The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Law School


Tonight, on the eve of my twenty-seventh birthday, while pumping away on a stationary bike at the gym, I finished reading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel in which characters perceive life in varying degrees of lightness or heaviness. The book, my impending birthday, and the grunting of undergrad weightlifters in much better shape than I, made me reflect on the light and heavy moments of my last year of law school and life—or, to borrow a phrase I used as a teacher to get my students to reflect on the positives and negatives of their experience, my “roses and thorns.”

Like the novel, I’ve noticed that in law school every situation can usually be viewed from two sides:  the plaintiff or the defendant, pro or con, innocent or guilty. What may be light or positive from one perspective under the law is equally heavy or negative from the other. In this spirit, here are a few of the roses and thorns from my twenty-sixth year, as a law student and otherwise (cue the 1988 Poison classic Every Rose Has Its Thorn):

Year Two, Baby.

Year Two, Baby.

Rose: I survived the first year of law school!

Thorn: The day after my last final exam, I picked up a hundred-plus page packet for the grueling week-long writing contest necessary to qualify for a law journal.

Rose: I learned more in Maclin’s Constitutional Law class than in any other class I’ve ever taken.

Thorn: I’ve never before seen grown men and women visibly cower when called on by a professor. I’ve also never worked so hard for a B+ in my life—and been happy about the outcome.

Rose: I got my first legal internship, at the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, and actually applied a few of the cases I learned in Maclin’s class.

Thorn: I didn’t get paid (although I did get a Public Interest Project grant, thank goodness).

Rose: I started dating a wonderful fellow law student, and our relationship survived the Boston winter and two excruciating rounds of law school finals.

Thorn: More often than not, our dates now involve side-by-side laptops, Evidence textbooks, and bottomless cups of coffee.

Rose: Over the summer, I attended the wedding of a teaching buddy from our shared years at a Bronx high school and celebrated the birth of a close friend from home’s second child.

Thorn: I also attended the memorial for a college friend and fellow law student who died far too young.

Rose: 2L year has brought exciting new hands-on opportunities in the Civil Litigation Clinic and on the American Journal of Law and Medicine, which, in addition to building my legal research and writing skills, provides free bagels and juice every Wednesday.

Thorn: I am busier than I was 1L year, and there is no sign of letting up.

Rose: I get to enjoy the voice of Mark “the singing professor” Pettit three days a week in Evidence, after being collectively serenaded in Contracts during my first year.

Thorn: Pettit sings much less in Evidence, there are as many rules in Evidence as there were in Contracts, and I have to endure another one of his painstaking final exams.

Rose: I plan on celebrating my twenty-seventh birthday and Halloween this weekend by dressing up as “Zombie Elvis”—somethings/people only get better with age . . .

Thorn: Before long, the cold weather will bring finals season, and the law tower will be overrun by zombie law students.

In anticipating my twenty-seventh year, and the rest of my law school career, I expect many more roses and thorns. As some of the above examples suggest, the highs and lows seem to grow more serious with age. But, regardless of what happens, I resolve to see, when possible, the rose rather than the thorn; to feel unbearably light rather than heavy.

In a very difficult job market for law students/lawyers, especially when our entire law school is crammed into a single seventeen-story tower and forced to ride packed elevators up and down continuously, law school can feel stressful. But at the end of the day, life is not that bad. I wake up around 9am most mornings (about three hours later than when I was a teacher). I am busy once I get my coffee and get going, and often work during evenings and increasingly on weekends, but I do have time to go out with friends, go to the gym, and read a novel (while at the gym). The job market stinks—how many times do we have to remind ourselves—but we are on the path to a successful profession, and the vast majority of us will be more than okay when all is said and done.

Of course, life feels a little lighter, and the roses smell a little sweeter, when it’s your birthday.


dlinhart posted on October 29, 2010 at 11:00 am

Happy birthday! I sure remember writing onto a journal, a worthy challenge it was… I’m on board with choosing to carry life lightly, as much as we can make that choice– in part to enjoy life more, but I guess for myself, it’s mostly to be more effective, to ward of discouragement, to fight the good fight as the saying goes!

B Greene posted on October 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm

good post Jeff

Tom C posted on November 10, 2010 at 4:49 pm

I liked this post and it is certainly applicable to far more than law school. It is a good philosophy to go through life with.

Alexandria posted on November 15, 2010 at 2:03 am

for me, the unbearable lightness of being is best described as a delicate balance between ambition and acceptance.

when Nietzsche asked how a person might respond, in her loneliest lonely, to the suggestion that her life may repeat over and over again, she is faced with two possibilities:

1. this is the first time i have lived, so i must do everything to make it the best, in the event it is to be repeated an infinite number of times.
2. this is the millionth time i have lived, and these events are pre-determined.

the best part of the book is that it does not make you decide being a free will advocate or a determinist. in the end, it leaves you both very hopeful and curiously comfortable. in law school, you have to vie for the roses and accept the thorn pricks.

who knows. maybe we’ve all been law students a million times before, and the course of events are not in our control. so light! [the song has been written.] or, maybe we are really doing this for the first time – a heavy burden! [we’re writing the music on a sheet of blank bars.]