Just about a generation ago, Joseph D. Mandel entered Yale Law School with an undergraduate degree and an MBA. His professors took notice. Most of his classmates had started law school immediately after graduating from college, but Mandel was a few years older because he had obtained his business degree. On the first day of classes, each of Mandel's three professors called on him to expose his ignorance of the law and level the playing field.
Like Mandel, the recently retired UCLA vice chancellor whom I met on campus during my sophomore year, I too stood out when I started law school three years ago. Only it was for the opposite reason: I was one of the few in my class who hadn't done anything between college and law school?except watch television.
Remember the Reese Witherspoon hit Legally Blonde? In one scene of that movie the heroine, Elle Woods, meets with her classmates. Each one turns out to have an advanced degree of some sort, while poor old Elle merely majored in fashion merchandising at "CULA." Well, among my classmates, my undergraduate degree in psychology and history made me the fashion-major equivalent.
One of my classmates had a PhD in economics and worked as a university professor. Then there was the aid worker who had helped set up orphanages in Kosovo; the Greek national who had worked on European Union issues; and the fluent Pashto and Farsi speaker who had landed a job with a film production company working as an adviser for the movie The Kite Runner.
It was all rather intimidating, actually. But apart from angst, what I take away from my law school experience is a sense that the law profession is changing in ways that the baby boom generation couldn't have imagined. And judging from my peers, one of the more dramatic changes is that the law is becoming less and less of a stand-alone profession.
To wit: I just sat for the California Bar in July, but quite a few of my classmates did not. They are planning to pursue careers that are not specific to the practice of law. Yet even those of us who sit for the bar and associate with a firm are different from our predecessors in some significant ways.
In the not-too-distant past, law school graduates chose a legal field and then took jobs in that field upon graduation. If you wanted to work in criminal law, you either worked as a prosecutor or set up shop as a criminal-defense attorney. If you wanted to work at a firm, you entered one?where you stayed until death or retirement. The only exceptions were a few who wished to cap their prestigious firm careers with something no farther afield than a judgeship or some other form of government service.
Today, I cannot think of a single classmate of mine who expects to spend his or her entire career at one firm, or even to stay in one specialty. We do not and cannot think that way. Immediately after graduation, the objective is simply to find a job that provides the best training and helps pay our astronomical debts. After that, though, the options seem endless?which is why the word lateral has become a verb.
There is also greater movement away from the law. More and more young attorneys move to the business world after briefly flirting with the legal profession. In fact, many believe the recent rounds of salary increases at major law firms arose out of the need to stop the hemorrhaging of mid-level associates to other careers. This trend comes back to the education that today's young lawyers receive: After all, when Mandel entered law school, most people had not heard of a masters of business administration.
Today, in contrast, you would be hard pressed to find a university with both a law school and a business school that does not offer some sort of a joint degree. In fact, "interdisciplinary legal studies" is the new buzz around legal academia: Schools cannot wait to start the first "[Fill in the Blank] and Law program" or the first "Law and [Fill in the Blank] Center." Again, the end result is a crop of law students trained in areas beyond the law.
In short, the legal profession is no longer a profession, but a vague association of jobs occupied by law school graduates. Those who end up taking these jobs, however, are more than qualified?and apparently eager?to enter many other fields. Here's one "fashion major," at least, who is not complaining.
Armen Adzhemyan (firstname.lastname@example.org), an associate at the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, where he was a senior editor at the Berkeley Journal of International Law.