thoughts & essays | jeremy lee
Creative Expression & Law:
Thoughts on how Law School and the Bar Exam
Consume the Best in Us and why We Should
Take Care to Preserve Our Passions
Table of Contents
The results of the February 2022 administration of the New York Bar Exam were released on a Wednesday. Two blurry days later, on a notably pleasant Saturday morning, I found myself – not figuratively, but indeed quite literally found myself – casually strolling the bustling sidewalks of New York’s West Village starring at a stranger through the viewfinder of my camera. In that moment I was struck, dumbfounded, bewildered, astonished, yet at the same time comforted, by the realization that my deepest and most cherished form of creative expression had been resurrected from the depths of a deep, all-too-consuming abyss we summarily refer to as law school. Being on the tail-end of my final semester here at Columbia, but, probably even more significant, having received news of a passing score on the bar exam, had burst a dam I failed to fully understand was even there. The purpose of this essay is to explore the myriad ways law school and the bar exam can slowly, but exponentially, consume the best of who we are. What I hope to achieve is convincing others, but also myself, (i) to recognize the insatiable appetite of the law, (ii) to avoid losing oneself to such a ravenous creature, and (iii) that maintaining a closely held creative expression can ultimately make you a better lawyer.
Prior to law school I developed a successful career as a still photographer for film and television productions. In that role I was responsible for taking still images of key scenes identified by the publicity team as the most useful for marketing and promoting the finished project. Beyond the fulfillment I felt in capturing the stories brought to life by the actors from the words of a script, I came to appreciate the stories of the crew working behind the camera as well. Their contributions to the project are, of course, indispensable, and, simultaneously, rarely appreciated by the viewing audience. More often than not, the closest many of those working behind the camera come to a recognition of their labor is a credit of their name and title as the audience streams out of the theater.
The job of a still photographer is an inherent paradox. We are expected to be both invisible and omnipresent so as to not disturb the meticulous and expensive dance of movie-making, but to also be firmly attentive and available to capture everything that might exhibit a hint of value to the project’s publicity team. Operating under these conditions can prove an enormous challenge on a set with big egos, weathered veterans, limited time, and very little physical space. I found very quickly that the only way to overcome these challenges and produce valuable images was to befriend everyone on the set: actors, directors, personal assistants, electricians, make-up artists, wardrobe stylists, set designers, and the list goes on. I turned my lens on the hard-working folks behind the scenes and began to photograph what I came to realize was the epitome of passion. These photographs of people working in their element, at the height of their own creative expression changed something within myself. I discovered my camera was more than a tool I could use to earn a living, but a tool I could use to show the average person they are, in fact, extraordinary. I came to treat these images as equal in importance to those of the actual project and, as a gift, would print them out and hand deliver them to the crew. It was always an emotional experience walking around the set and handing these prints to people who (i) did not know I had even taken the photo, but (ii), were able to see themselves appreciated in a way they may have never experienced before. Needless to say, I made fast friends with most everyone I worked with and the spirit of my own creative voice began to take shape.
I was in my mid-twenties as I settled into this new career and soon acquired a strong desire to travel abroad. Growing up in Seattle, WA with modest means, the extent of my travel experience included day trips across the Canadian border and weeks-long summer road-trips to the vast collection of National Parks dotting the western United States. I remain profoundly grateful for these trips, but my craving for adventure had matured. I now sought the experiences you have to board airplanes and cross oceans for and a few years into my work on film and television productions I had saved up enough money to do just that.
One of these adventures abroad landed me, for no real rhyme or reason, in Nicaragua. I spent two weeks lounging around, exploring the coastal villages by motorcycle, and absorbing the people and culture of this beautiful yet under-appreciated Central American country. But it was one experience in-particular that bound me to this place forever when I went for a long morning run far from the local tourist hub I was using as my home base. Tired from the events of the previous night and dripping with sweat, I pushed on down a dirt road and happened upon some of the most vivid poverty I had ever witnessed with my own eyes. As I approached a row of cinder-block homes with dirt floors and corrugated metal roofs, I saw an older woman sweeping her front porch area. She looked like a characteristic grandmother toiling away at the morning’s chores, but what really struck me was the fact she was sweeping dirt. A flood of thoughts and emotions ran through me as I stared in admiration of this person who took pride enough in their home to ensure the front porch was clean and presentable regardless of what it was made of. In that moment, panting, sweating, and now crying, I made a compact to embed myself within that community and establish a connection with Nicaragua for the rest of my life.
