So many cases like this appear at my office that I’ll construct him/her as a composite. That way perhaps I can spare myself the chore of receiving those “how dare you write about one of your clients” comments that I receive every week when I get specific in detailing my fictions and some of you decide I simply must be writing about your roommate.
So here goes.
He/she is very young – 22 or 23 or 24 or 25.
He/she moved across the country to go to a law school that I’ve heard of vaguely. It turns out to be number 79 or 83 or 66 out of the top 100, according to some hack newspaper that profits from disseminating this sort of nonsense.
He/she is the son/daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland.
His/her immigrant parents operate a doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service.
His/her parents are adamant that he/she marry someone from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland in a traditional ceremony – soon – and produce male children.
Before then – quickly – he/she has to become a doctor.
He/she is no good at math or science or dating, so that’s not going to happen to him/her any time soon. Being a lawyer is the official second choice – not as good as a doctor, but acceptable.
He/she has just started law school at number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100 and is presenting with anxiety around test-taking and deep feelings of insecurity about his/her abilities compared to those of his/her classmates.
We talk about CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy – to identify the thoughts that are triggering the anxiety – fears of being unable to live up to dad/mom’s demanding agenda, especially when, despite getting accepted into number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100, he/she suspects he/she has never been all that great at school. College was a struggle, too. It is possible that he/she is simply doing his/her best, but isn’t cut out for academics and would be happier doing something else, such as operating a doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service. But he/she runs from that idea – it doesn’t compute with the dreams and expectations of his/her immigrant parents from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland.
We learn his/her parents remind him/her that they sacrificed everything for their son/daughter, so he/she could have a future. His/her parents gave up their own happiness so he/she could succeed. This notion is recited to him/her in some form or other about five times each week, most recently in the form of phone calls from home.
We learn he/she has an older brother/sister, who is a doctor, is married to someone from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland, and has two male children.
We also talk about the ever-widening pharmacopeia available to him/her, should he/she decide to go that route. There are the anti-depressants, which take two weeks or so to work, and have side-effects he/she might not like. There are the anti-anxietals, the benzos, like Xanax and Klonopin, which might be habit-forming. There are the stimulants, like Adderall or Concerta or Ritalin, which will help you focus on studying, at least unless you abuse them, like many law students, and stay up night after night without sleep and start hearing voices – which happened to a client of mine (no – for you helpful comment-writers out there – not while under my care, and no, I’m not a medical doctor, so I didn’t prescribe the stuff.)
But there is another issue that I can’t help discussing with him/her: magical thinking.
Because even as he/she talks to me about his/her anxiety around being back in school, a few more facts are glossed over.
First, he/she is in the process of borrowing $170,000 which he/she cannot discharge through bankruptcy.
He/she has never seen that much money in his/her life and has no concept of how much money it is. Remember, he/she is only 22 or 23 or 24 or 25.
He/she has never worked in law. He/she only graduated from college 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 years ago, and spent most of that time working in his/her parents’ doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service.
When I ask him/her why he/she is pursuing law, I get a canned speech of the law school essay variety.
He/she wants to become an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge.
Pressed on the details, he/she admits that he/she might have to spend a few years at a top law firm first, earning $160,000 per year, minimum. But he/she isn’t doing this for the money.
Pressed to describe what precisely an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge actually does, or how one attains these titles, things grow vague.
Pressed as to how he/she will pay back the $170,000 in loans that he/she will have accumulated at graduation, he/she looks at me like it’s obvious. If you make $160,000 per year, then you need one year to pay off $160,000 and maybe another month or two for another $10,000 and it’s paid off. Duh.
Oh yeah, and maybe taxes or interest or whatever – say a year and a half.
I stare at him/her. He/she stares back at me. There is a steely determination in his/her eyes. He/she isn’t going to back down. This has all been arranged. It is decided.
We are at a stand-off.
I nibble around the edges, mentioning that paying off $170,000 might take considerably more time than that. I also suggest that getting a job as an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge might be tough, especially given the current economic situation, and the delicate fact that he/she will be graduating somewhere in a large class from number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100 (not to suggest that number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100 is not a superb, horrendously under-rated institution.)
He/she tells me her professors are terrific, and she really thinks law might be interesting, once she gets the hang of it.
In desperation, I ask if he/she has ever calculated – even a rough calculation – what it costs per hour to attend one of those lectures with one of those delightful, caring, crusty old law professors. I bet him/her it will probably crunch out to about $100 – $200 per hour. For two hours each lecture. For each of the 75 students in the lecture hall.
That seems to make an impression.
I ask him/her if he/she has talked to any of the recent graduates of number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100. He/she says there was a guy at the orientation who talked about pro bono work. He/she met another guy who graduated, not sure when, but he runs a restaurant, so he’s not even a lawyer, which was weird. Oh, and a few of his/her roommate’s friends are doing “contract lawyering” but he/she’s not sure what that means. In any case, he/she doesn’t want to do that.
I ask him/her to do me a favor, and try to find, and talk to, a few recent grads. That’s it. Just talk to them.
Then I ask him/her to consider taking a year off to try paralegaling. For a year. Simply to see what the actual practice of law in an actual law office might entail.
He/she says he/she will think about it.
That’s enough. That’s something. It might be enough to defeat a little magical thinking.
Children often distort the world around them to make it bearable. If something isn’t the way it ought to be for them to feel secure, they pretend it is. That’s magical thinking.
If mom and dad are away all day and you’re left in the house alone, you pretend you have a big white bunny rabbit who is your friend.
If mom and dad fight all the time, you pretend you can stop their arguing by being really good.
You try not to step on the cracks on the sidewalk.
When you’re only 22 or 23 or 24 or 25, you’re still kind of a kid inside. You don’t have much experience. It’s easy, under stress, to fall back into the habit of magical thinking.
But when things don’t add up – maybe they just don’t add up.
Borrowing $170,000 to go to number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100 so you can become an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge doesn’t add up.
Living your life on autopilot for the sake of some misguided plan created by your immigrant parents from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland doesn’t make much sense either.
Please. I know you’re young. I know you only want to make everyone happy. But you’re going to have to stop pretending the magic is real. There’s a trap being laid for you. The legal education industry wants your money – it’s really that simple. It’s a scam. Please – wake up before it’s too late.
You are going to have to come up with your own dreams. And you’re going to have to chase them in the real world. You can’t buy them with an expensive degree.
Try it. Try living your own life, your own way, with your eyes open. You’ll see. It’s not that bad.
You might find it’s a major improvement over magical thinking.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)