar in law school.

I didn’t.

And I didn’t learn how to “think like a lawyer.” I still don’t know what this means. Unless “thinking like a lawyer” means thinking, “Holy crap, I only have one lifetime to pay off this debt. I need to get paid!”

As far as I can tell, law school exists to put future lawyers into debt and give them few practical skills in the process. Under a massive debt load and having little ability to actually practice law, graduating law students have little choice but to apprentice themselves in the highest paying job they can find.

The other function of law school is to make you feel okay about this situation. To make it seem natural, orderly, logical.

It’s not.

Learning to “think like a lawyer” too often means “coming to understand that what you do in this world doesn’t matter.” Law school is a process of divorcing you and your values from what you do professionally. Early on, you learn that you are not your client, that you are not what you do. Law school teaches you to think of yourself as merely a participant in an adversarial system. This is not a valueless position. “Participating in an adversarial system” is framed as a higher good than actual good.

You have been told that representing poor people is good because “everyone needs representation.” The reason poor people need representation, you’re told, is because our system cannot work if both sides are not represented. You are not told that poor people need representation because poor people are vulnerable, because they’re more likely to be preyed upon, because they have blood and sinew, mother and sons.

Maybe things have changed, but during my 3 years of law school I was never once asked to consider the law’s role in keeping people poor. We are rarely asked to look behind the law; rather, we are taught to get the black letter law and get out.

Don’t ask why the law is what it is. Just learn what it is and move on.

For those of you who think that being a good lawyer, that thinking like a lawyer, simply requires you to spot the issue, know the rule, apply the rule, and come to a conclusion, I am truly sorry for you. For those of you who went to law school hoping to learn how to meld your values with the practical skills lawyers need to help their clients, I am truly sorry.

For those of you who came to law school to “make a difference” or “fight the good fight” being told that you are merely a “participant in an adversarial system” is a violent challenge to your worldview. If you were miserable in law school, I want you to consider the possibility that this confrontation with this amoral vision of the lawyer’s role in society is partly to blame for that misery.

Being told that it doesn’t really matter what side you’re on is enough to jade just about anyone.

You are not the same person as the person you were 3 years ago. Ask yourself if you are more jaded now than you were before. Ask yourself if you feel less excited about the work you want to do in the world now than you did before. Ask yourself if you think your estimation of the difference you can make in this world has diminished in the last 3 years.

If you feel jaded, if you feel a lack of enthusiasm for the work you are about to do, I want you to consider the possibility that law school is partly to blame. Your challenge now is to learn how to be yourself. What I really mean is your challenge now is to remember how to be yourself. Remember who you were before you viewed yourself as a participant in an adversarial system, before you were told that what you are is a hired gun, a mercenary.

If it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, then that’s what you are: a mercenary. If you view yourself as merely a participant in an adversarial system, than a rational self-maximizer in that system will side with the moneyed every time. Choosing sides only requires learning which side can pay you the highest hourly rate.

What an awful lesson, but it’s one of law school’s most important lesson. It will provide many of you a lot of comfort.

I am here to tell you that you’re more than a mercenary, that choosing sides because of your values, because it’s “who you are” is okay. It’s more than okay. It’s a sign of being human.

I am here to talk to the people who think it still matters what they do on this Earth.

Before I talk about what to do now–now that you’re in debt and facing uncertain job prospects– I want to talk about what should have happened in law school, what should be happening now.

In law school, you should’ve spent your first year developing the practical skills you will need as a lawyer: writing, yes, speaking, yes, but also the active listening you will need to use with your clients and your partners. You should’ve been taught in contexts that simultaneously taught you the real world effect of civil and criminal procedure, contracts, constitutional law.

You should’ve spent your second year apprenticing with practicing attorneys during the day and learning the nuts and bolts of running a law office (accounting, technology, ethics, advertising, Getting Things Done) in the evening.

In your third year, you should’ve taken jurisprudence, electives, classes that encouraged you to reflect on the sociological forces that mold the law, and classes that asked you to confront emerging challenges to our society in the 21st century. Classes that explore modern problems and the potential for lawyers and the law to be part of a solution: prescription drug abuse, the foreclosure crisis, jail overcrowding, immigration. The solutions to these problems probably won’t come from winning a case in court; they’ll come from focused policy research, community organizing, lobbying, and legislation. Law school did not prepare you for this work.

We’re talking about what should have happened. What should have happened is that you should have spent about one-third what you did on law school. Your law school debt should be 33% of what it is. That’s the way it used to be. College is now 3 times more expensive than it was 30 years ago. It’s more expensive in large part because for decades your parents have tolerated declining support for public education, preferring instead to keep their taxes as low as possible. The debt you will be living with for decades is just a small piece of a larger generational war being waged in America today.

If your mom or dad is an attorney, chances are their debt load was far less than what yours is. A law student in 1986 paid $1,645 a semester ($3,226 adjusted for inflation); today, that student pays $16,021—a 400% increase.

Your debt has real implications for the kind of job you can take after law school and your first job has real implications for the kind of expertise and experience you develop. In other words, your debt will dictate who you are and what work you do.


Unless you commit today to live as frugally as possible for as long as it takes to have the financial freedom to pursue the work to which you feel called. Your job is to get out of debt as quickly as possible. Get out of your job as much learning and experience as possible, but get out.

You are not a mercenary. You choose sides because you care who wins. Because it matters who wins. Because if your client doesn’t win, justice isn’t done. You are not some cog in a justice-dispensing machine. You are a human being. You have values. You know right and wrong. You have a compassion for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the marginalized that compels you to act. You have a God whose claims on your life are undeniable.

Law school taught you to forget yourself and ignore others. It encouraged you to divorce yourself from what you do. This is why so many lawyers are unhappy. I believe we are on Earth to do good work, to alleviate suffering, and seek justice for the oppressed. I believe that what we do matters.

The bad news is you are in debt and facing the worst economy in human memory. The good news is that if you can remember yourself and live frugally, there is no limit to the amount of good work you can do with your law degree. Law school was a miserable experience for me, but being a lawyer is more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. And fun!

What a joy, what a blessing it is to be a lawyer, to have the power to bring wrong-doers to court and seek justice for your clients. To have a loving family and meaningful work to do: can we reasonably ask for anything more from life?

Remember who you are. What you do matters.