In this new series, we are profiling legal professionals and J.D.s and asking them the hard questions that don’t always get answered in law school. For example, how did they find their job? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? And, was law school a worthwhile investment?
Richard Delgado, JD, and Jean Stefancic, MA, teach courses on race and the American legal system at Seattle University School of Law. Two of the leading scholars on critical race theory, they have written books, law review articles, and appeared on national news. Their recent book How Lawyers Lose Their Way: A Profession Fails Its Creative Minds addresses unhappiness in the legal profession. They talk with us about the importance of storytelling, creativity, and collaboration. And they tell us their tips for staying happy in their careers.
RecruiterEsq: Thank you for speaking to us today! As a disclaimer, I had the two of you when you were at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law as Derrick Bell scholars. I took your class on Race, Racism, and American Law where I was introduced to critical race theory. For those unfamiliar with this area of scholarship, can you give us a little background?
As a professor, I’m tempted to ask you the usual Socratic question–What do you think? I believe you know the answer. Critical race theory is a modern version of civil rights theory and scholarship that developed in the mid-1980s when some bright professors and lawyers around the country realized, more or less simultaneously, that the heady gains of the civil rights era had stalled and, in some cases, were being rolled back. New approaches were needed to counter the forms of institutional, subtle, or unconscious discrimination that were developing and an American public that was increasingly tired of hearing about race.
How did you two become involved with critical race theory?
We’ve been in it since the beginning. Richard attended the small founding workshop, held in a convent outside Madison, Wisconsin, in 1989. Shortly afterward, we published the first collection of critical race theory writing, Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge (Temple University Press), now in its second edition. Since then, we’ve participated in most of the meetings and workshops and written some of the foundational literature. We also co-edited a book series, Critical America, for NYU Press, that lasted for 14 years and published over 70 books on race, equality, and social critique.
In critical race theory, storytelling plays a big role. How does storytelling relate to good lawyering?
Creating a persuasive story or narrative of the client’s case is an essential part of winning the jury over to your side. It’s also a creative and fulfilling task that can make you happy–much more so than reviewing ten cartons full of documents or writing a 50-page brief with 300 citations.
Richard, you graduated from University of California at Berkeley with your JD. Your undergraduate degree is in mathematics and philosophy. How did you decide to go to law school? Do you ever regret your choice?
I wanted to learn to think and write about social theory, particularly in the area of race and civil rights. I’ve never regretted my decision.
Did you move into academia directly after law school? Did you enter law school with a game plan or an end goal for your career?
I went directly from law school at Berkeley to teaching, skipping the usual period of practice or clerking. By the time I graduated, I was fairly sure I wanted a career in teaching and scholarship, and when the opportunity came my way, I seized it. My first position was at Arizona State University College of Law, then the University of Washington. My game plan, as you put it, was to obtain tenure, which I did, in my third year at Washington, and then look around for a good position at a school that valued scholarship and was located near my roots and family. When UCLA came calling, I was ready.
Is that a usual career path in legal academia? Or, was it harder for you because of you never practiced?
Yes, particularly at first. I was only slightly older than many of my students. That is no longer a problem, but I do try to keep in touch with the profession by taking lawyers to lunch periodically, keeping in touch wtih ex-students, and, of course, doing a lot of reading.
Jean, your background is in liberal arts. How did you get involved with the law? How does your background affect your perspective?
Early in life, I became a librarian, worked first at Harvard, and afterward at a number of places while married to a Unitarian minister and being a mom. Our lives were social justice oriented. In 1980 we moved to San Francisco where, with my son now in school, I found a position at the University of San Francisco law school. The school was then an early center of critical thought, with scholars such as Charles Lawrence, Trino Grillo (pdf), John Powell, Stephanie Wildman, and John Denvir beginning to write foundational texts. Because my interests lay in social theory and activism, they invited me to join their reading group. I met Richard, who was friends with the USF critical theory group, at a law conference; we found much to talk about and began writing together soon afterward. During that time I also earned an M.A. in creative writing. I’ve been writing law review articles and books, and fiction and poetry, ever since.
Have you always collaborated in your careers?
Yes, although it hasn’t been easy. For example, it wasn’t until 2003 that we were able to secure teaching positions for both of us at the University of Pittsburgh. Before then, at the University of Colorado, Jean worked as a senior research associate, a position that did not enable her to teach in the classroom.
What a shame! I was lucky to have both of you!! In your class, you also invited Derrick Bell to speak to us as a visiting scholar. How do you think collaboration benefits the legal profession?
Bell is a good storyteller and spellbinding speaker. We were lucky to be able to get him. Although most serious writers are lone wolves when it comes to their creative process, collaboration on many other tasks–including teaching–can be a rewarding activity. It brings you in touch with another mind and enables you to expand your perspective, which is inherently enjoyable and rewarding.
Your book, How Lawyers Lose Their Way: A Profession Fails Its Creative Minds, addresses the unhappiness of people in the legal profession. I downloaded the book on my Kindle but I have not read it. How did you two come up with the idea for researching this subject?
