As promised, I'm officially kicking off the 203 Summer Fun Book Club. Never mind the fact that it is already the middle of July: my summer starts about now, as we begin wrapping up our transfer applications (and don't be surprised if "Summer Fun Book Club" continues through December, under the same name). The idea of the Book Club is to present a selection of books written by lawyers but that aren't about the law (at least in the direct, academic sense), with the hope that you'll avoid tooling out too early on law stuff (if you are an applicant or a 0L) and that you'll get some ideas of a career escape route (if you are already in law school).
I generally don't get to pal around with bestselling novelists -- or even come in contact with them, for that matter -- so I was pleasantly surprised when I got a note last fall from bestselling author Barry Eisler, who had read an article I had written about the use of torture. Mr. Eisler had kindly sent me a copy of his latest novel, Inside Out, which chronicles assassin Ben Treven's quest to track down 92 missing CIA torture tapes and the rogue agent who took them.
Before I go further, let me make a confession. Despite (or because of) my past life as a G-woman, I don't gravitate toward spy-thrillers or political "faction" (fiction based on true events) novels. My fictional tastes tend to flow toward mommy lit, dead Tudor queens, or tales of the Indian diaspora. Perhaps lightweight for a Yale Law graduate, but it is what it is (my next book selection will illustrate why I no longer feel a need to be apologetic about my literary preferences).
As a result I'll admit I approached this book with a little trepidation, fearing a Tom Clancy-esq, too-much-going-on-for-me-to-care-about-or-keep-track-of plot. It was anything but. Inside Out had a fast-moving but carefully woven plot, with well-developed characters and just the right dose of inside-the-beltway dialogue which provided a policy context for the novel. As for the steamy sex which Mr. Eisler promises when he discusses the book, I'll just echo the old Prego commercial: it's in there.
Part of the reason that the novel was so readable and engrossing is that it was believable. One of things that real-life law enforcement/intelligence training does is ruin you for any kind of fictional portrayal of this life. For example, here are three things that drive me absolutely nuts with crime/spy shows:
1. Any TV show that depicts LEOs (law enforcement officers) walking around and sweeping rooms with their finger on the trigger has a bad consultant and is a total fake. Rule #1 -- as any LEO (and hopefully private gun owner) will tell you -- is keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to shoot.
2. There are three things that will provide adequate cover (protection from a bullet) in a gunfight: a U.S. mailbox (the blue ones that look like R2D2), the engine block of a car, and a tree trunk. If you're watching a guy firing away from behind a wooden door or an office desk, just know that he would be totally dead in real life.
3. People employed to do covert operations with the CIA are CIA officers, not agents. A source recruited by the CIA officer is called an agent. By contrast, people employed by the FBI and who carry guns are FBI agents (short for Special Agent). A source recruited by an FBI Agent is called a source or an asset (and may be described in a criminal complaint as an informant). Someone at NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox please make a note of this.
Anyway, back to Inside Out being realistic. From the training and demeanor of the main characters -- one a black ops agent and the other a female FBI agent (woo-hoo!) -- to the interagency squabbling when the report of the 92 missing CIA tapes hits the media, the novel has the mark of someone who knows what he's talking about. That's because Mr. Eisler does. After graduating from Cornell Law School in 1989, Mr. Eisler was a covert CIA officer for three years before practicing law in Silicon Valley. He became a full-time writer after the publication of his first bestselling novel, Rain Fall, in 2003.
As someone who's followed a somewhat ecclectic career path since law school myself, I was as intrigued by Mr. Eisler's background as with the novel. So I asked him to answer some questions for 203 readers, which he did:
203: You've had an amazing career, from law to the CIA to writing. Let's start with the first one: what made you decide to go to law school, and why did you eventually leave the practice?
