Law School: Wrong Road?
By Ken K. Gourdin
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told the story of becoming lost in a maze of dirt roads on the Utah-Arizona border while on an outing with his (then-young) son, Matt. For Matt Holland’s retelling of the experience, see here (this and any other links last accessed May 28, 2017): https://www.lds.org/new-era/2005/07/wrong-roads-and-revelation?lang=eng.
I told my own “law school wrong road” story at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion:
I’ve told the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version ™ of my story here several times. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue my education after getting a bachelor’s degree, and I delayed 5-6 years: I got a part-time, non-benefitted, non-guaranteed-hours job answering phones for my local sheriff’s office for a couple of months, traded that for a full-time, benefitted job as a telephone solicitor for a family film company making $7 per hour for about six months, and traded that for a job as a telephone customer service representative for which my ending pay was $11.05 hour after a little more than two years. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue my education, but I foolishly quit that job without having anything else lined up. About three months after that, I got a part-time job working 30 hours a week in parking enforcement. As much as might have left to be desired, I loved that job because I wasn’t cooped up in a cubicle and tethered to a phone eight hours a day, five days a week, but I was only able to keep it for about four months.
I still wasn’t sure it would pay off to continue my education. The only things I was sure of were: (1) that I didn’t want to answer phones for the rest of my life, (2) as much as I might’ve liked working in parking enforcement, I wasn’t going to make a career out of yet another part-time, non-benefitted position, and I still I didn’t see any way forward without continuing my education. I applied to law school in 2000, enrolled, still wasn’t sure continuing my education would pay off, lost my nerve, withdrew before receiving any credit, and got another job: Doing what, you ask? Why, answering phones, of course!—this time for a major retailer. I still wasn’t sure continuing my education would pay off, but, again, one thing I was sure of is that I really didn’t want to answer phones for the rest of my life. So, I swallowed my pride, screwed up what little courage I had left, and went back in 2001. Law school is hard for everybody, but it was monstrously so for me. At the risk of oversimplifying, most all of my problems could be traced to a complicated behavioral health history on top of trying to deal with the stresses inherent to law school.
An excerpt from an address—one which, ironically, was given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Cast Not Away, Therefore, Your Confidence”—gave me what little courage I was able to muster even though I pretty regularly felt like quitting. (I excerpted this part of his address and carried the excerpt with me on a laminated card.) Elder Holland said, in part:
Once there has been illumination, beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. Don’t give up when the pressure mounts. Certainly don’t give in to that being who is bent on the destruction of your happiness. Stay the course and see the beauty of life unfold for you.
I’ve told before, too, of identifying with handcart pioneer Francis Webster, who told of picking a spot in the distance and deciding he could go only that far and no further, only to feel as though someone was pushing his cart when he reached that spot, but looking back and seeing no one. My “spot in the distance” usually was the end of the semester: “It’s no use; it’s too hard; I’ll finish this semester, but I’m done. Even if, by some miracle, somehow, I do manage to finish, I’ll never get a job, anyway,” I told myself. Somehow, though, at the end of each semester (even though, mostly, I only realized this in retrospect) I found my second wind—the courage to “keep on keeping on” even though I didn’t see any way it would work out in the long run.
One thing that gave me a slim ray of hope is that, when I was set apart for a calling during this very tumultuous time and the high councilor who acted as voice assured me that “the Lord is pleased with the course of your life.” Honestly, I wasn’t very good in the calling—although I’ve kept a note from someone with and for whom I had a chance to pray while I was serving in it in which he told me that, while he doesn’t recall exactly what I said during that prayer, because of it, he was reminded particularly of the Lord’s love for him. Against all odds, I finally graduated—only to be denied licensure in my would-be chosen profession about six months later due largely, if not entirely, to my complicated behavioral health history.
While I was wondering, in light of the denial of licensure, what I should do next, I wasn’t necessarily overly troubled by it, and I wasn’t necessarily actively seeking answers. I visited the Nauvoo Temple where my aunt and uncle were serving as temple missionaries at the time and had the chance, for the first time since receiving my own endowment nearly 20 years before, to do initiatories. While I wouldn’t expect a particular passage in that ordinance to strike anyone else in the same way nor with the same force that it struck me, one such passage struck me with unusual force: it talks about wielding a certain instrument in defense of certain assets. It made me think that this long, circuitous, tortuous odyssey I have undertaken in an effort to find a comfortable career niche might not have been completely in vain, after all.
