Taking a leap of faith
September 4th, 2012 by Briana Cummings
When I decided to go to law school I was five years into a doctoral program in education policy. I had completed all my course requirements and passed my qualifying paper, but I was hitting a wall trying to come up with a dissertation proposal that would simultaneously interest me and satisfy my three advisors. As they dragged their feet with reading the qualifying paper and proposal drafts, I was running out of both money and patience. To distract myself from frustration, isolation, and flagging sense of purpose I focused instead on wedding planning and on an injury I thought at the time was carpal tunnel syndrome but that now I think was just a manifestation of stress.
On the day after my wedding in Salem, Massachusetts, the first of these distractions was gone. With no more wedding to plan, I sat with my mother and new husband in my parents’ airy living room in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a small town north of Salem, and decided I didn’t like what I was doing with my life.
In the course of the discussion that ensued in that sunny room, I finally rejected the unsatisfying academic trajectory I was already on, as well as my mother’s suggestion of a career in journalism or history scholarship. Though I love writing, I was becoming frustrated with my life in academia. I wanted to feel more “in the thick of it.” Within two hours, I had made up my mind to apply to law school.
Lawyers I knew said I shouldn’t go to law school; I would hate the law. My friends said they couldn’t see me as a lawyer; I’m too “sweet.” The woman who ran the disability department in my doctoral program said I should think about finding a job that wouldn’t require me to use my hands or a computer, since I appeared to have an incurable condition.
I didn’t have time to worry about any of this because the LSAT was four weeks away. I decided to just study for it and worry about the rest later. Most of the LSAT was multiple choice. For the rest, I practiced by dictating my work to my computer or, when he was available, to my husband. As for getting through law school and a law career unable to use a keyboard without pain, I would figure it out later.
I had no definite plan for what I wanted to do with my law degree, except that I knew I didn’t want to follow in the shoes of my college friends, who all joined big firms after graduating from law school. Nor, after five years in graduate school, did I have any money. My parents couldn’t help, and my husband was a graduate student like me.
It took me about an hour or two of discussion with my mother and husband on that day to decide to pursue a legal career targeting underserved populations. But in a sense it has taken me four years to make this decision because I had to constantly reaffirm it. I had to reaffirm it each time I decided to keep going through with the application. I had to reaffirm it in each decision I made in law school about what courses to take or extracurricular activities to participate in. I had to reaffirm it when I decided not to participate in my school’s Early Interview Program, where all my classmates locked down their jobs with big firms almost a year before graduation. I had to reaffirm it again soon before graduation as I stared down the barrel at possible unemployment and huge student debt but still turned down jobs working in local government or for policy-oriented non-profits because – again – I didn’t want to be on a soapbox calling other people to action; I wanted to be on the ground myself helping people solve their immediate problems.
Sometimes I wonder why I “wasted” five years in a program for a degree I never ended up getting. But it may be that that experience gave me the willingness to take a risk on a career path that few people I knew had taken, with no financial cushion, and the determination to see it through despite hardship. Or maybe it just gave me a mule-headed unwillingness to do something with my life that didn’t feel meaningful and important to me.