A Pessimistic Reflection On Graduating Law School

I have tangled enough with the hard edges of life to become a pessimist and a cynic even in moments when conventional wisdom would dictate that I should be rejoicing and celebrating. Conventional wisdom would have dictated that celebrating the submission of my last law school exam on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 was a non-optional social convention.

However, I have never been one to follow social conventions. In the moments after emailing my exam to my professor, I did not celebrate. I tersely texted my parents the following: “I am done with law school.” I used no exclamation points, emojis, or other indications of celebratory happiness. I then texted my best friend a similar terse notice: “Submitted.” He asked if that was my last assignment, and I replied, “Yup, I’ll see ya on the other side of [Professor X]. o7.” I then sat on my couch staring into my unlit fireplace, gathering my thoughts.

My parents responded to my text with congratulatory texts that I did not reply to, but I did speak with them by phone later that evening. Their congratulations – restrained and tempered by their knowledge of how long it takes me to unlock my intensity from an exam and my attitude leading up to my final exam – still carried all of the parental pride and joy that you would expect. I thanked them soberly and spared them the awkwardness of asking the sappy question “how do you feel?” by candidly confiding my thoughts to them.

I don’t celebrate survival. I celebrate victory. While survival can be a victory, it is not always a victory. I view my three years of law school as a violent battle for survival, and only time will tell if I truly survived although I have been told that the signs are promising.

Law school changes a lot about a person – the way you think, talk, write, analyze, argue, and interact with others. Part of the law school makeover is imminently practical. A person will not be effective in practice without approaching problems and topics in a particular manner. I changed in that manner just like everyone else, and I did so reasonably well, garnering a reputation for my abilities with everyone who has crossed my path, publishing a law review article, and winning a bevy of academic and professional awards.

At the same time, effecting a fundamental change in human behavior vests law schools with an enormous amount of power and influence over young and susceptible minds. The temptation to leverage that power and influence for more than just methodological changes in thinking, talking, writing, analysis, argument, and interaction is great. A law school’s culture and its community attempt to effect changes in self-identity whether law schools realize or intend it.

My law school experience led me to two conclusions. First, the natural effect of group think and peer pressure will effectively change self-identity in disturbing ways. Even allowing for my observation bias, I saw friends who I met and formed connections with before my first year began lose their aggressive taste for conflict and their devil-may-care candor. Second, in its emphasis on resolving human conflict based on well-established rules and practices, the law school curriculum consistently fails to emphasize that the law is a social formality that keeps human conflict in bounds, not a utopian and effortless solution to every human problem. The law school curriculum even teaches would-be lawyers to avoid conflict.

Both group think and the law school curriculum place a premium on avoiding, at all cost, the offensive regardless of an idea’s merits. The result is the establishment of an identity status quo – one that discourages conflict and ultimately de-fangs would-be-lawyers of their initiative if they do not conform to the substantive trend of the majority view.

I defied both group think and the explicit and implied overtures of the law school curriculum from the start. I entered law school with the understanding that I would undergo a methodological change in my thought process. I also entered law school with an understanding that my parents took special pains in their homeschooling and parenting to instill a particular set of values in me – faith, integrity, respect, steadfast conviction, and candor to name a few. Understanding that these values would clash with powerful forces including group think and people who were temporarily more knowledgeable than myself struck a younger and less wise version of myself as incredibly alluring. I was ready for the battle because I foolishly thought that I could achieve a different outcome.

Perhaps I did, but at what cost? From day one, I took a careful approach to my beliefs and opinions. In class, in student society meetings, and on social media, I freely volunteered them with respectful candor. In other settings, I only proffered my  beliefs and opinions when someone else engaged me on the subject, but with the same respectful candor. My beliefs and opinions did not change – I am incorrigible when it comes to being “enlightened.”  As a result of being a non-conforming wild goat instead of a conforming sheep, I drew the ire of more folks than I can count, and those folks acted upon their wrath on more than one occasion – a state of affairs that followed me to my last day of law school.

The day after I submitted my final assignment, I opened up my laptop after a reassuring conversation with a respected friend, and I read through every document in the folder that I have kept on every law school incident involving an angry sheep. The last document that I read was a complaint ready to be filed in Connecticut Superior Court against an incredibly angry set of sheep. The stakes would have been my law degree and likely my career, and I had lined up a devastating broadside. I  am thankful to God that I never had to file that complaint, but reading it brought a rush of emotions – anger, shameless self-pity, and then vain pride. Sorting through my emotions, I quickly dispelled the ones that I am too proud to harbor for long, and I settled on one to act as a soothing balm to my soul: pride in my integrity.

I can live with myself. I entered law school with a self-identity built on principled values – religious, moral, and professional. I exited law school with the same self-identity and values. I successfully resisted both the explicit and implicit efforts to mold or change my self-identity. I would even dare to say that my constant battle against those efforts has only strengthened my self-identity and values. It may have even added elements of rashness and an increased desire for conflict – one that I certainly harbor no grand delusions about any more.

My law school has provided me with a strong legal education as I contracted with them for. I have preserved my self-identity and can live with myself. Consequently, in my view, I have not achieved any victories worth celebrating. I have simply survived a long, intense battle for my self-identity as I attempted to acquire a legal education.

I will now rub some dirt on my wounds and move on to the next battle in my life.

Cameron L. Atkinson

Cameron Atkinson is a Christian, a published constitutional scholar, a trial and appellate lawyer, and a general hell-raiser. He has received national recognition for his victories in civil rights cases, especially in First Amendment cases. Attorney Atkinson stands out for his written advocacy, and he has taken the lead role in briefing cases to the United States Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the Connecticut Supreme Court, the Connecticut Appellate Court, and multiple New York appellate courts. Attorney Atkinson has successfully represented clients facing criminal charges, including successfully arguing for the reversal of a sexual assault conviction before the Connecticut Supreme Court. He will accept requests for public speaking engagements on a case-by-case basis.

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