I often get asked by people, mostly other trans women, about law school: what it is like for me and whether they should enroll. When it is a trans woman, I always ask, “Have you read Dean Spade’s For Those Considering Law School?” Usually they have, a combination of affirmation at knowing this piece of radical text and anxiety at its implications plays on their face as they begin to list off what they believe are the truisms of the piece.
At this point I usually interrupt: “Ignore it. Ignore all of it. Especially for you, especially for our community, completely ignore it. Deciding to go to law school is an incredibly difficult decision informed by criminal records, debt, pathways to providing for your family (biological or chosen), and professionalism. And Dean Spade’s piece does not help navigate any of it.”
I know this probably sounds a little harsh, especially to someone who in part owes her legal career thus far to Dean Spade (my first real legal work being for Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which he founded). So I want to create a touchstone to explain why I find his argument to be so counterproductive, privileged, and problematic.
- The character of legal work is defined by the movements it is rooted in. Changing the law changes lives. It is utterly foolish, ultra-leftist hyperbole to say otherwise. Throughout history, some of the most important revolutionary figures have been lawyers: Paul Robeson, Pauli Murray, Vladimir Lenin, and Fidel Castro to name just a few. The United States is no exception – the abolition of Jim Crow apartheid has had a profound effect on the lives of millions of people of color, and it would never have happened but for the work of Thurgood Marshall and the many other lawyers of the NAACP. Lawyers were important to all the radical movements of the 1960’s, from women’s liberation to the Black Panther Party. Dean Spade writes with the insinuation that the compromises made by movements throughout history are the fault of the lawyers who agreed to them. It is not terribly surprising considering Spade is part of a movement that projects the abolitionist approach to the prison system onto all politics. Why this politic is ineffective and problematic is a piece for another time – for now I will just say that compromise always has been an important part of revolutionary movements and need not be equivalent to concession. Compromises were vital to the Cuban Revolution, to the October Revolution, and to the Venezuelan Revolution. In each of these instances, the compromises in time produced faults and fractures, more problems to be solved, but that does not absolve the good that they did. Spade then makes the rather contradictory argument that transformation actually happens when “transformative demands  exceed the limits of law.” This statement is a slap in the face to the legal movements like the NAACP’s campaign to end Jim Crow apartheid, a decades long movement of Black peoples of all genders and socio-economic backgrounds – their demands very much exceeded the limits of law. Perhaps Spade has internalized the ABA’s rules of professional responsibility too deeply, because I and many other law students, lawyers, and legal workers have never let the current state of the law limit our dreams and goals for the future. That is merely a choice.
- Only a white man can think that legal work can be done without a law degree. I have done a lot of legal work pre-law school, mostly with assistance to people in prison to file various pro se claims, complaints, and motions. Even at this point I knew this argument was incredibly problematic. The legal work of someone like Dean Spade will not be questioned, regardless of whether or not he has a legal degree, whereas women in general, people of color in general, and trans women are almost automatically dismissed. I remember one time when I suggest filing a writ of mandamus and a white man told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. A couple of months later, counsel in the case filed a writ of mandamus successfully. Professionalism is problematic but the vast majority of oppressed people cannot afford to be so flippant about it as someone like Dean Spade. And any proceeding’s chance of success is improved by professional credentials. Despite Spade’s assertion that poverty lawyering is basically social work, there are many elements that are most certainly not and benefit from or require a lawyer to execute properly (bankruptcy, class actions, debt collection, and small claims, to name just a few). Further, upon entering law school, I realized that indeed there are very many things that I do not know about the law and have become twice the legal advocate I was before. And most importantly, I was constantly burnt out. I often was working two to three jobs in order to make ends meet because the legal work I did was rarely compensated, mostly because the populations I was helping never had the means to pay me. As automation increases, as Marx and many others have shown it will continue to do so, the first jobs to be cut will always be the legal workers without JDs. You can try to fight that, but it is an unstoppable wave that has already begun to crush the legal workers with software like Westlaw and Nexis, services that give lawyers a huge advantage over legal workers. The only way to stop this mass disenfranchisement is to provide affordable legal educations to anyone who wants it and to reform the LSAT, the Bar, and all the other barriers to becoming a lawyer. One horrifying trend popular in movement lawyering these days is to “solve” the problem by providing more pro se services. Pro se clients are far more likely, even with assistance from a lawyer beforehand, to have their actions dismissed or impeded, especially when rules of civil procedure and other specialized legal mechanisms are used against them. Pro se is no replacement for Civil Gideon, and those who have resigned themselves to a world without Civil Gideon are intrinsically part of the problem.
