Recovering liberal arts major: Law school teaching me ‘how to actually be useful to people’

KU Law 1L Jordan Carter

Liberal arts majors are among the worst kinds of people. I can say that because I am one. We think we know so much because of our well-rounded education, and we “just love learning” and don’t really have a life goal but “definitely want to help people.” For four years, I perfected the ivory tower lifestyle: highlight text for hours, draft needlessly wordy papers analyzing social issues, and spend afternoons in class talking about my feelings about people and their problems.

For the most part, I enjoyed my classes and felt like I was doing the appropriate amount of collegiate thinking. And the one tangible pro I got from my liberal arts education is an endurance for reading. Textbooks, novels, Xeroxed handouts – I read and I read and I came to law school ready to tackle the sheer amount of pages we would be assigned. I mean, as prepared as one can be because the reading your 1L year is still a whole new level, like being an impressive college athlete and then trying to play your first pro game only to be destroyed and embarrassed by someone who actually knows what he’s doing. But compared to law students who spent their undergrad doing problem sets or labs or whatever non-liberal arts majors do in their buildings, I at least felt mildly prepared to sit down and read when I got here.

What I was not prepared for was feeling like every single drop of information was important. I’m just gonna put it out there: I doubled majored in psychology and women and gender studies. Psychology is a contender for the most useless major one can have. It is pretty easy and somewhat interesting, but unless you’re planning on getting a Ph.D., there is just no realistic point in getting the major. As for women and gender studies, well, let me just say I've endured my fair share of eye rolls and sexist jokes after revealing that factoid. The women and gender studies program at WashU was actually awesome, and I loved the professors and my fellow classmates. It was a quirky, liberal, intelligent cohort of people who genuinely cared about the injustices of the world and could speak extremely articulately about them.

But that’s about all we could do. I knew tons about the problems people faced and very little about any solutions. My senior year, I volunteered at a domestic violence court in St. Louis. The court process was a fascinating first-hand experience for me, as I expected. What I did not expect was how much the clients there would value me. I brought only two things: a binder full of phone numbers (clearly, I want to make a timely “binder full of women” quip here, but my brain is too fried from outlining to think of anything clever) and a super basic understanding of how the court process works. That is all I had to offer, and that is way more than what these women had before they got there. The legal system is confusing and intimidating and overwhelming, and that’s just how I felt as a privileged volunteer with relatively easy access to the court who spent a few hours a week there because I wanted to “help people.” Compare that to what the process is like for a single mom, an immigrant, a scared teenager, and the countless other people who find themselves in the courthouse with few resources and an insane amount of stress.

One of the reasons I came to law school was to figure out how to actually be useful to people. I’m not saying I want to save the world, because that’s such an annoying liberal arts thing to say. To be honest, I have no clue what I want to do. But for the first time in my educational career, I feel like every class I am taking is teaching me practical skills. Law school is way more useful than my undergrad experience. It’s also way harder and way less fun (can’t win ’em all). After spending hours in Green Hall slogging away and sipping surprisingly delicious hot chocolate from the vending machine, it is a real comfort to feel like no matter what job I end up doing, I will come equipped with a solid understanding of the law. When we are presented with a problem in class, we are also presented with a solution, or at least ways to start thinking of one. I am learning the real steps that real lawyers take to figure out real problems, and that's empowering (and makes me feel better about these student loans).

I am loving law school, but I have fond memories of the liberal arts classes of days gone by. They instilled in me an endless curiosity and a desire to engage with people outside of my limited world. They helped me express myself and ask thoughtful questions. Clearly, they also allowed me to indulge a love for wordy, complex sentences, a love that Lawyering Skills is sadly trying to suck away from me. Legal writing may try to reduce my word count, but you better believe that my passion for adverbs and parenthetical asides won’t die so easily. After all, I am still, at my core, a liberal arts major.

Jordan Carter is a KU Law 1L and Student Ambassador who attended Washington University in St. Louis. Email her at jaecarter@gmail.com.

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