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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Some Musings on Law and Math

I think a lot of young people drift into law school because they are not good at math and science, major in liberal arts or social sciences, don't know what they want to do, and are intimidated by the difficulty of finding a job. These are not good reasons to spend three more years in school and run up thousands of dollars in student debt.
I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was about 15. I went into the career counselor at my high school in Natchez, MS and when he asked me what I wanted to do and I said be a lawyer, he looked at my transcript and shook his head and said, "You have to be sharp to be a lawyer." I was strong in English and history, but my math and science grades were really bad.
The highest level of math I took in high school was Algebra I, and I squeaked by with a C-. The teacher was Mrs. Bailey, and she had no patience. I still cringe remembering her calling on me and when I couldn't answer a question, breaking the chalk stick off on the board.
Home wasn't any better. My dad, who never went past high school, worked his way up with Schlumberger to become a field engineer. He interpreted the electronic logs that showed where the oil and gas deposits were, and also was a perforating engineer, running a "gun" down the well that blew holes through the casing into the formation. Screw that up and you can destroy a multimillion dollar well.
Like the scientists at NASA, he did all his calculations with a slide rule. All his knowledge was from OTJ training, schools the company sent him to, and hours and hours of self study.
So, he couldn't understand why his son couldn't get simple equations in first year algebra, and his attempts to tutor me were exercises in mutual frustration. This was years before anyone knew what ADD was, and I'm pretty sure I had a severe case.
Flash forward a few years. I got an M.A. in sociology from Louisiana State University, and was admitted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas. My plan was to be a college professor. I managed to squeak by in statistics with a C. My second semester there, my dad was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, and less than six months later he died. He was only 45. I didn't handle it very well, and dropped out of the program.
He left me some money so I could finish school, and after a hiatus, I went back, but not to sociology. I got accepted into the law school at UT. I have no regrets about being a lawyer. Most of the time I enjoy it. I like the mental stimulation and variety and challenge, and I like to help people.
The psychologist Carl Jung wrote about our "shadow" side. When we're young and trying to find our way, we necessarily focus on our strengths, sometimes to the neglect of other aspects our our psyches. I was always good at English and writing, and thought I hated math. Law school plays to those strengths. I spent years reading philosophy books, especially of the Eastern variety, particularly Zen Buddhism. I finally concluded that for the most part, it's a bunch of nothing.
In the past five or so years, I've been trying to learn the math and science I avoided in school. The Teaching Company, started by a Harvard Law graduate, has a great collection of courses on dvd and audio. More recently, I've discovered Sal Khan, who started the Khan Academy, which has thousands of lectures on line - for free! He was on 60 Minutes last week, and the man is incredible.
One of the things I like about math is that there are rules and formulas, if you follow them you get the answer. As opposed to law, which also has a lot of rules, but there are so many exceptions, and you're not dealing with hard facts and numbers. Math is elegant; law is imprecise and often sloppy.

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