Look Mommy! I Got a Certificate! a/k/a Why Are Lawyers Such Dicks

Here we are: the exalted, brilliant, magical beings. Marvel at the power of our words, tremble as our heels clatter past you mere mortals cowering against the wall. Bow down before our plaques and certificates. We are the ones chosen from up high: we are the lawyers. And we are dicks.

Because when the People’s Therapist asked in his blog post last week why lawyers are such dicks, I can point him to the prime cause for our dickness: law school. Essentially, lawyers are dicks for two reasons. First, because of the types of people law schools attract; and second, because of how law school then treats those people. Allow me to explain, but be forewarned: mass generalities lie ahead.

Law schools often attract aimless-but-bright overgrown adolescents, who lack an identifiable talent or skill.   Many of us went to law school a year or so after graduating from college. We did well as undergrads, but nobody called us prodigies; we had no special talents. We endured rather than enjoyed science and statistics. We sparkled a bit in English Lit and PoliSci. Nevertheless, college was a means to an end rather than a journey of discovery and enlightenment. And finally, after four (sometimes more) years of homework and drunken nights that we remembered only in snippets the next day, came graduation, after which, we were sure, awaited our destined greatness.

That year or two after college is how long it took for us to tumble off the high of the infinitely glamorous opportunities we expected would come from our liberal arts degrees and to find not much more waiting for us than this: a cubicle and a desk in a call center; wings and beers and Shonda Rhimes, or Bravo nights in shared apartments with similarly dispirited friends, all of us getting fatter and paler as we grew ever more despondent. And the memories began creeping in, of innumerable urgings from ancient aunts and uncles at family dinners – crumbs of stuffing perpetually dangling off their lips, dandruff on their shoulders, odors of their breath and food and bodies keeping us a safe two feet from them – that we’re so smart and we love to argue so much: we would make such great lawyers! So when our dream of liberal-arts greatness died on the bonfire we built from our undergrad class notes and leather graduation gifts, we defaulted to law school.

It was from this existential morass that we ordered an LSAT prep book from Amazon, and we worked our way through the practice multiple-choice questions and essays. We watched our scores on the practice tests climb and we gradually felt a warm trickle of something; hope perhaps. We felt it ooze its way from our depressed little brains and spread like a lukewarm syrup. And we thought, aha. This, finally, is my calling. This is what I am good at. This law thing? This is my special purpose. Newly emboldened, we pursued our single goal: law school admission.

So these pitiful souls are many of us who go to law school. Smart kids who drifted through a liberal arts undergrad education, floated into the real, workaday world, and found ourselves merely one of many. Our delicate little egos, starved from months in a cubicle, rejoiced at the acceptance letters.

And herein comes the second part of the equation: lawyers are dicks because of how we’re treated in law school. Through intense immersion, law school separates law students from non-law students; we interpret this separation as elevation.

Giddy with the headiness of being desired by a post-grad venue, we arrive at our shiny new law school, and are immediately gifted with swag and pizza. We are referred to as colleagues; we are drawn into long, serious debates about minutia; we learn to drop Latin phrases into normal conversation. We sleep in the library, and we highlight and outline and read. We do this a lot. In the beginning, we try to explain to our non-law-school friends the exhilaration of the commerce clause and what contra proferentem really means. Nobody really cares, but in our minds, they just don’t understand it. And so we detach even more from the real world, focusing solely on the law-school world.

Then, as if the incessant and intensive studying weren’t enough, profs and admins begin to remind us that we need to appear well-rounded on our resumes, so we join law reviews, moot courts, and mock trial groups. Some of us join groups like LSA (Law Students’ Association), LASLA (Law Association of Students Learning Law), or LASLSL (Law Association of Students Learning Student Law) and some of us take on leadership roles. We apply for awards and scholarships, and receive a sprinkling of cash: $500, maybe $750, sometimes more. But with each new membership and each new award or leadership role, we get something that brings us even more validation: a certificate.

Behold the certificate: parchment paper, fancy Roman font, extolling our “outstanding contribution” or “excellence” in something. Our names writ large, middle names spelled out in full. No abbreviations here. No, the certificate is too important, with its gold-foiled logos and its “to whomever these presents shall come.” We collect these certificates and plaques; we dutifully frame them; we add each new honor to our resumes and our LinkedIn pages. Gradually, we start to believe our own press, and our egos grow.

That’s what happened to us. That, my friends, is why so many lawyers are such dicks. So when you meet a lawyer who falls into this category, please don’t judge. Try to understand this poor creature who derives his self esteem from a plaque or a wall certificate. Pity him.

And a word of advice to my fellow lawyers. I’m not talking about being humble here, because the word humble implies that we are somehow above normal, non-lawyer people. We need to remember that our job is just a job like any other. We provide a service to people who pay us. We struggle to keep our clients happy to ensure they come back to us. Nothing more than that. Try to remember two simple rules when you catch yourself being that lawyer. First, stop believing your own press. And second, don’t be a dick. (Of course don’t be an a-hole either. More sage advice here: http://abovethelaw.com/2015/05/dont-be-aholes-the-graduation-speech-you-must-see/)

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