Eisler: The truth is, I went to law school because I didn't know what else I wanted to do. I lacked direction while I was in college but tested well on things like the LSAT, and my parents, concerned about that lack of direction, encouraged me to apply to law school. So it was a bit of a "path of least resistance" thing and I can't say my heart was in it. After law school, I joined the CIA's Directorate of Operations -- no connection with my law degree -- and, while in many ways the experience was interesting, I also found working for a giant bureaucracy not to my taste. So I left after three years and joined the DC office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, then bounced around between WGM's Silicon Valley office and private practice in Osaka and Tokyo. Eventually, a technology startup I had brought in to WGM as a client offered me an enticing executive position, so I left the bleachers and took to the field (at least that's how it felt at the time). All the while, I was working on the manuscript for what become my first novel -- Rain Fall -- and when I sold the rights for it and an unwritten sequel, I left the regular workplace entirely and started writing full time. I certainly enjoyed the craft of a technology licensing practice, in Silicon Valley, Japan, and in-house with a startup, but for me, writing full time, and being the CEO of my own operation, can't be beat.
203: You were a covert CIA officer for three years. What was that like - anything like the movie The Recruit? (Sorry, I have to ask - if it makes you feel better, people always want to know if the FBI was anything like the X-Files.)
Eisler: Heh, yes, it was as much like The Recruit as I imagine the Bureau is like the X-Files. It had its good and bad aspects. Good would include the training -- seven weeks of paramilitary training, 20 weeks of spy school -- and the opportunity to work alongside some impressive people. Bad would include the overall mediocrity of the place. I know that sounds harsh, and for anyone who's curious about more, I'd recommend Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes. Overall, America would be safer and saner today if we had abolished the CIA decades ago (as Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all at various times wanted).
203: Inside Out is based on actual events, specifically the CIA's use of torture and its destruction of the videotapes that documented it. What about this spoke to you and made you consider making it into a novel?
Eisler: I'm appalled at America's embrace of torture. Not just because the practice is illegal -- and we're supposed to be a nation under the rule of law -- not just because it's immoral -- and we're supposed to be better than our enemies. Also because it's counterproductive. The two things torture does undeniably well is produce false confessions (hence its popularity with the Inquisition) and create new jihadists and new jihadist sympathizers. Yet it's been sold to a gullible public as something that "works" and that has saved, rather than cost, American lives.
I realized the right has effectively cross-promoted torture by reducing the practice to this silly, misleading question: "Can you say it never works?" Leave aside for a moment that the question is intended to distract from the actual facts of what was ordered and done during the Bush administration and what continues under the Obama administration, and the actual US laws against torture. What counts isn't whether a practice can be shown to have worked in some isolated instance (although it's noteworthy that torture apologists have never been able to demonstrate even a single instance where torture led to intelligence that saved American lives); what counts is whether something works in the aggregate. So yes, of course, torture can theoretically "work," just as burning down a house can "work" to kill a mosquito. Bravo.
Anyway, the right has been effective in reducing torture to this misleading talking point and then cross-promoting it through shows like 24 and the novels of people like Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. I thought it was time for a reality-based novel in response -- something that would depict the true causes and consequences of torture, not a cartoon fantasy. Hence, Inside Out.
203: Given your career trajectory, what would be your advice to aspiring law students? If they're not sure they want to be lawyers, do you think the law degree is still worth it?
Eisler: It depends on the person. I think some careers can be grown into, even if you're not sure about it at first. And God knows, the country needs good lawyers today -- not corporate careerists, but men and women dedicated to the Constitution and to the notion that, as Thomas Paine said, "Insofar as we have a King in America, it is the law that is king." The Constitution has been under worsening assault pretty much the Manhattan Project (for more, I recommend Gary Wills' Bomb Power) and the Bush and Obama administrations have been especially ferocious. It's hard to see how the rule of law can survive if we don't have people dedicated to practicing and protecting it. In which regard: want to read an account of American heroes? "The Guantanamo Lawyers." A true story of what real lawyers can do in the service of justice and the Constitution when they set their minds to it. The country needs more such patriots, and I hope the book will inspire some of your students today.
So there you go, readers, from someone who has (literally) been there and done that -- stay tuned for our next selection. Meanwhile, please keep in mind that if you clicked on any of the links in the above post, your phone calls may be monitored.
