Answering Your Most Burning Questions
Google analytics is a great tool. Among other things, it shows the search engine queries people use to find this blog. Which is a good way of figuring out who its audience is, and what they need to know.
The queries aren’t as entertaining as they are over at Popehat, but then again neither is this blog.
Nor are they all that varied. In fact, just looking at the top 2000 searches so far this month, almost every single one is a variation on a few basic themes. These are the questions people apparently want answered right now. So I’ll address them briefly — very briefly — here.
1. Should I become a lawyer? / Do I have what it takes to be a lawyer?
To answer questions like these, you first have to understand what lawyers do. Once you know that, it should be easy to figure out whether law is a good fit for you — and whether you’re a good fit for the law.
There are lots of different kinds of lawyers — corporate, administrative, family, criminal, personal injury, insurance, tax, international, you name it. And there are lots of different kinds of practices — from the solo hanging out his own shingle, to the boutique firm specializing in a particular field of law, to government agencies, to volunteer organizations, to in-house staff at a company, to megafirms representing big corporations. There are dozens of ways to practice law.
But no matter what kind of lawyer you are, your job description is the same: People come to you with situations that are extremely important to them. They put their trust in you to take care of it. They entrust their lives and livelihoods to you, to make decisions and take actions on their behalf. Whether you’re drafting a contract to protect their interests, figuring out the right path through a maze of regulations, or defending them in a courtroom, you have been entrusted to handle an important part of another person’s life.
You help them by understanding the law. Which is complex, intricate, sometimes bizarre, and often baffling. Your job is to master what the law is, what the rules are, why the law is the way it is, and how it affects your client. This doesn’t necessarily require brilliance, but it does take a lot of time and study. Study that doesn’t end with law school.
You also help them by exercising sound judgment. This is a rare quality, and is not innate. A corporate lawyer may have time to think an issue through, while a trial lawyer may have to think on his feet, but both need to be able to act wisely. This requires a combination of deep understanding, intelligence, and character.
This can be hard work. The hours can be long. The stress can be severe. There’s a reason why lawyers suffer from depression and alcoholism more than most.
And the client’s interests always come first. Your bank account, your comfort, your personal goals must not be allowed to conflict with your client’s interests.
The pay varies a lot. But unless you’re one of the lucky few, you’re not going to get rich doing this. Most lawyers could be earning more money doing something else. Seriously. Even the sliver of lawyers making big money at the big firms could be making even more if they were the ones doing the business deals, instead of just getting paid to help the deals happen. Depending on what part of the country you live in, the average lawyer makes anywhere from $40,000 to $140,000 per year. Factor in cost of living, and the pay isn’t amazing. $140,000 in Manhattan or San Francisco is solidly middle-class. (For comparison, according to salary.com the average corporate secretary in Manhattan makes more than that.)
There are lots of miserable lawyers. The most miserable are the ones who went into the law for a paycheck. If you want to become a lawyer for the money, you’re setting yourself up for an unhappy life. There are plenty of happy lawyers who make a good living at it, but they’re not happy because of their bank account. They’re happy because they’re doing what they love, and they’re good at it.
So if you want to become a lawyer because it’s a steady job with good pay, then no, you should not become a lawyer.
And if you want to become a lawyer because you can’t think of anything else to do with your life, then no, you should not become a lawyer.
And if you want to become a lawyer because you like to argue, then no, you should not become a lawyer.
But if you want to become a lawyer because you actually like law and you like working hard and you exercise good sense, and you sincerely care about busting your ass to help someone else, then yes. You should be a lawyer.
2. Is law school right for me? / Should I go to law school?
After reading the answer to question 1, do you actually want to be a lawyer? Do you want to be a lawyer for the right reasons? If not, then no, law school is not right for you. You should not go to law school.
“But don’t people get law degrees who don’t want to become lawyers?” Sure, but it’s kind of a waste of time. It’s not going to open other doors, and it’s not a place to kill time while you’re waiting to find yourself. (Hint: Look down. That’s you reading this.) Law school is vocational training for people who need to learn how to master the law. That’s it. It gives you some basics of what the law is and how it works, and teaches you how to figure it out for yourself down the road when you’re actually practicing. The occasional clinical program and moot court may also teach some rudiments of practicing law, as well. It doesn’t really prepare you to do anything else. Would you drop a couple hundred grand to go to plumbing school for shits and giggles?
