So you want to be a criminal lawyer...

Why Graduation Ceremonies Are Stupid

When I first started my criminal law practice, I joined something called a networking group. The idea of a networking group is to meet weekly with the group and refer business to each other. In order to join the particular networking group that I did, they required me to go through an interview with two people and provide references. I thought this was ridiculous at the time, but provided them anyway. Much to my shock, I was told by my references that they actually called.

I am not sure if this was psychologically supposed to make me think that I had achieved something by getting to join this networking group. If it was, I was never fooled by the fact that the group pretended to have barriers to entry similar to the process of getting a job. It became immediately apparent to me that, unlike a job, there was no money on the other side of this job-interview-type process and the whole thing was a sham, so I left shortly after joining the group.

This was not the first time in my life I had been struck by the dissonance between the trappings surrounding an experience and the outcome. The first time this dissonance struck me was at my graduation ceremonies, all three of them – my undergrad, law school and call to the bar.

To understand the fullness of the dissonance I experienced, you have to understand that I grew up loving the Cosby Show. The Cosby Show ends with Theo, who famously struggled in school, graduating from College and his father Cliff beaming with pride. Cliff and his wife Claire literally dance with joy out of the view of the camera at the accomplishment of their son Theo. As a kid, this had a big impression on me and I thought of graduating from university as a big, meaningful achievement. To me, graduating was the kind of achievement where the person who graduated had accomplished something that distinguished him or her and was symbolic of the fact that they had ‘made it.’ I held on to this view until the last possible moment where it was revealed to me as a lie and I just could no longer justify it.

At my first graduation ceremony from business school, the lie of my world view about university was laid bare. I almost did not attend by undergraduate graduation ceremony because it seemed like an exercise in silliness, considering that I was attending law school in the fall and my life has a student had not ended, but I convinced myself to attend because of how long it had been in my mind that graduating from university was a great achievement and a mark of distinction. But when I finally got the piece of paper and put it in a frame, nothing cosmic happened. I was still broke, still going off to law school and about to take on significant debts and still had never made a dime related to my education, so what exactly was I celebrating? I still have no idea.

I had the same feeling of dissonance when I graduated from law school and my call to the bar. I can remember graduating from law school and being full of angst about my debt and career path. Only time and more significant achievements could tell whether I had made the right decision. Law school is designed to generate winners and losers and everybody knows this right away, which is what makes it so competitive and only time would tell which one I was. Would the sacrifice I had made in going to school and not working for three years of my life be worth it? Would the debt I took on be worth it? These are very important questions for anyone who devoted years of his or her life to getting called to the bar. Until I got the answer, I was not sure whether the graduating was an achievement worth celebrating or a mistake worth lamenting.

My problem with my graduation ceremonies is much like my problem with the networking group – providing the trappings of an achievement does not make it one. Seeing how the situation has deteriorated since I graduated for law students in terms of the debt it creates and the competitiveness of the job market, it must be an even stranger experience for many law students to sit there celebrating something that may very well turn out to be a costly mistake.

The truth is that the graduation ceremony in law school and the call to the bar ceremony is, in many cases, a lie. The poshness, regal gowns and idealistic speeches about changing the world do not change this. In fact, they can confuse the attendee about the meaningfulness of the achievement. The best approach for law students to take is to recognize that your law degree in and of itself is not really an achievement at all and does not entitle you to anything. You are much more likely to be successful if you adopt this mentality than if you adopt the Cosby Show mentality that graduating from university means you ‘made it.’

I take time in my life to celebrate achievements and milestones. They are an important part of the enjoyment of life. But the dissonance between the opulence and idealism of those graduation ceremonies and the reality I was facing made me feel bewildered and confused. I actually had to get over the Cosby Show mentality that my law degree entitled me to something in order to become successful. To the extent that graduation ceremonies have the ability to steer you away from this mentality and towards the Cosby Show mentality, they are stupid.


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