At Barnes & Noble, where I once worked as a marketing exec, we bandied about the phrase “aspirational purchase” to portray a small, but profitable segment of our sales.
Aspirational purchase meant you bought the book not because you were going to read it, but because you aspired to read it. You might even convince yourself you were going to – but in all likelihood it would serve as a pretentious coffee table tchotchke, an impressive (if un-cracked) spine on a decorative bookshelf, or a useful device to prop up a little kid’s butt so he could reach the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.
An aspirational purchase is intended to impress – you want to be seen buying it. It tends to be something conservative as well. And long. And difficult. “War and Peace” is the classic aspirational purchase, but you might also pick up something with a political message that makes you look wise and open-minded, like “The Satanic Verses” (which, for the record, I actually read.) (No, I’ve never plumbed War and Peace. However, I embrace the fact that plenty of you certainly have read it and, yes, loved it and desire for me to acknowledge you’ve read it and how much you loved it – to which I reply, in advance, how very nice for you.)
Law school is an aspirational purchase.
You choose law because it’s more impressive than an internship or “assistant” job – which is how you’d have to start out in an ordinary career. With law you jump directly to the land of the grown-ups without passing Go. From the moment you graduate, you have a “profession.” That means (at least in theory) you wear a suit and people take you seriously. You’re an “attorney” – not someone’s assistant.
Law is conservative, too. It’s about the least imaginative thing you could do. A law degree establishes (at least in theory) that you are serious and focused and down-to-business. No more staying up all night partying for you. It’s time to retire that giant plastic bong with the “Steal Your Face” decals and step up to adulthood, dude.
Law is also difficult – or it appears difficult – an interminable slog through tedious lectures and exams, culminating in the bar exam – a difficult, interminable slog that exists for no reason other than the apparent requirement that there be a difficult, interminable slog at the end of a difficult interminable slog.
You can wrap also yourself up in saving the world, as a lawyer – or attempt to. I used to assure people my destiny was to become a “civil rights lawyer.” That lasted one year – until the ACLU lawyer at my summer internship told me I needed “big firm” experience. (This was not heartbreaking news; my classmates were stampeding to big firms and the thought of the money produced an instant adrenaline rush.)
Book stores love aspirational purchases. The books themselves are all the same – “classics” or merely obvious choices no one so much reads as aspires to read. Delightfully – from the marketer’s point of view – buyers seldom grasp that giant, fancy editions of books like “War and Peace” can be printed in quantity for next to nothing, especially because most of these titles reside in the public domain. But you can charge a lot, since they look thick and impressive, especially if you bind them in leather with gold print to produce something Alistair Cooke might clutch while introducing Masterpiece Thee-ah-tuh.
A law degree, similarly, costs next to nothing to manufacture. The “product” a law school shills consists of standardized lectures any lawyer could deliver in his sleep, coupled with the systematic grading of a pile of exams. There’s no originality involved. I haven’t practiced law in more than a decade, but I’m confident I could deliver a Contracts lecture tomorrow to a hall filled with bored 1L’s and they’d never notice the difference. Just give me a store-bought outline and a half hour to refresh my memory.
Law schools are cheap and easy to run, but the top ones (and many non-top ones) charge over $50,000 per year for tuition, room and board. As a rough calculation, if law school ran all year long, that would be nearly $1,000 per week. Since it actually only runs about 8 months of the year, let’s say law school costs around $1,400 per week. If you have seven lectures per week, that means you’re paying $200 per lecture.
Two hundred dollars per lecture. Roughly one hundred dollars per hour to sit drowsing with one hundred other weary souls, each of whom is also paying one hundred dollars per hour for the privilege.
That’s obscene – a bit like charging someone $35 for a fancy-looking leather edition of a public domain chestnut like War and Peace that costs $3.25 in paper, ink and delivery charges.
Who would be fool enough to buy it?
Well, it’s an aspirational purchase.
At New York Law School – hardly a first-tier operation, and typical as law schools go – an average student graduates with $125k in debt. They recently expanded the size of their classes. No wonder they’ve built a shiny new building and boast one of the top ten endowments in the country. They are earning mad bank – but it’s blood money, since their graduates wind up jobless and in debt up to their eyebrows. One of my clients spotted a notice recently on an ad for paralegal positions: “No J.D.’s.”
Yeah – it’s that bad.
Aspirational purchases – whether “War & Peace” or law school – are a rip-off, because the buyer doesn’t know what he’s buying. He acts on impulse, and chases an aspiration – a fantasy – rather than reality.
You aren’t going to get around to reading “War and Peace” someday when you retire. If you didn’t get to it in college, then sorry, that massive Russian tome from the 19th century isn’t going to get read by you or anyone you know, any more than that law degree is going to earn you a massive salary – or prove “versatile” if you decide not to practice. Those are fantasies.
Aspirational purchases are usually “point of sale” items. You stack them up near the cash registers, so buyers, who are especially impulsive when bored and waiting in a lengthy queue, are liable to toss it in at the last moment. Hmmm…you ponder, standing in line holding the latest Stephen King…there’s “The Selected Poems of Robert Browning”…and there’s “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and there’s a Dove Raspberry and Dark Chocolate Swirl Bar. Why not grab all three, while I’m here – just in case?
That’s called an “up-sell” and it’s what marketing is all about. Some clever marketing exec (like me) just convinced you (semi-consciously) to buy not merely what you actually wanted (the Stephen King), but a whole bunch of additional junk you neither want nor need.
Law school is also a point of sale item. Your early twenties resemble the checkout line. You’re out of college and killing time, unsure what you’re really looking for (besides a little romance, some excitement and a way to pay the bills.) You’re impulsive, and tend to make big mistakes because you want to do something – anything – and it seems important to get started right away. Law school sits there, staring at you, until you think – hmmm, I wonder if that would work…it’s something to do…
For the record, when I went to law school, I possessed no inkling what a “civil rights lawyer” did, or was. After my primary goal mutated into becoming a “corporate lawyer” (i.e., making money) I had even less idea what I was getting myself into. How did I pick corporate? Simple. Litigation seemed a non-starter, because I hated Civ Pro and loathe arguing. Corporate – whatever it was – was the remaining option. I had the vague sense I’d end up with a BMW and a secretary.
I repeat: I had no idea – none – what a “corporate lawyer” did. It sounded cool, and I wanted the money. The rest I’d figure out when the time came.
That, in a nutshell, defines an aspirational purchase: I grabbed something on impulse because I thought it sounded cool.
Do not do as I have done. Take your time. Figure out who you are, and what you want.
Aspirational purchases are a scam. Leave them behind, for suckers who don’t know any better.
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.)