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Home / Commentary / On disillusion with the law and Walser

On disillusion with the law and Walser

David Ziemer

David Ziemer

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how I advised a young woman to go to law school. This week is the counterpoint.

The reality is that, when a young person asks, “Do you think I should go to law school?” the correct answer, almost always, should be, “No.”

I’m not saying that just to keep new competitors out of the market; it is a fact.

It is not acceptable to answer, “Yes. There are so many things you can do with a law degree.” With the exception of actually representing clients in cases, there is not a single thing in the world you can do with a law degree that you can’t also do without one.

The rules of civil procedure and evidence are prerequisites if you wish to represent clients in court. Unless you are going to represent clients in court, you’re better off learning how to prune tree branches than either of these subjects, no matter what your actual profession may be.

I recently spoke to an attorney who told me his daughter had intended to go to law school, until she started working as a paralegal, and realized she did not want to practice law. Smart young woman.

We all know plenty of people who hated the practice of law almost immediately, and moved on quickly to do something else – something they’d have been better prepared for, had they not wasted a semester mastering the federal rules of evidence.

The topic is on my mind, not just because of the conversation, but because a translation of Robert Walser’s microscripts has just been released in English.

Walser published many novels and stories during the early 20th century that I would consider sui generis, but if we must place it into a genre, we’ll group it with the German Expressionists. Or as the Nazis called them, Degenerates.

But from 1929 until his death 27 years later, he lived in an asylum and produced no more literature, or so it was believed for many years. “I’m not here to write. I’m here to be mad,” he proclaimed.

In fact, he wrote quite a bit, but in microscript, a type of shorthand. He also wrote in such small scribble that it was not recognized as literature for decades, and no one translated the microscripts into German until the 1980s. Now, they have been translated into English.

A common plot device in Walser’s works, to the extent his novels have a plot at all, is the protagonist moving from one job to another. The jobs have one thing in common – how much the protagonist hates them.

One particular passage in the novel, “The Tanners,” particularly reminds me of the enthusiasm with which some embark on a career in law, and how quickly disillusioned they become.

Applying for a job at a bookstore, the young Tanner explains, “I want to become a bookseller . . . I yearn to become one . . . I cannot understand why I should still be forced to pine away outside of this fine, lovely occupation. For you see, sir, standing here before you, I find myself extraordinarily well suited for selling books in your shop, and selling as many as you could possibly wish me to. I’m a born salesman: chivalrous, fleet-footed, courteous, quick, brusque, decisive, calculating, attentive, honest…”

It goes on in that vein for a long time.

He gets the job, but quits after a week, explaining, “I’ve come to realize that the entire book trade is nothing less than ghastly . . . and forces one to scrunch one’s back, since the desk is far too small given my stature, writing like some accursed happenstance copyist and performing work unsuitable for a mind such as my own. . . . Do you imagine my young years in such a sorry state that I need to crumple up and suffocate in a lousy bookshop?”

Substitute “legal profession” for “book trade,” and “law office” for “bookshop,” and I’m sure you’ve heard it from a colleague before.

There are many things you can do with a law degree, it is true. Robert Walser could have gotten a law degree and still written novels. But what would be the point?

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