Law: A Default Career

Steven HarperFor students who think they’re headed to law school, adjunct professor Steven Harper (WCAS76, G76) offers a reality check. In his popular Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences seminar American Lawyers: Demystifying the Profession, Harper, a member of Weinberg’s 2009–10 Faculty and Administrator Honor Roll, discusses the lessons he’s learned from 30 years at a major law firm and his observations on how the profession has changed. The course inspired his first novel, The Partnership, which came out last May. His blog, The Belly of the Beast, deals with the same themes and was named one of the best blogs of the year by the American Bar Association.

Northwestern: Why did you decide to teach this course?
HARPER: Practicing lawyers are among the most unhappy of all professionals. That’s kind of counterintuitive. When you’re a student, you think of lawyers like the characters on Law & Order. I became convinced that one of the reasons practicing lawyers are so unhappy is because there is a disconnect between their expectations going into law school and going into the profession and then what reality turns out to be. The idea of the course is to get students to rethink assumptions that they have made about the profession.

Northwestern: Does the seminar make students change their minds about law school? 
HARPER: For many students, law school is a default. It’s the last bastion for the liberal arts major who can’t decide what to do next. I’m not trying to talk anybody into or out of law school, but I describe the seminar as 10 weeks of reality therapy. I say forewarned is forearmed, knowing what’s ahead and preparing yourself for what’s to come. I’ve had students come back to me after the first year of law school and say, “We didn’t think it was as bad as you said it was going to be, but it turns out it’s worse.”

Northwestern: What are the major themes behindThe Partnership?
HARPER: I was wrestling with the conundrum of why lawyers at big firms are so unhappy. I was in a big firm for 30 years and loved it, so I figured that qualifies me to talk about it. During that time I witnessed a transformation of the profession from a collegiate, professional model to what I call the MBA mentality of misguided metrics. Now, there’s a short-term, profit-maximizing business enterprise approach to everything. The novel is a legal thriller that has all the narrative aspects that hopefully keep people turning the page but, at the same time, communicates the central themes that are helpful to understand what has gone on in the profession for the last 30 years.

Read "Sundays with Dick," Steven Harper's profile on iconic Northwestern professor Richard Leopold.