Cameron Stracher, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, exposed the dark side of the practice of corporate law in Double Billing: A Young Lawyer’s Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair. Now, in The Curve, a darkly comic novel written with Jeremy Blachman, he turns a critical eye to legal education. All is not well at the fictional Manhattan Law School, an institution perched precariously on the edge of the Gowanus Canal, “filled with human beings who should have known better.” Stracher answered questions from The National’s Adam Cohen about the challenges facing law schools, legal books, and the mechanics of writing.
1. The Curve paints a fairly grim picture of legal education, particularly at the lower levels — Manhattan Law School is not a happy place. How bad do you think things are in law schools, or at least some law schools, these days?
From what I’ve heard from students I’ve taught, and from students I know, there’s a lot of anxiety at law schools these days — more than is typical for anyone facing important career decisions. As I’m sure you know, the number of applicants to law schools has dropped dramatically, and the students who have decided to go anyway must wonder a bit whether they’ve bought a ticket on the Titanic.
2. The book has a lot of gallows humor, particularly around the shortage of jobs for graduating law students — one of the “Summer Job Opportunities” offered by the Office of Career Services is working for a federal “Don’t Go to Law School” initiative. How big a problem is the shortage of entry-level jobs, and — given the debt levels many students graduate with — what would you advise a young person considering law school today?
There’s no denying that there are fewer entry level jobs for the number of students seeking them. Plus, there’s a backlog of qualified candidates who are unemployed or under-employed and desperate for any kind of legal work. On the other hand, there’s always a need for smart young lawyers, and it’s probably easier to get a job right out of law school than as a lateral candidate. I would tell someone who’s considering law school that if they’re serious about it, and that’s what they want to do, they should go to a decent school, and make sure to work hard and graduate in the top 10 or 20 percent of their class. The days of going to a crappy school and doing crappy but getting a job anyway are gone.
3. In The Curve, a company that operates charter schools is trying to buy Manhattan Law School. That’s suggestive of something you hear from legal academics and lawyers a lot these days: that change, of one sort or another, is coming — whether through more law schools closing, more internet learning, or something else. Where do you think legal education is headed — and what do you think the landscape will look like 10 years from now?
That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. Ideally, legal education would change in response to changing demands in the profession. But remember that legal education is a monopoly of sorts, and the people in charge have a vested interest in keeping things the same. I’m a pessimist: I think we’ll see changes around the edges, but no real substantive change to the way things are today.
4. You wrote The Curve with Jeremy Blachman, a fellow lawyer. How did the writing process work. Did one of you produce the first draft and the other revise it? Did you write different chapters? How much time did you spend physically in the same place?
The best thing about The Curve was working on it with Jeremy. Every writer should have a partner. Writing with a partner gets your off your butt and forces you to do the work you know you should do. In our case, Jeremy and I complemented each other very well. I had originally written half of a first draft, but I was stuck, and I knew Jeremy from a review of his book that I had written for the Wall Street Journal. I just had a feeling that he would be the person to breathe life into it, and see it with a fresh eye, and he was. We sat down and wrote a detailed outline for a revision, and then we each wrote chapters and exchanged them and edited each other until we were happy with the resulting version.
5. Your book is part of a long tradition of writers critiquing law and the legal profession. What are some of your favorite books about the law, comical and serious?
It’s not about the law, but one of my favorite books about education generally, and one I thought about a lot as I wrote The Curve, is Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. Also, I’ve always loved The Paper Chase, and I went back and re-read it while writing this book and I still love it. Jeremy’s book, Anonymous Lawyer, is very funny, and I highly recommend it. And, of course, there’s your book, Imbeciles, which isn’t funny, but addresses what may be the most unintentionally funny line is the history of U.S. jurisprudence: "Three generations of imbeciles is enough." I want that as the epitaph on my tombstone.