Three years passed before I returned to Nicaragua, but I still hadn’t quite figured out how I was going to forge a meaningful connection with the community I had stayed in during my first trip there. Fortuitously, a few weeks before my flight, I was visiting New York City and made my first in-person pilgrimage to the Mecca for photographers: B & H Photo in mid-town. Like a moth to the flame, I perused the iconic store with no real purpose other than the instinctive sense that I had been summoned there. It was then that I stumbled upon the solution: a small polaroid-style-film printer the size of a deck of cards that could wirelessly connect directly to my high-end professional camera. “Eureka!” I thought. “I’ll take portraits of local Nicaraguans in the community and print them out a copy as a gift. Surely that will help me to establish some type of meaningful relationship with people there – I know this will work!”
It took some time to work up my confidence, but toward the tail-end of my second trip, I cast my anxiety aside and started approaching local Nicaraguans for portraits building up a library of over 100 subjects in a matter of days. I stayed in contact with one in-particular, Karina Sanchez, and returned a year later for my third trip to live with her and her family for three months just prior to starting law school here at Columbia. I have since helped Karina and her family with financial assistance for basic necessities such as food, rent, school tuition and uniforms for her two boys, and medical care, but more importantly, we have become family. It is a connection that continues to feed my soul and it helped establish the best of who I am – and an integral part of that experience started with the simple act of taking and printing portraits of strangers.
Thus, after 10 or so years of work as a still photographer I made the decision to apply to law school. It was a difficult choice to walk away, but given the ever-bleaker financial prospects of photography, the grueling physical nature of the work, and the enumerable advantages afforded by merely holding a J.D., the time had come to make a career change. In transitioning across the country from Los Angeles, CA to NYC, I sold or disposed of about 80% of my belongings, but my photography equipment – including the camera and printer, of course – distinctively made the cut. I saw NYC as a vast and vibrant opportunity to continue my printed portrait project, though I was wildly ignorant of the calamitous demands soon to overwhelm and consume the best parts of who I am.
The metaphor embodied by the insatiable appetite of law can be defined in many ways; each of which will undoubtably be unique to the speaker, though none of which will fully illustrate the limits of a subject that heedlessly marches on in countless directions toward ill-defined borders and fuzzy edges. Quite contrary to popular sentiment, the law is often shapeless and vague. Yet, as practitioners, we are taught to not only exhibit, but also demand concreteness and precision. Personally, I happen to feel the concept of law is a natural phenomena – like gravity or the way lions, elephants, and monkeys gather and live together.
Though, while I feel there are aspects of the law that are natural, much of my admonishment is aimed at its man-made features and a few stand out in-particular. Take, for example, the rigors of 1L where not only are students expected to read anywhere from 50 to 100 pages of dense legal opinions to prepare for a single class, but some genius* in the late 1800s made the executive decision** that the “case method” is the catch-all best pedagogical approach for anyone delirious enough to attend law school. Even worse, a great many of the judges we study in class seem to regard themselves as god’s gift to humanity; taking it upon themselves to write as poetically, but more pointedly, as cryptically, as the largely unreadable King James version of the Bible. Cap that all off with professors who seem to have no knowledge their students have other classes with other professors assigning similar workloads and you have a proven recipe for poor comprehension and student burnout.
And, for those of us prudent enough to recognize there is little chance to effectively cover and retain such an unreasonable burden, be sure not to tell anyone important that you even considered taking a pass on your readings for the night. I recall sitting for a mock interview toward the end of 1L fall semester with a senior associate at a large firm. Clearly exhausted from his own taxing day at the office, he managed to eek out, “how is your first semester going?” I answered candidly, “well, I think I finally figured out I need to prioritize the work I can actually get done because it’s just not possible to read every single page!” “A practical and mature observation” I thought, as I finished responding. Wrong. He shifted his weight and actually looked offended at my admission. “When I was in law school,” he said, “I had a wife and kids and still put in the effort to complete all of my readings.” “Good for you, sir,” I thought sarcastically. That was my first hint of the insatiable appetite of law; and while I knew in that moment I would never match what this lawyer seemed to imply was required of a competent law student, I was too far gone at that point and too green to not internalize and bear the weight of his expectations.
Another mouth of the beast to feed came from my summer jobs. I was fortunate enough to land summer associate positions at large, reputable law firms during both 1L and 2L, but the real challenges of those experiences were, what I would characterize as, rather unproductive. The most difficult aspect of my summer jobs was not necessarily the legal work, but the fact I was being pulled in several directions by different practice groups operating under the guise of the firm’s cheerful invitation to “explore” my interests. In reality, six to ten weeks is just not enough time to meaningfully explore an interest in multiple practice groups while simultaneously demonstrating competence in the assignments from these often unfamiliar areas of law. But, the expectation remains, so go ahead and add the crushing weight of that pressure to the bottomless pit of dishes the law salivates over.
