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Fear and Loathing at the Barrister's Ball

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The nurse adjusted her garters as I breathed my first,

The doctor grabbed my throat and yelled, "God's consolation prize!"

- Blank Generation, Richard Hell & The Voidoids

 

They kept reminding us that Barrister’s Ball isn’t Law School Prom. They’re right of course. Prom is far more fun. At my prom I was surrounded by great friends, some I’d recently met, others I’d known all my life. I had a hot date thanks to a serendipitous encounter at the mall while browsing tuxedos. We had the limo. We had the hotel room. We had the booze. More than that, what makes prom special is that it comes at the end of high school and as such brings with it a great deal of reflection and the limitless promise of tomorrow.

Barrister’s Ball is nothing like prom. It happens every year during law school, and consequently its value is diluted because of that. There is no reflection or feelings of nostalgia during Barrister’s because as a 2L, I still have one year to go. There’s also little, if any, promise of tomorrow because most of the people who have jobs lined up aren’t doing what they want to do. They’re doing whatever pays off their debt. You hear it everywhere you go, “I don’t like the work, but at least I have a job.” No high school kid at his prom dreams of growing up to become a debt collector. Any who do should schedule an appointment with Dr. Rob immediately.

So yes, they were right. Barrister’s Ball is not Law School Prom. But if it were, the theme would be Nihilism.

I arrive at my hotel right around check-in and immediately crack open the bottle of Macallan I brought with me. I’m waiting for more people to show up so we can start pre-gaming. I’ve got time to kill so I turn on Eagles of Death Metal and look over the 60 capsules of mescaline I have in my bag. Mescaline is a fun high; stronger than marijuana, less so than LSD. One doesn’t hallucinate on mescaline in the way one might under LSD or mushrooms, or at least not given the dosage I plan on taking tonight. Mescaline is a sensory enhancing drug more than anything else. My plan is to take 30 capsules—a relatively low dose, but given my experience level it should hit me enough for a fun ride—an hour before Barrister’s begins and either sharing the rest or re-dosing once my high wears off.

My classmate Kevin calls me to say the pre-game party is manifesting in his room. I grab my scotch and head over. I get to the room and see that Space Jam is playing on the TV. The coffee table is fully occupied with bottles of bourbon and rum, several ice buckets filled with cans of PBR, and now my scotch.

“Does it bother anyone else that we’re only a few blocks away from the DEA building?” I ask as I pour myself a drink.

“No, why would it?”

“This is a law school party. Surely someone is carrying.”

“I doubt that.”

I take a minute to consider that. Aren’t lawyers known as copious drug users? We were warned about this very thing during 1L orientation. We were told substance abuse was a serious concern and that we shouldn’t hesitate to seek counseling at the first sign of a problem. Of course immediately following that PSA we were invited to sample the fine bars that were conveniently within walking distance of campus. Kind of a mixed message. And yet for all the warnings we’ve been given, I’ve seen no drug use. I hear people talk about it, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s all merely talk and nothing more.

More people arrive and we’re now watching Space Jam with the sound off while listening to Danzig-era Misfits. They may not be cool, but at least they have good taste in music.

“Why the fuck are we here? In law school I mean. We knew the job market was shit. We knew we’d essentially be debt slaves after graduation. So why the hell did we still do it?”

“What’s the other option? I can’t tend bar for the rest of my life, and my poli sci degree isn’t worth a damn.”

“So why’d you get the poli sci degree in the first place?”

“Seemed interesting.”

“Are you working anywhere this summer?”

“My buddy got me a job doing doc review for some firm that’s being audited.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Whatever. It’s better than sitting at home all day jerking off.”

“I wonder.”

 

I head back to my room and take the mescaline. I try to arrange it so that it hits me just as I walk through the doors to the Ball. The entire time I’m thinking about what Kevin said to me. What’s the other option? My poli sci degree isn’t worth a damn. Does he sincerely think his law degree will be worth any more? I think that’s the essential fallacy of law school. It’s the belief that a law degree is worth something in and of itself. And maybe there was a time when it was. Not today. In a saturated market, nothing has inherent value. You have to set yourself apart to get noticed. The nihilists can’t do that. They think they’re playing the game by going to law school. They’re delusional to think they aren’t the ones being played. My secured transactions professor used to fail students all the time until the board had a chat with him. It doesn’t reflect well in the rankings if graduating 3Ls fail a class, especially a bar class. Last semester he didn’t give anything less than a C, and only four Cs were given at that. I’m not complaining about the boost in GPA—not that it matters; I’ve been on a dozen interviews and not once has the topic of GPA been brought up—but what’s happening here is the opposite of evolution. Instead of forcing us to get smarter, schools are dumbing down the material. Education is a business with a perverted model. Rather than produce a quality product, they’d much rather collect tuition and churn out incompetent lawyers year after year. I consider quantity over quality to be a hallmark of nihilism.

