Busting The Lawyer Stereotype: An Interview With Author Paula Franzese

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Paula Franzese

Q: How does an attorney sleep?

A: First he lies on one side, then he lies on the other.

Q: What do you get when you cross the Godfather with a lawyer?

A: An offer you can’t understand

Ah yes, lawyer jokes. Sure, they trade on stereotypes. But Americans have witnessed enough shady dealings to turn lawyer bashing into our unofficial national pastime.

So let’s go through all the stereotypes, shall we? Lawyers run a system rigged to favor the wealthy and well-connected. They split hairs over arcane points, turning any dispute into all-or-nothing, scorched-earth battles. They needlessly complicate and block progress to rack up extra billables. Reckless and amoral, they are the ambulance chasers and critics who’ve never built anything themselves. They twist facts, spin sentiments, and bend rules as they hide behind their unique logic. And don’t get anyone started on their know-it-all, holier-than-thou personas. In short, lawyers are viewed as cold, greedy, self-interested, and pretentious. And they’ll do just about anything to win.

Sound about right?

Enter Paula Franzese.

While acknowledging occasional excesses, this Seton Hall law professor is here to remind the critics (and law students) of the nobility inherent to practicing law. In her book, A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student, Franzese shares what many have seemingly forgotten. From Abraham Lincoln to Mohandas Gandhi, lawyers have often masterminded and driven social justice movements. Facing a majority making rash judgments, lawyers are usually the ones with the courage to stand up and say “no.” For those deemed weak, unpopular, disposable, and forgettable, a lawyer may be their only protection. When situations spiral out of control, who do people turn to for reassurance? That’s right, it is the lawyers they trust to be on their side and eventually right the wrongs they’ve suffered.

For most lawyers, the law isn’t a ticket to fat paychecks and weekends at the country club. Instead, it is an expression of their deepest values, a vehicle that provides a sense of duty and purpose. For Franzese, the cynicism surrounding the law is cowardice; it is abdicating hope and engagement to fear and anomie.

And that can be particularly true of law students. In a time when students should be bristling with optimism and compassion, many are fatigued and jaded instead. And they too feed into the worst stereotypes. Many obsess over their rankings, feeding their ego at the expense of making life better for others. They operate off transactional relationships, focused on padding their resumes and one-upping their perceived competition. As a result, labels like “cutthroat,” “antagonistic,” and “socially inept” are applied to them. In reality, they have simply lost their way.

And that’s the purpose behind Franzese’s book. It is a daily reminder to students of their real purpose in pursuing a law degree. Here, Franzese, a 10-time recipient of the Student Bar Association’s Professor of the Year Award, covers everything from how to combat doubt to how to study for law tests. If students are struggling to decipher the case method and legal language, Franzese reassures them that their classmates are facing the same issues (before showing them how to awaken their analytical muscles). When students feel overwhelmed and inadequate, she warns them not to give into disbelief. “That voice in your head trying to convince you that you are ‘less than’ is a liar,” she writes.

Most important, Franzese reinforces so many key lessons to success and happiness – the ones so easily lost among heavy reading loads (and even heavier personal expectations). For Franzese, success in law school isn’t necessarily reflected in graduating near the top or landing a clerkship. Instead, it is about staying true to yourself, being mindful of others, and saying “yes” to opportunities that come along. Even more, it is about staying focused on the big picture, dispelling the naysayers by remembering that “you are what you answer to,” and being grateful for the opportunity. As Franzese writes, “Remind yourself often that [law school] is not something that you have to do. It is something you get to do.”

Recently, Tipping the Scales sat down with Franzese to discuss her philosophies in A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student. From examining why the law cynics are wrong to sharing what the best law students are doing to be successful, here are Franzese’s thoughts on the state of law school education:

Continue to next page to read Tipping the Scales’ interview with Paula Franzese