- Law school is a risky economic investment and like most in capitalism it can be very rewarding. Risk, as I have often written about, is a central part of economics under capitalism. While it can create awful windfalls, which are usually displaced onto the poor who had no responsibility whatsoever for the faulty calculations, it is crucial for the accumulation of capital. Law school is a risky economic investment, and you should definitely know what you’re getting into. One of the many problematic things about Spade’s piece is that there is nothing on what you can expect as a person with a criminal record, an undocumented person, a person with debts outside student loans, a person with children, etc. For all these people, law school can be particularly risky – with a past criminal record you may have problems passing Character and Fitness, a mandatory part of the Bar exam; until recently, undocumented people were virtually prohibited by law school practices from becoming lawyers; while there are some fairly good management plans for student loan payments, they are a lot less good for debts outside of it like credit card debt, payday loan debt, etc.; you will need childcare, lots and lots of childcare, and your school will likely not provide it for you. These are all real concerns, none of which Spade touched on. Instead he writes that the debt will force you into a job you’re unhappy with. This part, even without my input, most oppressed peoples find laughable – a JD can only massively improve our chances of attaining employment that we find rewarding. I have never been paid a living wage until the job I’m taking on this summer. Let me repeat that: I have never been paid a living wage until the job I’m taking on this summer. And the shade thrown at “horrifying pro-capitalist work at a private firm” is also laughable. Private firms often are far better equipped to serve the oppressed people of the world and to have more democratic and rewarding workplaces than the nonprofits with their $10 an hour wages and self-righteous “I’m more committed to the movement because I work myself to death” culture. And yes some people will take jobs that are truly awful. Rather than trying to shame those people for the decisions they often have to make not just because of law school debt but because they support family members or have non-student loan debt, we should be creating pathways to bring them back to movement lawyering.
- Law school has become far less conservative and self-criticism is often unproductive. I feel like I could write a whole separate piece just about this quote: “Law school is not like college. It isn’t about writing cool papers full of critical ideas.” Believe it or not, very many of the people like myself do not come to law school because we want to write more “cool papers” like we did in college. College academia’s circulatory and masturbatory nature was incredibly distasteful for me – if I wanted to deconstruct the world ad infinitum I’d just become a train hopper and be a whole lot happier. Again, I see this as a product of this New Abolitionism that has become a bane on any Left movement that dares to build rather than just dismantle. Law school is conservative, there is no getting around that. But especially over the last decade schools like CUNY School of Law, Northeastern University School of Law, and Rutgers have provided more affordable and engaging opportunities to pursue a legal education. These institutions are under threat precisely because our movements have failed to put enough of our people into them and have focused our energies on criticizing rather than transforming. I certainly do not like everything my law school does or says, but I’m very lucky to go to one of these progressive law schools and it provides an amazing hub to meet other radical people interested in lawyering. And the only way this school will get better is if I bring better people into it and agitate the students who come after me, not if I envelope myself in cynicism at every failing I am able to dig up.
- Go to the school that fits your purpose. Prestige, like professionalism, is problematic at its core but also a very real thing that we have to deal with in the current material conditions of the world. As a white person who was given a very good education by her mother and has a cushion of familial wealth to fall back on (albeit a thin one), I was able to pick a school more for what it provided politically. Not everyone has that luxury and I can fault no person of color for going to Harvard or Yale to give themselves a leg up, however small, over the rampant racism of the legal profession. Some of the most radical law students I’ve met are on these two campuses, and I would be lying if I did not say that many of them hate the environment, but none of them have yet told me they regret choosing the school.
- Spade’s frame work is not “generic.” Spade wraps up his piece by stating something of a disclaimer that his “framework is generic – it does not address specific conditions that you may be facing.” This endnote hardly absolves how this piece is implicitly written for white middle to upper class young cisgender and male people. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, Spade’s piece by being “generic” is practically worthless to those trying to make this decision without all the privileges he assumes or even fails to state at all.
I respect Dean Spade immensely for the work he has done, especially for the trans community, but unfortunately no white man is above the political pitfalls I have elucidated because of how pervasive their privilege is, even when they are queer and transgender.