In 2015, I got yet another job. Doing what? Why, answering phones, of course! (But, hey! At least this time, it was for a law firm, so I guess that’s progress!) I’ve told, too, of being subject to the unfortunate arbitrary and capricious whims of She Who Could Not Possibly Be Pleased, Yet Still Must Be Obeyed. Yet again, I quit without having something else lined up (but in fairness, I suspect that this time, I quit right before I would have been chased out the door, anyway). I saw that a certain company was sponsoring a hiring event at Workforce Services in Provo. I decided to go to it, but got the day wrong, so no one from that company was there—but a recruiter from my current employer was there. She gave me a map-reading test—I suck at map-reading, but apparently did well enough to pass this particular test anyway (thank you, Boy Scouts of America!).
I’ve told of having two failed operations, each of which was followed by six weeks with my lower body completely immobilized in plaster, and of the fact that the medical consensus was to try—yet again—what had already failed, twice. In some ways, those two operations set me back permanently. On rare occasions, I’m tempted to throw myself a pity party—but the trouble with pity parties is that the guest list seldom is more than one name long—and to ask myself why those two operations had to fail. But then, my parents and I found a (then) brash, young, maverick surgeon who was willing to defy the weight of competent medical opinion, and who offered me the chance (not a guarantee, but at least a chance) of recuperating postoperatively in a wheelchair rather than in a cast: three more operations followed in a span of another eighteen months, and each time, consistent with the strong impression I had on the operating table while waiting to be put to sleep, I awoke to the best possible outcome: no cast.
Now, I’ve come full circle. Additional education (which I undertook to try to escape this fate) notwithstanding, I’m back doing the same thing I sought that education in an effort to try to avoid: Answering phones. (That said, I’ve been exceptionally well treated by my current employer. In my previous job, being pulled off of the phones was bad news: It meant that, yep, sure enough, She Who Could Not Possibly Be Pleased wasn’t pleased! Surprise, surprise! Now? Whenever I’m pulled off of the phone for coaching, the running joke is that I ask, “Am I in trouble?” And invariably, my tongue-in-cheek inquiry is met with equally-tongue-in-cheek incredulity and scorn in reply: “Of course not!” And, while part of this stems from the fact that the job is easy—read also, “repetitive and boring as hell” at times—my supervisor says, “There’s really nothing I need to coach you on.”
Wrong road? Would I be better off if I hadn’t gotten a law degree? In some ways, perhaps. I wouldn’t have to face the prospect of repaying considerable student loan debt without the corresponding hoped-for increase in income. Could things be better? Yeah. I’d like to be making $20-30 an hour as a paralegal, or, failing that, I’d like to work one day for someone who thinks I’m good for something besides answering phones. Why didn’t those first two operations work? I dunno. But, “Ken, don’t forget how you felt on January 24 and February 14, 1984, and on June 7, 1985.” But could they be worse? Yeah, I could be unable to walk at all. As for work? Hey, at least someone still thinks I’m good for something! The only things I’m sure of are (1) Yeah, I may never escape being tethered to a phone, trapped in a cubicle, answering calls all workday, every workday, but I would definitely be far less likely to escape such a fate if I hadn’t gotten a law degree; (2) Whether it ever pays off, whether I ever work a day of law-related employment in my life or not, no one can say that the reason I’ll never get such a job is because I couldn’t hack it in law school: I stuck it out, and, if nothing else, I’d rather be depressed with a law degree than without one. “I know not the meaning of all things. Nevertheless, I know that [God] loveth His children” (1 Nephi 11:17). “Though [God] slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). As Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s wise mother told him, “Come what may, and love it.”
In a (perhaps-willful) misinterpretation of Elder Holland’s words (or, at least and at best, an extremely cynical gloss on them), another poster accused Elder Holland of “throwing God and the Holy [Spirit] under the bus” and of teaching that the Holy Spirit can mislead in answer to prayer.
