Do I really want to go to law school?

I've been working my whole life toward this moment ... and now I'm panicking!

Published July 14, 2009 10:14AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

In exactly two months from today, I am supposed to enter law school. With every day that passes, I am fighting a rising sense of utter panic. I don't know if I want to do this. Please ... help.

I have been working my whole life toward this moment. I have been a diligent, passionate student, busting my butt in tough classes, racking up extracurriculars and academic honors, supporting myself with full-time jobs throughout my academic career, all with my eye on the prize of admission to law school and an eventual J.D. My father is a lawyer and since I was a little girl I have dreamed about following in his footsteps. The problem, I think, is that law school has been my goal for so long that I've never really stopped to examine it, and now I'm afraid that it's way too late to change my mind.

I've transformed in many ways since last I lived at home. I've moved across the Atlantic, experienced Europe, traveled all over the United States. I worry that in choosing law school I am choosing my father's life, and that frightens me, because despite the fact that my father is a wonderful, successful man, I don't think I want to live a life like his. There's so much more to living than making tons of money, than having the big house and the nice cars in the perfect neighborhood. Despite the fact that my dad and I are very similar people, he never had experiences like mine. My priorities are just ... well, different. He graduated from a state law school and has practiced in his home state ever since. I am a mover; I yearn to go; I don't want to stay in one place and work myself to the bone.

During many conversations I've had with various people about all this, I think I've identified my major fear: I am afraid that I'm going to be alone. I am finally living in a city that makes me happy and working at a job that I enjoy. I am surrounded by friends who love me. I feel like an individual for the first time in my life. But my lifestyle is the night lifestyle, and if I go to law school, I'm going to have to give that up, at least in part. I'm afraid that I'll never see my friends, that my boyfriend is going to leave me, that I'm never going to have fun again. When I think about being a lawyer, I panic. In my heart I've always wanted to be a writer.

Complicating my emotional mess is a fiscal reality: I am over $100,000 in debt from bankrolling my undergraduate education. If I don't matriculate in August, all my loans are going to come into repayment, and I'm going to be looking at about $1,000 per month in payments. I've exhausted all my forbearance/deferment options, at least when it comes to my private loans. I have no clue how I could even begin to support myself and meet the monthly burden of a crushing payment like that, especially when my only work experience is in the service industry. I'm stuck between Scylla and Charybdis: I don't think I want to be a lawyer, but I can't pay off my loans without the money that lawyering will bring. I've spun this around in my mind ad nauseam, and every time I slam headfirst into that $100,000 wall. I don't want to chase money anymore, but over the last five years I've painted myself into a corner. I can't see any other option other than to get the J.D. (accruing more, albeit only federal, loans, by the way) and work my debt down to a manageable level. I feel so stupid and helpless.

I am not afraid that I will fail. I have always been an excellent student and I'm sure I could kick law school's ass. But I fear it's going to cost me everything, and I'm obviously not talking about dollars and cents.

Any advice would be deeply appreciated. Thanks, Cary.


Dear Terrified,

I suggest you use the next two months to prepare emotionally and mentally for law school.

Look at it this way: You can always quit. But meanwhile, you can either use these two months to drive yourself nuts, or to prepare. Driving yourself nuts won't help. Preparing will help. It will alleviate the fear. It will make you feel more sane, no matter what you ultimately do.

The preparation I suggest consists of two main parts: creating a vision of your ideal career, and putting together a survival kit for use during moments of crisis.

First, the vision: Imagine your happy life as a lawyer. In this happy life as a lawyer, what time do you get up in the morning? 8? 9? 10? Where do you live? Williamsburg? Queen Anne? Sausalito? Paris? Your present town? What kinds of clients do you have? Are they corporate downsizers? Are they painters or writers? Are they pilots? Picture your sunny office filled with plants (or bare of plants, bright and steely); picture your desk, your walls and the photos on them, the light through the window. Write these things down on paper in the present tense, i.e., I am sitting in my office enjoying the view; I am walking to my office now through a leafy, bohemian neighborhood; I smell Indian food cooking and hear children's voices. Or, today at 10 I will meet with a musician from Ghana who is raising money to start small farms through a micro-loan program in his country. Or, today I will have lunch with my favorite rock star, who needs legal work on his divorce.

It may sound a little unscientific, this invitation to imagine your life, but the reason for doing it is to stimulate your emotional connection to the idea of law school and to give you something to look forward to, something that makes it worth it. The problem is not that you can't do the work. The problem is that you finally have a life you like and you are afraid of losing it. You need to feel that things are going to be OK. So picture what you want. Make a collage. Make it real. If it helps, consider certain specialties of the law -- international law, entertainment law, diplomacy -- and how they might allow you to have your perfect life. Be alert to what appeals to you. Know that you have options.

Next, buy a nice box, not too big and not too small. This will contain your Kit of Things That Work (When Nothing Else Does). Start putting things into it that you will need in times of crisis -- oils and scents, bubble bath, a photograph of someone who inspires you, a picture of you as a child, something earthy like a rock or pebble or piece of metal, poetry, a feather, mementos of good times, whatever works for you.

Write a letter from yourself today to the person who is in law school. Tell her whatever  she may need to hear when times are tough and she feels like quitting. Tell her how great she will feel to have the money to pay off her student loans. Tell her whatever you think may reassure her during the tough times. Put that letter in the Kit of Things That Work (When Nothing Else Does).

What other things might you put in the box? I don't know, well, what kinds of things do you enjoy? Maybe put a meditation book in there, some candles, possibly a timer for brief, concentrated meditations of two to five minutes, some incense, whatever objects that help you in times of stress. Put them in the Kit of Things That Work (When Nothing Else Does). You might also make a label, or sign, for the box, to remind you that it is the Kit of Things That Work (When Nothing Else Does), so that when you are really losing your mind, and you think you're about to crack up, and you don't even remember what that box is for, or what's in it, you will read those words, "Things That Work (When Nothing Else Does)," and you will think to yourself, "Hmmm, maybe I should open this box and see if there is something in there that may help."

Here is my reasoning: Law school is a grueling intellectual challenge. It is a process of changing your fundamental habits of thinking. You will resist it in certain ways. The resistance will come from the feeling that law school is murdering something in your soul -- your innocence, your frivolity, your childlike enjoyment of life. You do not want to kill your delight in life. That will not help. But you do need to let go of certain ideas that are insufficiently rigorous. How do you do both -- learn to think like a lawyer yet keep the child in you alive? Well, I don't have all the answers, but I suggest that you maintain a concrete connection to your life of delight and feeling, through these objects, and that you consciously allow yourself some utter silliness. Allow yourself to be, at times, just a little girl in a roomful of adults. Imagine that while there is the Real Law in all its majesty and seriousness, there is also Fun Law, where they pipe great music into the courtrooms, and instead of filing habeas corpus briefs you file Joe Boxer briefs.

I know, it sounds silly. Allow yourself to be silly once in a while. It may help when things are harsh.

Remember: You can always quit. And it's not like law is a dead-end career. You can still be a writer, or be president, or hang out with your boyfriend, and you don't have to give up your life. You don't have to become someone you aren't. You just have to get through law school.

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By Cary Tennis

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