Nolan Thomas / Morningside Muckraker
I came to law school because of a man named Ed Chapman. When I was five years old, a North Carolina jury authorized the state to take his life. I met him 15 years later, when I was a junior in college, and he was in the process of piecing his life back together. It had been a year since his release from death row, his first year of freedom after spending 15 years locked in a cage for a crime he did not commit.
He gave a speech about his experience to my small death penalty class at the University of North Carolina, and I was so moved that I went up to him after his talk. I wanted to shake his hand, to thank him, though I couldn’t articulate what exactly it was I was thanking him for. But the moment I grasped his hand, I knew. I knew what I wanted, what I needed to do.
I’m the first person in my family to go to law school, so the only preconceived notions I had about the experience were imagined. I figured law school was where people who were passionate about social justice went, people who saw something wrong with the world they lived in, and wanted to fix it. I walked in expecting to be swept up into a human sea of world-changers, do-gooders, and future leaders.
My expectations held true up through orientation. During my first couple of days and weeks at Columbia, I met so many people who wanted to do inspiring things. As the semester went on, however, I began to notice that classmates were talking less and less about what they came to law school to do, and more and more about what they planned to do when they left. Alarmingly, these goals rarely aligned. Suddenly, somewhere, the conversation had changed from international human rights, police brutality, and civil rights violations to the EIP bidding process and firm receptions.
People go into big law for myriad reasons. Some people are genuinely interested in corporate work. Some people are only interested in money. Some people are interested in neither, but have families back home depending on them for financial support. These people all make a decisive choice to pursue big law. However, as a friend of mine explained at a public interest panel for 1Ls, these people who have made the decision that big law is either what they want (or in some cases need) to do, are not the only people showing up at the Double Tree Hotel every August. Accompanying them are hordes of others who show up because that’s what their classmates and the Columbia corporate machine (a.k.a. the Office of [Private] Career Services) tell them they’re supposed to do. Because that’s the “fail-safe” route. Because that’s the low-hanging fruit. Because that’s what Columbia students do. They go to EIP and they go to firms.
I’m a Columbia Law student too. The 50 or so other 2Ls and 3Ls I invited to the Non-EIP dinner are as well. We are here. We are learning, we are thriving, and we are preparing for careers doing the amazing things that so many people wrote about doing, but that so few seem to actually pursue. We are bypassing the low hanging fruit. And instead of taking the “fail-safe” route, we are risking the road less traveled because we believe in what we came here for and that its pursuit is worth that risk.
That’s what Columbia Law students, both in my imagination and in reality, do. They climb higher than what’s easily within reach. They make their own decisions, and boldly stand behind them, even when all of their friends decide to go a different route. The luxury of being at this particular law school makes that choice possible.
I did not come to law school to trip and fall onto a conveyor belt. I came to law school because of a man named Ed Chapman. And I never forgot that, even as the halls of JG are flooded with the abandoned personal statements of classmates who once upon a time wrote about wanting to make the world a better place.
When I leave JG in May, it will be to fight for people like Ed, and all victims of the criminal [in]justice system. The climb hasn’t always been easy, nor was bypassing the low-hanging fruit. But I have every faith in the world that when I walk across that stage in May I’ll be on my way to something so much sweeter.