OK, this week we're going to talk about another one of my least favorite law school personal statements: the One-Trick Pony Essay. Simply put, the OTPE usually involves an applicant who is extremely accomplished in or committed to a particular activity or sport, such as debate, chess, or baseball. This, inherently, is not the problem. The problem is that they then devote every component of their application to illustrate their single-minded focus on their passion, I am guessing because they want to show qualities like devotion, perserverence, and achievement. Unfortunately, these good qualities end up being overshadowed by the readers' sense that the appliant is kind of boring and one-dimensional.
To see why the OTPE can take a good thing and turn it into a bad thing, let's use a hypothetical (as in, not real/just an example/don't sue me). Let's imagine that Michael Phelps (of whom I am a big fan) decides to apply to law school. I open his file, excited to appropriate his electronic signature into my personal autograph collection, and to learn something about the "real" Michael Phelps. This first thing I see are his Honors and Awards, which lists every swim meet he has ever won and all of the world swimming records he has broken. Next, under Extracurricular Activities, he lists swimming as his main activity, with occasional volunteer work for the local high school swim teams. His thesis in college was about new wetsuit technology and whether it should be banned from international competition. His personal statement is a description of what it was like to grow up with four hour morning swim practices starting at 4am and four hour practices after school. His 250-word essays is a descriptive piece about what it's like to take the first lap of the day. Finally, his recommendations include one from the U.S. Olympic committee and one from his swimming coach, Bob.
Dude -- the guy was on the front of a friggin' Wheaties box. I KNOW that he has spent pretty much every waking moment of his life in a swimming pool. I also know that he is a CRAZY AWESOME swimmer -- I watched every sappy Olympic story about him, including the one that talked about how much he ate every day (I think he consumed like 12,000 calories a day while training). While all of this is impressive, the problem with this (did I mention fictional?) application is that it a) doesn't really tell me anything new or surprising and b) isn't particularly linked with why he is applying to law school. Even if his numbers were spectacular, my main thought would be: the Law School doesn't have a swimming pool -- what is this poor guy going to do here?
Now imagine a different kind of application from Michael. Let's say that he mixes it up a bit, with a brief mention of being a sixteen-time Olympic medalist but also listing his non-athletic activities, such as writing a food column for the local newspaper. And maybe his personal statement doesn't discuss swimming at all, but talks about, say, a summer job he had once that gave him a window into some of the issues he's interested in exploring in law school. His recommendations, only from faculty members, talk about his writing and intellectual curiosity. And, maybe he subtly includes a 250-word essay about what it was like to hear the American anthemn played the first time he won a gold medal, which might make the reader (me) a little misty-eyed. Admitted.
The point here is that contrary to popular belief, admission to YLS isn't based upon proving superhuman feats and accomplishments. On the contrary, it's about showing that you are human, in the literal sense of the world. You want to reveal as many facets as you can about what makes you who you are. And let me be clear: I don't mean that you should show that you are superficially "well-rounded" by listing a bunch of activities that you aren't really involved in. You can be completely immersed in one particular idea or activity -- you just don't want that one thing to define you as a person. Presumably, you do spend some time in your day thinking of or doing other things, and you need to let those come through in your application as well. Otherwise, you take the risk that the admissions committee will conclude that you will be unable to relate or meaningfully contribute to the class in any area outside your stated interests.
If you are a person who is really focused on one thing, and you're having trouble thinking of other things in your life that matter to you and that you can incorporate into your application, then this is a major red flag that should cause you to consider a couple of things. First, are you sure you want to go to law school? I mean, if playing the cello has been your life goal for the past twenty years and it's what you live, breathe and eat each day, then maybe you ought to, I don't know...play the cello for a living. You may not make much, but I promise you it will be the life you dream about as you sit locked in a basement as a first year associate, going through boxes of documents for fifteen hours a day so you can pay your debts.
Second, maybe you should get out more. Remember, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (and you know how that ended).