I head down to the party and thankfully the mescaline hits me as I place my first drink order. Most of the guys are huddling by the flat screen to watch the Ohio State-Kansas game. The girls are congregating by the dance floor and photo booth. Grammy night, damn right, we got dressed up. Bottle after bottle till we got messed up. Kanye West seems like an odd choice; definitely the wrong message to be sending law students. He dropped out of college to pursue his dream. Most of us went to law school because we were too scared to follow ours.

As I stand by the bar and survey the scene around me, I can’t help but feel like De Niro in The Deer Hunter. He stood by the bar at his friend’s wedding, longing for Meryl Streep and watching everyone else have fun. And although he was alone, he didn’t look upset about it. He and his friends were going off to war soon and the fun they were having that night meant more because of it. That’s the key difference between my situation and De Niro’s. Any fun had at this party is meaningless.

You work hard, you play hard. This is an important balance. But what if the work is empty? Does that make the play equally as empty? It sure feels that way here tonight. I expected so much more from law school, and maybe that’s more my fault than theirs. This is debauchery at its most sterile. Six separate open bars scattered around the banquet hall of a hotel. Next week they’ll have some motivational speaker in this very room. Or maybe some pyramid scheme presentation. You too can sell real estate and make millions, just like Donald Trump! All you have to do is give us $500 so we can teach you how to rope in two of your friends, then they pay $500 a piece and rope in two friends each. Before you know it, you’ll all be doing blow off the tight asses of Brazilian models on your private yachts!

The mescaline is hitting me harder than I thought it would. The nine straight hours of drinking certainly hasn’t helped things. Everything seems like a dream. Are they really that excited over the fact that the bartender is letting them do shots? I guess that wasn’t the case last year. You get drunk enough to fool around with that coed you’ve been pining over all semester; maybe you even sneak away from a quickie. None of it is a reprieve. That’s what they don’t understand. What they don’t want to understand. That’s why they aren’t doing it right. Debauchery isn’t about impressing or proving something to other people. You do it for yourself. You do it because it’s a respite from the banality of academia and office life.

I’ve given up on the notion of sharing my psychedelics. No one’s biting. The point of psychedelics is to expand one’s consciousness. No one here is looking to do that. They’re content with booze. It makes sense. Alcohol is a nihilist’s best friend. Alcohol is a depressant. Drink enough and you’re numb to everything.

“Hey, you went to Michigan business school, right?”

I have no idea who this girl is, but she seems to know me. Apparently we took some classes together during undergrad.

“Yeah, we had Finance 407 together.” I took a shot in the dark.

“You could say that. You rarely came to class.”

“Can you blame me? The professor taught from a PowerPoint presentation. It’s not like I was missing anything.” How does she remember these things?

“So what are you up to now?” I ask.

“I’m here with my boyfriend, he’s a 3L.”

“Are you still in finance?”

“No, marketing.”

“Marketing… why?”

She clearly saw the disdain on my face because she immediately walked away, but not before flashing me a look usually reserved for war criminals. I go to the bar for a refill. They’re out of Jameson. Only liquor left is Cutty Sark. Between that and the fact that I’m coming down, I think it’s clear the party’s over.

 

I asked various people over the night why they went to law school. The answer was unilaterally: “Because I can’t do anything else.” And that may be what depresses me the most about all of this. That it really is that simple. There’s no deeper insight to be had. People go to law school as a last resort. In a saturated market where a majority of jobs neither create nor add value, where people know just enough to not know anything, law school remains the more risk averse option. Writing briefs and doing doc review may not be as stable as it used to be, but it’s still less scary than going out and staking your own claim. It’s no longer the survival of the fittest. Maybe it never was.

I now think that most students who enroll in law school do so because for them the pain of failure outweighs the regret of never trying. If you don’t try, you can’t fail. It really is that simple. The only sense of accomplishment that comes from practicing law is based on technicalities. “I won the case because I found a loophole in the wording of the statute that the opposition’s claim rested on.” Good job. I’m sure the partner gave you a private pat on the back as he openly took credit for the find in front of the client.

What I took from Barrister’s was a restrengthening of my resolve to get back to the finance side of the table. That’s not to say that Wall St. doesn’t have its share of nihilists, possibly even more so than in the legal community. Anyone who sees life as a zero sum game is a nihilist in my eyes. The thing that’s always bothered me about law is that I see litigators as janitors and deal lawyers as middle-men. Litigators clean up other people’s messes. Deal lawyers are facilitating other people’s projects. They’re a notch above underwriters. Both are absolutely necessary, I just don’t want to be either.

[Read more from Shadow Hand]


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