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July 15, 2020 Ask Allison

The Middling Swordsman

Allison Jackson Mathis

Dear Allison,

I’m a relatively seasoned attorney with a bare modicum of success who has a serious problem: college students. How so, you ask? Every college student I meet, be they family, friend, or mere acquaintance, wants to become a lawyer, and specifically a criminal lawyer. They are constantly asking me for my advice. The truth is that the work is hard, the rewards are few, and the money is . . . well, you know what the money is. But I love what I do, which makes it worth it. I hate to be a crank or a smack-talker, but I don’t want to cast things in too flattering a light, either. I worked very hard to get where I am, which is not really much to crow about. What should I say?

Middling Marvin

Dearest Darling Marvin,

To slightly alter the inimitable Dorothy Parker, if you have any young friends who want to be criminal attorneys, the second biggest favor you can do for them is to give them a copy of the Bluebook citation manual, and the first biggest favor you can do for them is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

No, no. I kid. I kid. I promised myself when I started practicing law that I wasn’t going to become one of those lawyers who tells young people, “Whatever you do, don’t become a lawyer.” I hate that. I feel like there’s enough of that out there. And it’s not fair or true. We DO need lawyers, just not as many as are being minted. And so that’s what my advice is to your young proteges, Marvin. Tell them to think about why they want to do this and about what kind of lawyer they want to be before they invest any more time and money into this whole crazy thing. Please, please beg them to consider things that you already know:

Law school is horrible. It is an interminable slog that has been made all the more difficult by the placement of pointless and countless impediments in one’s way. The reasons for many of the things that have become institutionalized in law schools have long been forgotten, and one is forced to go through arcane hazing rituals just because the professors had to go through them, too, back before the invention of time. Law school professors, while often successful practitioners in their own right, often have little to no pedagogical training and don’t know how to teach, so they just rely on the tried-and-true method of embarrassing students for their own enjoyment or telling inapplicable war stories about their years of practice with Cicero and Pliny the Elder. One’s peers are cutthroat snitches who very literally benefit when others fail and will take every possible chance they have to try and intimidate or annihilate you. Much of your time is spent wallowing in fear, despair, and depression.

Imagine this: As your darling Allison walked out of her first-semester exams, she sat in her beat-up car in the cold night and laid her tired head on the steering wheel, weeping from exhaustion and the release of being done, the horror of only being one semester deep into a three-year commitment, and the crippling realization of the amount of debt she had and would continue to accrue, and she sobbed a prayer to the gods of the underworld with all her might, “Please let me fail so I never have to come back to this terrible, terrible place.” Alas, Dear Reader, that is not what happened because the gods of the underworld are fickle, and here we are.

And there is something to be said for things that don’t kill you making you stronger. And there is something to be said for fortitude. And there is something to be said for the amazing amounts of useful knowledge law school teaches you about conducting your own personal affairs. And there is a huge amount of satisfaction in telling people all the things that are wrong with their favorite crime dramas. And yet . . . .

I think it is also important to be honest with aspiring lawyers about money. Though perhaps the “all-lawyers-are-rich” rumor has finally begun to die out, too many young folks, perhaps like your Darling Allison, fresh out of the late-night waitressing game, considered $20 an hour to be a considerable wage, and looked at even low-paying public interest work salaries as a windfall. But this is inaccurate for a number of reasons, including the increasing cost of life as one gets older, including the necessity of things like medical insurance, the addition of further family members, and the inevitability that your paid-off car will die.

If your college students still look up some starting salaries and salivate, consider the number again but reduced by several hundred dollars a month in student loan payments in perpe-goddamn-tuity. One should consider whether one would still want to be a lawyer if one knew one would be firmly planted in the middle strata of the middle class for the rest of one’s life, and maybe have to fight to even get there.

There are a thousand reasons that a person should not become a lawyer. There are only two reasons a person should: (1) the person’s parent is an accomplished lawyer who has promised to set that person up in his practice and they have no problem with intense and sustained nepotism and/or (2) the person would be a superlative attorney.

Let me be clear about No. 2—I don’t mean that friends and parents have always said that you would be good at arguing, so you should be a lawyer. I mean that you really think you have unique and formidable skills, and that your reach isn’t beyond your grasp here. Perhaps I go too far, Marvin-who-I-don’t-know, but the contentedness with your work and the humility in your letter makes me think you fit this category.

I don’t mean to make that sound all breathless and romantic. I would encourage criminal lawyer wanna-bes to think to themselves, seriously, if there’s anything else they can see themselves doing. Consider your strengths, and consider your abilities. Consider how hard you want to fight to get a job, and consider what disadvantages you already have to deal with. There is nothing wrong with this not being right for you. You need to ask what it is that you can contribute. Don’t get into this because you want recognition. Get into this because you want to offer something to someone who doesn’t have it but needs it. If you don’t have what people need in the legal arena, think about what you have that would help fill a need somewhere else.

Dear Marvin, I would not suggest an answer to young aspirants. They have to come to that themselves. But I urge you to exercise the counselor part of your profession and speak to young people with all the unvarnished truth and blemished reality that you can muster. Consider the words of Caesar Augustus: “The graveyards are full of middling swordsmen. It is better to be no swordsman at all.”

In Solidarity,

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Allison Jackson Mathis


Allison Jackson Mathis is a public defendrix in Houston, Texas. She has held a variety of criminal defense jobs, including Chief Public Defender of the Republic of Palau, Tribal Advocate for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Washington, and even defended the public while living in a yurt outside of Aztec, New Mexico.