I pointed out to this poster that he is attributing things to Elder Holland that Elder Holland did not say. If the consequence of a certain choice will have no serious, lasting negative effects, and if that choice is the quickest way to impart information about the correct course and to reassure us that we are on the correct course, God might permit a temporary detour.
I responded to this poster thus:
So, I didn’t need to pray, ponder, and persevere when it came to law school? All I needed was you to tell me, “Meh! Bag it, Ken”? Where were you, [Screen Name Redacted]! You could’ve saved me tens of thousands of dollars, massive uncertainty, and untold mental and emotional anguish! Where were you, [Screen Name Redacted]! Where were you?!!
P.S.: I think you’re imputing several things to Elder Holland that he did not say. Perhaps you could point to some quotes in his address which support your interpretation?
Another poster asked me if I regret going to law school, and, by implication, whether I felt as though the Lord might have let me travel too far down the “wrong road” when it comes to law school. I responded:
It seems as though nearly everything that has happened to me since the moment I graduated has been calculated to make me regret going to law school, but, no, I don’t. (The one caveat to that pronouncement might be the debt I’ve incurred.) If I had been more in tune at the time (behavioral health issues played a role in the fact that I wasn’t) I would have been better able to recognize the Francis Webster, “Hey, I’ve reached my spot in the distance, and, inexplicably, I’m still going … as if propelled by some unseen force” perspective. Largely, that perspective was gained in hindsight. While this may be a gross oversimplification (and again, I’ve realized this largely in hindsight), the choice was pretty stark: “Sure, you don’t have to go to law school … if you don’t mind answering phones all workday, every workday for the rest of your working life.”
True, I’ve struggled to write the kind of ending to this story that “following-the-[Holy]-Spirit” stories are “supposed” to have, and earthly wisdom would conclude that, “Well, that’s easy: The reason why you struggled so much, both during law school and after graduating, is because it simply isn’t for you.” Well-meaning folks who lack an eternal perspective have told me exactly that. But, “The things of God knoweth no man, save the spirit of God which is in him” (1 Corinthians 2:11).
Later, I added:
While many people might conclude that facing such stiff headwinds while endeavoring earnestly to do what’s right and to do what he thinks God wants him to do might be a sign that God wants him to do something different or that it might be a sign of God’s disfavor, I don’t look at it that way.
As much as I might hope a given employer will hire me, that employer and its powers-that-be still have the choice not to; as much as I might hope that the Bar might weigh the evidence I offer differently, it and its powers-that-be still have the choice to refuse to allow me to sit for the Bar exam; and so on. Like [another poster], all I can do is the best I can do to do what I believe is right: I can’t control how any other person chooses to use his agency or how any group chooses to use its agency.
“I know not the meaning of all things. Nevertheless, I know that [God] loveth his children.” (1 Nephi 11:17). The only guarantee we have is what will happen to us in the long run (i.e., in the eternal scheme of things) as we remain faithful. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that we will avoid short-run dead ends, detours, disappointments, frustrations, earthly consequences of our own choices (in some ways, I’ve been my own worst enemy, I’ll admit), man’s inhumanity to man, and so on.
Later still, I added:
It’s much easier to discern being led by the Spirit when we know the outcome. For example, there are two possible ways I might get to work: I might take State Street/US-89, or I might take I-15. If I normally take US-89 but feel prompted to take I-15 instead, and I find out that there was a fatal traffic accident at, say, State Street/US-89 and Pleasant Grove Blvd., an intersection I would have passed if I had chosen to take that route, it’s easy to discern that it wasn’t my time (assuming my death would have resulted from the accident). I don’t want to minimize the heartache and sorrow of those who lose loved ones in such circumstances. Beyond the fact that we live in a fallen world, I certainly don’t know why my sister in law, who is one of the finest people I’ve ever known, died relatively young of cancer. (I simply must trust that God knows all of the reasons I do not.) What if I feel the same prompting, but there’s no accident? What if someone happened to run a red light but was not caught, was not cited, and was fortunate enough to not collide with anyone? (And even in the case of a non-collision, I would never know he’d run the red light, because I wasn’t there and because traffic tickets rarely if ever make the news.) in that sense, spiritual promptings are like law enforcement: while we might know about many of the criminals they catch, we don’t know how much crime they deter simply because of their presence.