This is a bad time to become a lawyer. The erosion of the old boy network, increased applications to university, a contracting economy, pressure on higher education and rising tuition fees all add up to a murderously competitive environment. In the UK, only one in five newly qualified barristers will find work in chambers this year. There is a certain kind of madness required to look at a situation like that, recognise just how difficult a career practising law is, and then ignore it and try anyway. But that's what I want to do.
So maybe that's why this video affected me so much. If you can't see it, it's a guy burning his degree from Harvard Law School, because he wants to follow his dreams. And I'll be honest. It makes me furious. Not because I think there's anything wrong with following your dreams. Or because I think there's anything particularly sacred about a piece of paper. You certainly don't need it to be happy. But the problem is that although the paper itself might be worthless, there's the question of what it represents. To the guy with the lighter, it might just represent four wasted years and something that was making him unhappy. That's fine. But you also have to be aware of what other people take it to represent, and once you've released that sort of thing into the wild, to a certain extent you're responsible for it whether you like it or not. That's what criticism is, after all. You can say it's unfounded, you can choose not to listen to it, but it's going to be there and you're going to be aware of it. Not everyone will look at things the same way as you; and it occurs to me that an essential part of practising law is the empathy and the reasoning required to see those other perspectives.
I won't delve too deeply into the semiology at work here, but here is what a burning Harvard law degree represents to me. It represents a lot of time, a lot of cost, a lot of effort, and most importantly, a lot of privilege, being discarded. And fair enough, on a personal level. It's your degree, you earned it, and you can do what you like with it. But the reason it irks me so much is because there are thousands upon thousands of qualified, eager people who would kill for the chance to earn that piece of paper. And thousands who never got the chance. Today, a year's tuition at Harvard Law School is $51,000. So when you say that following your dreams is more than just that paper, you're more right than you know. Because people for whom that degree is a dream aren't dreaming of the paper. They're dreaming of the hard work and the effort that went into getting it, and the knowledge that having got it, that that's been recognised. And even if you don't care about the degree itself, for some people that piece of paper is still a thing they need in order to follow their dreams. Whatever the reason anyone got into law in the first place, that idealism that made them want to brave odds that were stacked against them, because they wanted to help people, or to prevent injustice, or put criminals in prison, or even just to grandstand in a courtroom and ask lots of questions starting with 'Isn't it true...' in a faintly superior tone. So when you burn that piece of paper, and then put it on YouTube to show to the world, I think it'd be hard for those people not to take it as an insult.
That's my first objection. My second is this; as Judge Sinclair says, to know how to be a good lawyer you have to know how to be a good man. To be a good father, a good husband, and so on. And to me, part of that is an ability to own your mistakes. Maybe you're not happy in the law. Maybe it's not right for you, maybe it's not what you thought it would be. So, put your degree in a drawer somewhere, learn from the experience and move on with your life. Sell your apartment, couchsurf, wash yourself with moist towelettes and find your spirit animal. Whatever. But I'm a firm believer in the idea that with privilege comes responsibility. Even if you never wanted or asked for the privilege in the first place. It's just a piece of paper, but it's a piece of paper very few people get the chance to earn. So even if you don't respect the paper, maybe try respecting those people. Following your dreams doesn't give you the right to trample someone else's.