If you do sincerely want to be a lawyer, and you think you have what it takes to do the job, that’s most of your answer right there. But there are a few other things to consider.
One is how good a student you are. People who don’t do well in law school tend not to do well as lawyers. There are occasional exceptions, but in general this is a solid rule of thumb. After all, if you can’t handle the basic stuff in school, what makes you think you’ll be better at the tricky stuff of real life?
And if you’re not doing all that great in undergrad, what makes you think you’ll suddenly become better at being a student when the work gets even more demanding?
Here’s what it takes to be a top law student: Time, Diligence, Perseverance, and Time.
You don’t get As in law school by being bright. You don’t get As by cramming for exams. You don’t get As by being able to bullshit your way through a paper. You get an A by putting in the time starting on day 1 to really, deeply understand what the hell is going on, and being really really good at explaining it.
The people who do best in law school aren’t always the smartest, or the best test-takers. The people who do best in law school are the ones who are the best at being students. They do their reading and take notes on what they read. They pay attention in class and take notes on what they hear. Then they process all that information and review those notes at the end of the day. On the weekends, they organize what they’ve figured out into a usable outline. They track down other sources to try and figure out the stuff they didn’t understand. They talk issues through with classmates and professors. Weeks before the final (the one grade for the class), they’re practicing taking old exams, to get used to dealing with the issues. None of this is a function of intelligence. It’s all about putting in the time and knowing how to learn for real.
If you’re not the kind of person who does that, you’re probably going to have a bad time. You’re not going to do well. And if you’re not going to do well, then you really shouldn’t go in the first place. You’re just wasting your life and your money.
If you are that kind of person, however, then you’ll probably do well. Law school will be worthwhile.
So the short answer is, if you want to be a lawyer for the right reasons, and if you have the right kind of personality and character to be a lawyer, and if you’re really good at being a true student, then yes, law school is right for you.
Otherwise, you’re not going to be a happy camper. Find something else, and actually enjoy your life.
3. Does an undercover have to tell you if he’s a cop? / Can the police lie to you?
4. Are New York City’s gun laws unconstitutional?
5. Are sex offender registries unjust?
The thing with registries is that the law doesn’t treat them as a punishment, which conveniently places them outside the realm of criminal law — and its attendant rights.
Sex offender registries are there because recidivism among sexual predators is pretty high. A sexual urge is more compelling, after all, than an inclination to steal. The thinking is, if Joe Predator gets his jollies from raping little kids, he’s still going to want to do that once he gets out of prison. So make sure the community is forewarned. It’s not about punishing Joe; it’s about protecting everyone else from a likely threat.
Taken at face value, that’s not a terribly shocking proposition. If it’s true that there’s a strong likelihood that Joe will try it again, it makes sense to let the affected community know of the risk.
There are many problems with this, however.
The biggest problem is that you get registered as a sex offender for things that have nothing to do with being a sexual predator. A 17-year-old girl who has oral sex with her 16-year-old boyfriend winds up on the registry. A respectable citizen who takes an emergency leak behind a tree winds up on the registry. A man who visited a prostitute winds up on the registry. A college kid streaking at night winds up on the registry.
It’s not about rapists and child molesters. And yet that’s what all these people are publicly identified as.
Their lives are ruined. Their reputations are shot forever. Try to get a job when you’re tarred as a sexual predator. Try dating anyone with access to the internet. Try to make friends, rent a home, have any place in decent society.
When you did nothing wrong.
It’s cruel and unusual punishment for those who aren’t actual threats. But it’s not treated that way because it’s not technically punishment. It’s just a civil, regulatory process. So the constitutional protections that would otherwise apply don’t count.
But that’s intellectually dishonest. The punitive effect is real, regardless of the technical intent. For non-predators, the punitive effect clearly outweighs any other aspect of the registry. For them, it is nothing less than criminal punishment that is cruel, bizarre and vastly disproportionate to the harm done.
But try getting a politician to argue in favor of reasonable reform. Who can hope to get re-elected when one’s opponent can crow that you tried to make it easier for rapists and child abusers to attack again? In real life, the registries just get broader and broader, including more and more things that have less and less to do with sexual offenses.
If that ain’t unjust, I don’t know what is.