What law school, summer jobs, and the bar exam share in common is the unrelenting and unencumbered gush of information and expectations. Like a firehose aimed at a candle, the tools and methods applied to achieve a certain result often fail to recognize there are better, more efficient means to accomplish the goal of producing functional attorneys. Fewer pages and more strategizing among professors on how to synthesize their lessons, particularly for 1L where they are bound to share the same cohort of students. More candor from summer jobs about the realistic opportunity to explore multiple practice areas. And less memorization of exceptions to exceptions on the bar exam. Many and more of these systemic burdens are elements of the insatiable appetite of law and without change, students must recognize the risk of being consumed by them and losing touch with the best of who they are – human beings worthy of a meaningful existence.
The process of losing myself to the incessant demands of law wrought a collection of disproportionate harms to my mind and body: weight gain, chronic exhaustion, and intermittent brain fog, among many others. On one occasion, mid-way through fall semester of 1L, I recall our property professor lecturing and, while I recognized she was speaking English, I had absolutely zero comprehension of what she was saying. Of the aggregate experiences of that year, I often describe it as being taught how to navigate the raging rapids of white-water rafting. For me, however, I was not even in the raft most of the time, but flailing in the water with a few fingers helplessly gripping the side of the boat, at the mercy of the elements I was meant to be dominating.
And, at the end of the day, what do I have to show for those sacrifices of mind and body? a measly “B” on a transcript. If I had chosen exercise over anxiety, or the occasional street-portrait session over briefing those last 10 cases on a Sunday afternoon, would I have gotten a better grade? maybe. Would I have done any worse? probably not. And therein lies the disproportionate harm. The job of an attorney is, in large part, the ability to engage in a meaningful relationship with, and to advocate productively on behalf of, the client. What good could I hope to achieve for my client if I’m holding on for dear life vainly trying to indulge the insatiable? No. I may have learned my lesson the hard way (though, thankfully, in a relatively low-stakes, client-free environment), but the airlines got it right on this one: nourish the best of who you are first, before attempting to help others.
The quality of a lawyer is often measured by more than just legal acumen, but their ability to forge relationships and communicate effectively. These types of soft skills are difficult to learn and, given the complexity of human behavior and engagement, absolutely impossible to master. But learn we must if we aspire to meet the full needs of colleagues and clients. Key to this aspiration is practice, humility, and the patience necessary to constantly reshape your approach.
In my case, approaching strangers on the street and engaging in the intimate exchange present between photographer and subject inherent in the act of taking a portrait has taught me a great deal about forging relationships and communicating effectively. First, the means to the end is critically contextual; it can, at times, be difficult enough to understand the right tone, words, and body language when we interact with someone we already know – but a stranger is a black box. Add a camera and an offer to take their portrait to the already risky mystery of approaching a stranger and you begin to gain the substantive experience and understanding of how to engage many different people in many different ways.
Secondly, you are bound to get rejected, even scolded, by the occasional stranger, who, for whatever reason, has no interest in what you have to say. These experiences, while sometimes demoralizing, work to build character and toughen the skin. Such a desensitization to awkward and difficult human interactions has enabled me to step up and speak in a wide variety of situations where many might choose to remain silent – something I would humbly characterize as a skill others might strive to achieve.
However, there is an unfortunate flaw that accompanies this skill: sometimes you really should just shut-up. Through trial and error, patience, and a healthy dose of reflection, I have begun to understand when silence is the better option despite all feelings to the contrary. This is less important in the context of my creative expression because I can simply move on to the next stranger with minimal harm; but that remedy won’t work in my professional capacity. Thus, although the investment I have placed on developing my creative expression has produced a voice that helps me engage where others might refrain, it has also demonstrated the persistent need to refine and reshape it to the specific task at hand – be it creative, professional, or personal.
Despite my rantings to the contrary, I remain deeply grateful for the experiences, education, and relationships I have encountered during my time at Columbia Law School. I am undoubtably better, faster, and stronger in the crucial skills required of an attorney: critical thinking, reading, and writing among many others. And, paradoxically, as a 1L, I probably would not have followed my own advice spread over the pages of this essay. Indeed, I am convinced I did receive comparable warnings from upper-year students and even professors to maintain a connection to those passions that complement the best of who I am. But the insatiable appetite of law is an intimate and jealous lover with little regard for the impact of prudent advice. Perhaps, however, if met with the same endurance and unrelenting fortitude as the insatiable, these words and my lived experience can work to dismantle the consuming nature of legal practice and help those who come after preserve that which nourishes the best of who they are. In so doing, I believe the attorneys produced from law schools and the bar exam will be even better suited to tackle the current and generational challenges we face as a society.
*George Taoultsides, The Early History of the Case Method in US Law Schools, Et. Seq: The Harvard Law School Library Blog (May 8, 2022), https://etseq.law.harvard.edu/2019/10/the-early-history-of-the-case-method-in-us-law-schools/.
** In all honesty, Christopher Columbus Langdell introduced the case method in 1870 and was initially met with stiff resistance from legal academia. It took until the mid-1900s for the case method to become widespread in U.S. legal education.