In addition to critical theory, the legal profession has been a strong second interest of ours. In recent years, our concern for the wellbeing of lawyers increased when we would see our own students, particularly our former research assistants, a few years after graduation. During law school, when we knew them, they would be full of life, at the top of their game. A few years later, we might run into them at an alumni gathering or bar event, and they would seem prematurely tired and shopworn. Their hair might be thinning or falling out; they might have gained or lost weight. They might have developed facial tics. Many of them seemed distinctly unhappy. Earlier, we had done some research on a prominent lawyer-poet (Archibald MacLeish), who seemed unhappy, as well, although for different reasons. So, we decided to study happiness and unhappiness in the legal profession today. We read every single study and survey of lawyers’ happiness that we could lay our hands on and were shocked at what we found.
Is your book written specifically with practicing lawyers in mind? Or, do you see the same lack of/need for creativity and enjoyment in the academic world of law?
Teaching law remains one of the few jobs where it is possible to be a lawyer and relatively fulfilled and happy at the same time. Even there, however, you see some of the same forces–regimentation, accountability, pressure to produce–beginning to set in that make legal practitioners so unhappy. Although we wrote the book with lawyers in mind, professors are starting to feel the heat, too. This is true not just in law, but across the board. Professors in every discipline complain of a new corporate or business model, with detailed reporting requirements and oversight. One university system has even begun requiring professors to file lesson plans ahead of time!
Without asking for too many spoilers, do you provide recommendations as for how lawyers can use their creative minds?
Within the existing system, one can opt for a smaller firm or agency that offers work-life balance. The work will still be mundane, highly fragmented and specialized, regimented, and carried out under a system of billable hours and competition for partnerships. Not very appealing for persons with creative minds and high ideals. It would be better, in our opinion, if we spent less attention trying to incorporate a few cosmetic changes in a fairly dismal landscape and tried to change that landscape itself. Not too many years ago, law was a much more rewarding profession than it is now. Every older practitioner with whom we spoke told us so.
One review mentioned that the book is a catalyst for discussion. Do you think this discussion should happen on a national level? A local level? Perhaps we should start a Google group or wiki to broaden the discussion!
Since we wrote the book, others have written other books. And now everyone is talking about misery, over-regimentation, and how we have gone astray. Law students at Stanford and other elite schools are clamoring for better terms from legal employers and threatening to withhold their services unless they get them. Just last month, two sections of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) at the annual meeting of law professors in San Francisco co-sponsored a panel session on just this topic. The two of us, along with Deborah Rhode and Nancy Levit, who are also authors of books on the legal profession’s troubles, spoke to an overflow audience of over 300. The latest issue of American Bar Association Journal (ABAJ) addresses unhappiness in the bar. The topic is front burner news.
I’m glad to see the topic in the news. What responsibility do you think law schools have to their students?
The law schools need to do a better job of countering the excesses of formalism and regimentation that make legal thinking so arid and unappealing, and the practice of law so deadly. Critical theory and interdisciplinary courses try to combat these trends, but a powerful counter-movement that emphasizes skills and narrow professional values is taking the life out of law–and of students.
The term “preventative care” is mentioned frequently in the health care debate. What measures of preventative care would you recommend for the lawlorn?
Notice when those around you are getting sick, and leave before you do, too. Make a close study of workplaces and types of practice that appeal to you and that you know, instinctively, will make you happy, challenged, and fulfilled. Then, go there, even if it entails a pay cut.
Speaking of the lawlorn, you, Richard, used to contribute to blackprof.com with an advice column to the lawlorn. How did you get involved with blogging? What are some of the lessons you learned from your involvement with that site?
I learned to write fast and succinctly, in short sentences, and with wit and humor.
Great skills, says the blogging advocate! Unfortunately, blackprof is no longer live. Is there any way for the lawlorn to access the archives to Dear Mom?
I (Richard) went looking for one of my postings the other day and couldn’t find it. The site seems to be down and out for the count. If one of your technologically adept readers has any clues about how to find the site’s old content, I’d love to hear them. I didn’t keep copies.
Ah, that’s unfortunate! Well, what websites do you two visit on a daily or weekly basis?
A few to add to my own blogroll/Google reader! Onto the elephant in the room: student loans. It’s hard to avoid the issue of student loans and money when talking about happiness in the legal industry. Many people I know may have liked to use creativity in their jobs but they need to work as hourly, document review attorneys in order to pay bills. Many public interest attorneys work long hours and get paid very little whereas many large firm associates work long hours and get paid a lot. While it seems the grass is always greener, both types suffer from burn out or depression. What are your thoughts on how money affects happiness?
Beyond a point, perhaps $70,000 a year, income does not correlate with happiness. Student debt, however, is an extremely corrosive force that makes people work in ways that do not appeal to them, simply to be able to pay the lenders back. Fortunately, some law schools and the federal government are taking small steps toward loan forgiveness for graduates wishing to practice public interest law.
How have you two found happiness in your own careers?
By speaking our minds, as we are doing now. By helping as many students as we can. By helping our kids. By writing as many hours a day or week as we can squeeze in, in line with our other commitments.
Wonderful tips from awesome, inspiring people. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us!
Keep up the good work.
Richard Delgado is university professor of law, Seattle University, and distinguished professor of law emeritus at University of Pittsburgh, where he was also the Derrick Bell Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jean Stefancic is research professor of law, Seattle University, and research professor of law emeritus at University of Pittsburgh, where she was also the Derrick Bell Scholar. Contact her at email@example.com.