Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Should Libertarians Go to Law School? (Part II)

2)Okay, so I'm not interested in law firms. I'm more interested in public interest law, journalism, or think tankery. What can you tell me about those fields?

Every once in a while, I get approached by more idealistic young libertarians, who profess that they understand the trade-offs listed above and therefore want to do something else. They usually mention 1)libertarian/conservative public interest law (often IJ), 2)think tankery; journalism, and/or other punditry; or 3)legal academia. I usually sigh with relief when these people approach me, because they're much more thoughtful and interesting than the "think like a winner" types. So I'll devote this next post to talking about some of these alternatives.

1)Legal academia – IHS actually wrote a nice screed length pamphlet directed at conservatives and libertarians on how to crack legal academia. agree with around 95% of what appears there, so I see little need to reprise it here. (N.b. that the site appears to be down at the moment; I'll update with a link later. I swear that this thing exists, though. Really; I have read it.)

2)Libertarian/conservative public interest law: First, I highly recommend Steven Teles’ The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement to anyone falling into this category. It’ll tell you a great deal about the history of the specific groups in which you’re interested, more than I can possibly recount here. He notes in particular that the early conservative legal groups were founded much later than their left-wing equivalents. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the right’s historic aversion to “judicial activism.” What this means for you is that there are still far fewer conservative and libertarian public interest firms than there are left-wing such organizations. Walk through any law school’s public interest career fair if you don’t believe me.

It also means that walking into your law school’s career services office and announcing “I am a libertarian who would like to go into public interest law” will attract roughly the same stares as it would if you went in there and announced “I am a monkey who would like to eat bananas with a straw.” That is, the resources that most law schools have in place to help aspiring public interest types may not be of much use to you. The career services officers in charge of public interest advising, the student groups who work to raise money, etc. are all likely to be extremely left of center in ways that you will find confusing and alienating. Some will respect your idiosyncratic beliefs – some of the left types I met in law school respected mine – but not everyone will be so kind. On the other hand, many of the conservatives and libertarians you meet will be pro-business types who still go around mouthing platitudes about the importance of thinking like winners. They will strike you as insufferable tools, and you may feel quite alone sometimes.

I don’t discourage aspiring libertarian public interest law types from law school. (See #2 above about unclean hands.) But I do ask you to acknowledge how few slots there are for you, and also to have some more easily attained alternatives in mind. That is, if IJ is a 96/100 life outcome for you, would working at a large firm and taking on a couple of pro bono cases be at least an 87/100 outcome? If your paper credentials are insufficient for that, what about being a public defender? If you can’t describe a couple alternate outcomes that are at least 87/100 desirable, you might likely be happier working in some non-legal capacity in the libertarian or conservative movement.

Oh, n.b. that things like loan forgiveness and debt repayment are also issues. Because that’s covered elsewhere, though, no need to rehash it here.

3)Think tankery, journalism, and/or punditry – I am admittedly lumping three distinct paths together. I do it because a young libertarian lawyer hoping to break one of these fields faces essentially the same challenges.

There are lawyers working in each of these fields, to be sure. There will continue to be lawyers working in each of these. The difficulty is that a law degree isn’t necessary to break into one of these, and may not be worth the opportunity cost. Again, the calculus varies immensely from individual to individual, and I can’t say whether the opportunity cost is worth it in yours.

A word more about think tanks in particular: you may have noticed that the senior people who work there are supposed to be experts in something narrow. Think tanks hardly hide this: several of the prominent ones bill their staff members on their websites as “experts.” The problem is that law schools, in contrast to most other graduate programs, aren’t out to produce experts in anything. They’re out to produce generalists, people who know a little bit about many different areas of the law.

And this actually makes perfect sense. As a lawyer, you’re supposed to know what to do when a client walks into your office and tells you some long and complicated story of woe. Any particular tale of woe might touch on several completely discrete branches of law; a story of a business transaction gone awry, for example, might invoke agency law, the law of commercial paper, and the law of contracts. So law schools try to equip their students with broad rather than deep knowledge of particular branches of law. In your first year, at any law school in the country, you’re likely to take the same eight to ten basic courses. Though you have more freedom to take electives afterwards, most students still fill up their schedules with meat and potatoes courses like Business Associations, Evidence, Fundamentals of Tax, and Administrative Law. Interestingly, non-lawyers tend to overestimate the desirability of specialization in law school: I often got asked what type of law I was majoring in and such.

So an aspiring wonk in law school will find herself pulled in two directions. The wonk in her will want to drill down on a narrow specialty. Yet everything in her environment – logistical pressures, classmates’ inclinations – will push her toward thinking like a generalist. It’s no wonder that most lawyers who go into think tanks do so only after years of practice, when they’ve had an opportunity to build up knowledge in one particular topic area.

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