'Lapsed Lawyer' Who Warned Against Law School Says JD Opened and Closed Doors

Would-be law students who think a JD offers the kind of flexibility they need for any kind of career should not be seduced by the myth, according to a “lapsed lawyer” who ended up in legal publishing.

Prospective employers outside the legal field are likely to hate lawyers, or to suspect that the applicant is possibly unstable, a malcontent or a loser. Sure, legal knowledge can come in handy in a variety of occupations. So can knowledge in rhetoric or psychology, but no one is suggesting that advanced degrees are needed as a general preparation for life. “That would be like arming yourself for mosquito season with a blunderbuss.”

The author of that advice is Patrick Griffin, a Harvard law graduate who is now at the MacArthur Foundation, serving as program officer for juvenile justice in U.S. programs, PrawfsBlawg reports. Griffin offered his advice in a 1992 article for the Chicago Reader in which he explained why he attended law school.

After graduation Griffin practiced law, then jumped from legal publishing to the National Center for Juvenile Justice to the foundation. But he had no definite career plans in college. “When I was in college in the mid and late 70s, I studied dead English poets and gave very little thought to the world at large. But a shrewd observer could easily have seen that, whether I knew it or not, I was ‘prelaw,’ ” he wrote.

For Griffin, law school was a way of prolonging his school days. He could “keep funny hours and read in cafes and wear the same jeans every day” and his parents didn’t even grumble. For that type of student, Griffin argued in 1992, law school is a mistake. Like Holden Caufield, Griffin wanted to save a bunch of kids—the naïve and unfocused college students ready to go to law school.

Has success changed Griffin’s views? Not much. “I continue to think that law was a mistake for me,” Griffin told PrawfsBlawg in an interview, “but now I suspect that if I hadn’t made that mistake, I’d have made some other one. I think people like me are destined to screw up in their 20s. And then figure everything out, absolutely everything, in their 30s.”

Griffin told PrawfsBlawg he has no doubt that “law school profoundly shaped my subsequent career, but I have a little trouble sorting out how. It opened doors and closed doors.” Is Griffin giving short shrift to the benefits of law school? PrawfsBlawg asked.

“It was three years with a lot of smart people, so there were intellectual benefits,” Griffin answered. “And it’s a credential, which is a form of currency—in my case, pretty devalued, but not completely, not like Confederate money. I see the value now, in the experience as well as the credential, better than I did when I was younger. But the same would probably be true of any comparable experience, in retrospect. Three years in prison might have been valuable too.

“What happened, eventually, was that I found jobs that were congenial to me, jobs I felt I could be good at, and then shaped them so that I could make use of as much of my experience as I could.”

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