“We R Who We R:” Preserving Individualism in a Conservative Profession

A last-minute recruit to the Early Interview Process, I signed myself up for an emergency, transatlantic Skype session with Career Services to comb through my résumé.  The critique I received was somewhat unprecedented.  I was told—point blank—to remove “baking” from my Interests section because it was too “feminine.”

I will not even begin to poke the slumbering beast of gender issues there.  Nor do I wish to denigrate the Career Services office when all it tried to do was help me get a job.  What I want to focus on is this:  I was prompted to provide clarity as to who I am as an individual, and then, upon doing so, to pursue something more marketable.  It seems fluffy, I know.  But in all seriousness, I have catered events, regularly brought brownies to class, and even distributed cookies at a bar.  I can tell you the science surrounding leavening substances, different oils, and high-altitude baking.  You could try the generations-old recipes I’ve accumulated in my travels.  But, sure, I guess I could find another serious interest for my future employer.

My poor ex-boyfriend listened to me rant and rave in a stream of Spanish about the injustice of it (at the very least confirming I had finally achieved fluency).  After thirty minutes, all I felt was the exhaustion of what has seemed a constant struggle since I arrived at orientation.  There is, at least for me, a question endlessly hovering in the background of this law school endeavor.  It is a question of whether professionalism and individualism are inherently disjunct, and whether sacrifice of one or the other is inevitable.

I chose Columbia Law School after a 2L reassured me that my studies, at the very least, wouldn’t prevent me from pursuing my outside interests.  In retrospect, it seems a limited view of the broader concern.  Over the course of 1L, I realized as much.  I overlooked the fact the buck doesn’t really stop with law school.  Maybe I should have been asking whether the legal profession would take me in the end far from the person I am or want to be.

My summer boss was a CLS grad, and more than that she is one of the most independent, self-aware women I know.  For better or worse, we talked about “big life questions” more than the work we were doing, so I took this incident to her.  I remember sitting on her balcony overlooking the sea in San Sebastián when I inevitably word-vomited every last living fear I had collected my first year.  We’ve all heard that during 1L they scare you to death, and looking back I pretended that away until everything was so calm (… and sunny and blissful …) that I could no longer.  Mostly I wondered if the vast array of choices I had made and would continue to make struck some perfect balance between “proper” and personal preference.

Networking Cartoon (3)

A sampling of concerns conveyed to Boss Lady:

1. Was I not the dumbest kid on the block for running away to the Basque Region for three months instead of doing traditional legal work?

2. Oh boy, do I really have to buy a collection of Band-Aids to cover that tattoo on my foot?  Do all my future employment offers just vanish if I forget that Band-Aid?

3. And, namely, what doors have I necessarily closed to myself after that Columbia diploma has been placed in my hand, and am I okay with that?

My boss waited as the floodgates opened and closed, then went inside her apartment.  She came back with a leather journal that had within her end-of-the-year writing assignment for Professor Moglen’s 1L elective back in 2006.  A dramatic, but effective, reading ensued.  What was apparent, though, was that I was not alone in my concern and my desire to preserve aspects of myself that might not survive a “professionalism” test.  Moreover, I had living, breathing proof that a balance could be achieved even though it might mean divergence from a traditional path.

An excerpt:

I can almost guarantee that the near 90% of us that will go into private practice upon graduation did not write our admission essays on paying off our debts via the thrills of corporate law. If your essay was anything like mine, you were distinguishing yourself from the rest as being an interesting and unique individual with the conviction to use your legal education to better yourself or others.  And in return, through your acceptance, Columbia agreed. Whoever that essay personified, it was someone outstanding enough to open the door to one of the most prestigious and competitive halls of higher learning. Is it not safe to assume that other doors, maybe just if not more prestigious and competitive, are also likely to open? You are working hard for your degree and when you get it, it is yours for life. There is no expiration date on acquired knowledge. So maybe you haven’t figured it all out yet, and who you really are is a work in progress.  But at the very least trust yourself. You’ve worked this hard to get here; no matter what you choose a stamp of credibility will follow.

I said earlier that I should have concerned myself with whether the legal profession would take me in the end far from the person I am or want to be.  I’ve been told to dress exactly like everyone else (hullo, EIP manual), not make certain things known about myself, and so on and so forth.  I’ve been told law is a conservative profession, that work will be my life, that if I want a family I need to rethink BigLaw, that I can’t balance the professional and the personal perfectly.  That I might have to choose.  But I interviewed sans Band-Aid, blithely discussed my preference for a high brown/white sugar ratio in chocolate chip cookies, and shockingly enough someone found me compelling.  Maybe it is a circular logic: that a concern with preserving the individual just reinforces a process driving us all to a place or people of like considerations.  Either way, I feel the anxiety and exhaustion less and less.  As the Boss concluded, the CLS degree is a pretty plush falling cushion.

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