Given the popularity of my postings on the law, generally and regarding specific topics, and given the inclination of so many people to ask me about becoming a lawyer and what it’s like, I thought I would write something about legal education in America. It won’t be pretty but it will paint a good overall picture of the modern training lawyers undergo. First, however, I thought I would write something about the undergraduate experience which precedes law school. That’s what this article concerns. It is mainly drawn from my experiences at the University of Georgia in the early – mid 1990’s.
As my personal collegiate experience is somewhat dated (ugh….), I have tried to incorporate a little news concerning more modern college education as well. So, this piece is really about my personal muddling with an updated, universal background. I hope it serves as a guide of sorts for those entering college or already there and struggling to decide what to make of the situation. For those you who have already completed your formal education, I hope this resonates with you. It’s up to us to enlighten the younger generations so that they may achieve their full potential.
College today is much the same as it was back then. Modern students have a wealth of on-line information to assist them in picking the right school and program for them. I wished we had had that. I recently stumbled across a fantastic website that goes beyond the normal rankings and summary guides. Check out this site: http://www.whatwilltheylearn.com/. It’s an initiative from numerous alumni to assess what, if anything, colleges teach these days. The results are eye-opening. Of the 1000 or so schools surveyed only 21 got an “A” based on required core curriculum. I’m proud to say my alma mater was among them. Several famous and pricy schools did not fare so well. Watch their video too.
Back to yours truly. I started college in 1993 immediately after graduating from high school. I applied to and was accepted to three colleges (I think it was three, I’m lazy). I got accepted to Mississippi State University (in my original home town) and the University of Georgia, where many of my relatives attended. I think the other school was UVA; I attended classes for a week as a high schooler and was most impressed.
MSU offered me a scholarship, I think it was a full ride. My dad had been a professor there and apparently they needed someone from Georgia. I probably should have accepted but, given my poor choices in college, I would have likely lost the scholarship anyway. In the end, I went to UGA. The Georgia HOPE scholarship was recently enacted at the time. My high school grades were excellent and so I would have qualified. Unfortunately, my parents made something like 50 cents over the family income maximum. The next year they raised the maximum but by then my grades were so dismal it didn’t matter. I must say I had a great time in Athens. The city is overrun with bars and hot girls and there is always something to do. Oddly, none of that matters looking back.
I have since analyzed why I did as poorly as I did in the early half of my college career. I used to blame the school and several professors in whose classes I did poorly. I have come to the conclusion though that any failings (pun intended) were my fault only. I had considered that perhaps I was not ready for college. Then again, I’m not sure what I would have done instead at that time. I wanted to continue my formal education, I just went about it all wrong. I was not true to myself.
I have devoted a whole chapter in The Time Given (not long now….) to being true to yourself. My understanding of the concept comes from my own self-betrayals. In high school and for the first few years I was at UGA I was under the delusion of the great “American dream.” George Carlin once said, “it’s a dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” I know what he meant. The dream went something like this: You go to college to get a valuable degree. The degree gets you a ticket to work for a big corporation for 30 or 40 years. By working hard for your employer you get rich and enjoy a comfy retirement. You can vacation in Destin, Florida and such.
I tried to take the dream to its extreme conclusion. I just knew I had to major in business in order to get that golden job ticket. I started out as a general business major and then switched to a speciality in real estate. UGA’s real estate program is excellent and I did learn some things in my concentration classes which came in handy at Trammel Crow and in my brief real estate sales career. I also found some of my advanced economics classes fascinating – but only from an academic standpoint. The rest of the core business classes bored the ever-loving hell out of me. My grades reflected this. I recall mornings when I remembered I had to drop classes I had not attended all semester – on the last day possible. Still figures into some of my nightmares. I recall passing finance my reading the booklet for my fancy calculator the night before the final exam. I wasted a semester in a business MIS class that covered things like floppy disks and the new-fangled internet, whatever that was. That all says something – I’m not sure what…
The “hard” problem I found with an undergraduate business degree was that you studied based on scenarios only a CEO would encounter. Then you get into the job market and discover only entry-level jobs are available. It’s kind of depressing. I really lucked out with Trammell Crow and it took me months of interviewing for scores of other positions to find. Another problem is that once you’re on the job, they retrain you completely. I’d say only 10% of what I managed to learn ended up being useful on the job.
If you want to enter business, I think it’s best to get an MBA. It also helps to study something you have connections to (the family business, etc.). Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. I wasted a lot of the stuff.
The “soft” problem I had was that I didn’t really want to be a business major. I look like a businessman but I have the heart of a history professor or a latter-day dragon slayer, neither of which benefit from a class in marketing. This was made clear to me during my senior year. For whatever reason I finished most of the required classes and had an abundance of electives to take. Out of curiosity I wound up in a number of classics (ancient Greece and Rome) and philosophy classes.
Suddenly, I was immersed in subjects that spoke to me about eternal issues I could relate to everyday American life. I also got “A” after “A” and it wasn’t hard to do. I liked the programs. I identified with the programs. I dig ancient wisdom and logical discourse more than ROI statements and accounting baselines.
It occurred to me a little late in the game to change majors and stick it out. I probably should have done that. At the time though, the same stubbornness that got me into my plight held me there. I made excuses like “I’m almost done. I need to settle, get out, and get that dream job.” Ha! The job I got was great. I foresaw myself rising in the ranks and becoming a developer, another Donald Trump. I was good at it. I thought I could even open my own business and build skyscrapers. Then, they called me one day and thanked me profusely for my hard work. I smelled a raise. Then they said the division was closing and I was no longer needed. More depression followed. This is the real American dream – you lie to yourself, waste time and money, and end up getting laid off after giving 150%. Well, it was the dream. I think most people have to settle for permanent unemployment or food stamps these days.
After a year of flopping around I headed to law school. It was my attempt to right my ship. It almost worked. I know now that while I love the concept and theory of law, present and historical, these are not good reasons to go to law school. I’ll have more on this in my coming column on the legal education racket.
I should have gotten a Ph.D. in political theory or history. Then I would have been primed for a happier career in higher education, pondering the big ideas and helping young people seek questions and answers. I’m currently trying to re-route myself that way. This blog is a grand outlet for my academic pursuits. I’m delighted by the support I have received so far. I plan to press forward regardless of what kind, if any, formal institution I end up in. I don’t mean an “institution” where I weave baskets…
Counting the four years I was locked up in high school, it’s been about 24 years getting around to being honest about my ambitions. I have been extremely lucky in the alternative. I’ve had the opportunity most people don’t get in the business and legal fields to interact with academics, statesmen, titans and ticks of all stripes. I have also been able to strike a few blows for freedom over the years. Everything happens for a reason and I have accepted my long way home.
I hope you, dear readers, find and accept yours too. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you. I genuinely like helping people. It’s really why I’m here.