As economic fortunes fall anew and fear runs rampant, legal education is experiencing another season of regret. Recent graduates and even some students have come to regret their decision to attend law school. They're hardly alone [except below].
Regret is nothing more than fermented wisdom, and I am a very wise man. There are moments when I fervently wish I could take my own academic advice, dispensed at greatest length in The Death of the Regulatory Compact: Sunk costs are just that, sunk. Time moves in one direction. So should we.
Why do I hate credentials so much? I do hold a nice clutch of them -- a fancy law school degree, an exalted law review position, and a very gaudy (if ideologically crippling) pair of federal clerkships. I learned a great deal from Judge Luttig and Justice Thomas, not least my instinctive distrust of theory and ideology and my corresponding preference for pragmatism. Yes, I did well in my youth, and I have a nice little academic perch for my trouble. But I now know that I went to law school for the wrong reasons and wish I had done almost anything else.
Let me explain by recalling one of my sports heroes, Billy Beane. Michael Lewis's Moneyball recounts how Beane allowed the prospect of being a high pick, perhaps even the first overall pick, in baseball's amateur draft to steer him away from playing collegiate baseball for Stanford. Beane went on to win the 270-foot dash at the combine and sign as the fifth overall pick with the New York Mets. His career as a baseball player, to put it mildly, stank. He came to regard signing with the Mets as the biggest mistake of his professional life.
When I took the LSAT in 1986, during the summer before my senior year in college, I wanted more desperately than anything else to have a credential, any credential, that would give me a little more credibility with the academic elite. Two degrees from Emory University and a good taste of engineering from Georgia Tech, so I imagined, would not stand the social test of the national academic elite. Law school appealed to me because it required no real prerequisites, because I was told I had a good shot at a top school, and because law had a realistically attainable elite track running through, well, law review and a judicial clerkship. An actual love of law — well, that was optional. How do I feel two decades later? Let's just say that my feeling toward the law today is comparable to the typical Edith Wharton character's view of marriage.
Yes, I aced the credential quest, version 2.0, and thereby buried what I considered a disappointing run through version 1.0. And acing law school has enabled me essentially to make a healthy living as a full-time intellectual dilettante and a part-time managerial maverick. It's materially comfortable to be a member of the sinecured secular priesthood called academia. But like my hero Billy Beane, I know deep down that I should never have enrolled at Harvard Law School, which will forever live in my heart as the educational equivalent of the New York Mets — not intrinsically evil by any stretch, but a constant reminder of making lifelong commitments for all the wrong reasons. And like Billy, my only realistic option going forward is to try my hardest to succeed on somewhat contrarian terms in a line of work I wish I'd never embraced as my own.