Alex, as I will call him, was a student I remembered. One thing I'm particularly bad at is remembering students' names, but actually I'm not very good at remembering students at all. There are so many of them, and we law faculty have so little idea of what ends up happening to almost all of them (That's not true in your case of course. Let the record reflect that you stay in touch with large numbers of your ex-students and keep close tabs on how their lives and careers are progressing, while I am a self-absorbed egomaniac projecting my inadequacies onto the many thoughtful, warm and caring law professors out there.)
But I remembered Alex. He took three of my classes, and while he never talked much, he was the kind of student who, when he said something, let one know that he was getting what one was trying to get people to get, which is to say something that they couldn't get by just reading the material (you would be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't, by how many law school classes can go by without anyone on either side of the podium experiencing this sensation).
I even remember the paper he wrote in one class of about 50 students. It had stood out enough that after the grades were in I checked to see who had written it, because again it was the kind of thing one hopes for when setting a paper topic. In class Alex didn't display the superficial shoot from the hip faux-brilliance of many a successful law student: he was deeper and more thoughtful than that. Later, I was surprised to learn he was only 25 when he graduated; I would have guessed he was several years older, in the best sense of the word.
Over the years, he came to my office to talk three or four times. It was always about something that had come up in class, that related in some unexpected and interesting way to the work he was doing. The work he was doing was immigration law, which he cared about in a kind of focused way that stood in sharp contrast to the aimless drifting of so many "maybe I should just go to law school" types (I had very much been one of those myself, so I'm intimately familiar with the syndrome). Colorado is a good place to do this kind of work, in the sense that it's home to many people, mostly of Mexican background, who are in various states of ambiguous residency from a legal point of view. Of course most of these people have no money, and so providing them with legal services is a challenge even in the best of times, which, given that Alex graduated from law school in 2009, in a country which finds the idea that poor people (or for that matter middle class people) should have access to legal representation too ridiculous to even bother debating, was not something that he ever came close to seeing.
In law school, Alex had done everything right. Besides getting good grades, he had taken all the right clinics, and done all the right summer internships (he won a fellowship from a national law firm to fund one of them) that someone who wanted to do what he wanted to do should have done. He had, when he graduated, about as good a resume as it was possible for a graduate of our law school to have, for someone who wanted to do the work he came to law school to do.
It wasn't enough. Alex wanted to do public interest law with an emphasis on immigration issues -- a job for which there is at this moment a crying need in the state of Colorado. But there's no money for that kind of thing, so there are no jobs. So he tried to make a go of setting up his own shop with a friend, another 2009 grad, doing a kind of hybrid of private immigration and criminal law that it's possible, at least in theory, to do in places along the Front Range that are less insulated from reality than beautiful Boulder. He had only been at it for a few months when one fine spring morning we got an email from the dean's office, letting us know that Alex had died, a year and a day after his graduation from the law school. He was 26 years old.
I had a horrible feeling when I read that email. For several weeks I couldn't find the courage to ask anyone in a position to know what had, as they say, "happened," but when I finally did I got the answer I knew I was going to get.
Suicide is rarely a simple thing. The precise reasons why Alex killed himself will never be known -- I made a few inquiries, but I quickly became disgusted with the journalistic imperative to remind other people of their sorrows which is always part of getting to the bottom of this kind of story. I never got anywhere close to there, but I did find out enough to learn it would be far too simple to say Alex killed himself because the dreams he had for his career didn't seem to be on the road to working out, and that he had spent four years of his time and talents, and a very large amount of money (we nearly doubled tuition between the time Alex applied for admission and when he graduated) in a fruitless pursuit of those dreams. It seems to have been much more complicated than that.
But I don't think we helped. For mostly avoidable reasons, law school and the thought of everything after produces depression and something like despair in many of the people who undergo it, even in the best of times, which again obviously these are not. I liked Alex a great deal, I thought well of him, and I even helped him learn a few things worth learning, but in the end I could do nothing for him -- or rather I took part in a process that, it seems, led him down a path that ended in a very dark place.
This blog -- this useless gesture which will change nothing, because nothing ever changes -- is among other things a payment for my indifference to many problems, and many people, I should have cared more about.