The Condition of a Law Student

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By Anthony Hassey, Contributor

Amazingly, over 100 years and across international borders, it is easier to recognize Vasilyev, the protagonist in Anton Chekhov’s 1889 “Attack of Nerves” than it is some of the people with whom I grew up. I have never considered the “condition” of a law student to be a universal one, but after reading “An Attack of Nerves,” it is something I will think of whenever I look back at lawyers from the past.

From the beginning of his night, Vasilyev is present but not in the moment — disconnected from his surroundings through contemplation. He envies his friends for being “strong, healthy, cheerful people [with] balance[ ] . . . in their minds and souls.”[1] It is a state any law student putting in the time and effort needed for success in school would envy. He would like nothing more than a carefree night where conversation could be just that and nothing deeper. However, that is not the life he lives.

Like law students today, he lives in a world of hypotheticals from the books he studies to provide the illusion of experience. Through his studies, he gains a rigid, rudimentary idea of how the world around him is supposed to work. Until he experiences it firsthand, however, it could not be more foreign. In his mind, the world he is entering that night is supposed to be one of shame and embarrassment, a seedy underworld full of lust and regret. Instead, in each brothel he visits with his friends, he finds a jovial mood with people looking to blow off steam. The world he interacts with does not match the knowledge he believed he accurately attained through books.

Law students today experience this cognitive dissonance every day early in their careers. In the classroom, we learn what the law says and are taught to understand what that means; however, it does not always translate into the real world as easily as we wish. Whether it is evidence, or contracts, or criminal law, or torts, what the text says and how the real world works seldom seem to add up.

There is a key element missing from both our texts and lectures and the ones Vasilyev gains his knowledge from: the human element to the experience. While sitting in an academic vacuum, it is easy to assume you have all the answers. Law students confidently build a worldview based on an often-flat description about a given subject. Based on the flat description of a subject matter, the law student knows how a given interaction is supposed to unfold and is then left dumbstruck when the interaction diverges from what was anticipated.

For example, when sitting in a brothel with his comrades, Vasilyev wonders, “How was it [the people here] were not ashamed to sit here?”[2] He constructs an entire view of how the red light district’s frequenters live, why the women are there, and how it would be decorated. Because reality does not match his preconceived notions of how the street would work, Vasilyev spends the first part of the evening distracted, trying to figure why these differences were so.

Every law student shares this experience when they first meet a client. We have predetermined ideas of what a client will be like, how they will act, why they are there, and how things are supposed to go. But until you sit across the table from someone whose life has been so impacted that they seek legal aid, you cannot fully appreciate why we work so hard studying the law.

Similarly, Vasilyev “realized that there were real people living here who like people everywhere else, felt insulted, suffered, wept, and cried for help.”[3]  Reading this reminded me of the first client I ever met in the summer after my first year of law school. He was a young veteran arrested after overdosing on oxycodone in public. Before meeting him, I already knew everything I needed to about him. In my mind, he was nothing more than a junkie who was just looking to get high and was wasting his family’s resources on a lawyer.

Leaving that first meeting, I was ashamed. To my surprise, he was a real person. He was like people everywhere else. He suffered. He wept. He cried for help. I forgot that I needed to walk a mile in that man’s shoes.

He became addicted to oxycodone after being injured in Iraq. He shattered bones in his left leg after his unit came under fire while on guard during his first deployment. He was sent to rehab to heal and try and strengthen his body. Due to the severity of his injury and the intensity of the pain, his doctors continuously prescribed him oxycodone to dull the pain, so that he could hopefully continue with his strength and conditioning rehab. Told that he would not be able to continue serving due to the severity of his injury, he was discharged — and at 21 years old, he had to find a new path in life.

When his rehab ended, his pain continued, his oxycodone prescriptions continued, and his addiction started. He was going through pills faster than he was being prescribed them. His pain intensified, and he began taking more pills to counter the constant discomfort he was in. When the prescriptions weren’t enough, he began shopping elsewhere for anything that would ease his suffering. He knew he had a problem, but he had no idea what to do about it.

After learning his story and seeing his trouble, I wanted to do something to help this client and all of those in his shoes. Like Vasilyev, I spent time after the encounter trying to figure out ways to help those who suffer from pill addiction. I imagined different methods that could help those dealing with the pain, different ways of treating those suffering from addiction, and then came to the helpless realization that there is nothing much that I actually could do.

I was “no speaker, . . . cowardly and timid, that indifferent people were unlikely to be willing to listen and understand [me], a law student . . . a timid and insignificant person.”[4] Any aid I was able to provide through my research and motions was negligible to the help that was actually needed. The work I was doing felt as pointless as a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.

It is said that knowledge is power, but to a law student, that is only true if there is also the power to do something with that knowledge. The condition of a law student is one that places the student in a position to know something needs to be done with the inability to do anything. It is a frustratingly helpless condition that leaves students wondering what the point of all of the work they are doing is if there is not a way to make a difference.

Until you come across a case where you actually have the ability to do something, it feels like all is for naught. Students are left to ponder these situations and follow the paths to their logical conclusions. That is, far beyond a place where laypersons ever need to take a thought. Law students across time and space are forced into their own heads, left without outlets for the solutions to problems only they are forced to realize. That is the condition of a law student.



[1] Chekhov, An Attack of Nerves at 224.

[2] Id. at 232.

[3] Id. at 236.

[4] Id. at 245.

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