Tunnel Vision

A journalist recently asked me to respond, as a law student, to the video posted on Huffington Post in which law students tell their sixteen-year-old selves not to go to law school.

My first reaction: the video is a funny piece of satire that reminds me of the videos created by BU Law’s own sketch comedy group, Legal Follies, which performed hilariously last weekend (see this Thriller parody).

My second reaction: some law students do occasionally exaggerate their plight when bemoaning their long hours in the library, massive amounts of debt, poor job prospects, and cramped elevator rides.

Law school is tough and expensive. The job market stinks. We all know this.

But at the end of the day, my peers and I at BU Law are positioned to attain meaningful and/or lucrative careers for the rest of our lives, and to leverage our degrees to make social, political, or economic waves if we choose.

In my Wrongful Convictions seminar, we talked about prosecutorial “tunnel vision,” whereby prosecutors become so convinced of their theory of the defendant’s guilt that they overlook exculpatory evidence and arguments.

Law students, too, are guilty of tunnel vision.

Sometimes we get so consumed by law school that we forget to see the big picture of how law school fits into the trajectory of our lives. This is not to say that we don’t—and shouldn’t—focus intently and singularly on the studies before us. This is necessary to do well. But, at the same time (though of course not during finals), we have to occasionally take off the blinders to see what it is we are working so hard for.

I imagine that for some students, spouses and children help provide this perspective. For me, a single young man with no close family nearby, I have to work harder to break the tunnel vision. I have done so by going on weekend hikes and camping trips, by flying home to Kansas, by interacting with non-law students. Most dramatically, I have done so by spending a weekend every month or so working with special needs kids at a residential treatment program in a nearby state.

The kids, who are 8-20 years old and have difficulties ranging from depression to Asperger’s to criminal charges, live on the setting 24-7, often far away from their parents and homes. During the week, they go to school, participate in therapy, and return to their dorms at night—all the while supervised closely by staff. On the weekends, when I work, the kids have more relaxed schedules, playing basketball, watching movies, and sometimes going on field trips.

Two weekends ago, I chaperoned a ski trip for a handful of kids. On the ride to the mountain, I chatted with a seventeen-year-old boy about President Obama’s record and the merits of the various Republican candidates. He was incredibly bright and precocious, yet I learned he had suffered from debilitating anxiety that had caused him to miss weeks of school when he wouldn’t get out of bed or leave his house. Another boy on the trip, the cutest eight-year-old ski demon you have ever seen, exhibited such severe mood swings that he had threatened his own mother with a kitchen knife.

The ski trip was awesome except that the older boy got hurt and had to go to the hospital. As I sat in the waiting room for three hours that Saturday night, still in my ski gear, I thought about the challenges that the kids in my care had faced, were facing, and would continue to face in life. For most, law school would not be one of them.

I return to Boston and my law school life that Sunday afternoon. I go to the law tower the next morning for my Trusts and Estates class to hear students complaining about the elevators, the long reading assignments, the weather, and so on. I cannot help but think about the kids I spent the weekend with, including one high school senior for whom simply getting out of bed each morning to go to class is an extreme struggle.

This weekend, like the others, reminds me of two things. One, most of us have it pretty good here in law school and in life. Two, I know that I will somehow use my talents—legally or otherwise—to work with youth again, whether as a mock trial coach, a teacher/tutor, or as a legal advocate.

Though I must put the blinders back up for now—this time for Corporations—I am scheduled to work with kids again in two short weeks.

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