Law in Contemporary Society

The End of 1L Year

-- By AmandaRichardson - 04 Apr 2008

“Whether he be original or plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself. … To be free means to be lacking in constitutive identity, not to have subscribed to a determined being, to be able to be other than what one was." Josť Ortega y Gasset

Judge Celia Day says “The question ought to be why. Why the law is what it is.” This question seems important not just as she means it but to law school in particular.

What worries me about law school is that it encourages us to give up our constituent identities; to become “law students.” The school rewards us for giving up the outside interests that made us amazing enough to be admitted in the first place.

In law school we learn how to become more efficient game players, but I worry that we aren’t learning anything about how to make the rules. We may be learning a language and a culture, but by the end of this experience it seems likely that we will all have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, in making our education worthwhile. We are learning how to get by at a firm, how to project the appearance of power, and if we were truly invested in changing the way the legal culture, or society in general, functions, this training would be merely helpful at best. Instead, it is presented to us as vital.

This is not to say that this is the only work the law school is doing. But even with a fairly concrete idea of what I want from my legal education, I’ve still found myself losing sight of that. My hundred words at the beginning of the semester were: “I’m interested in public policy in education and human rights, and law school, for me, was a way of exploring the underlying legal framework of those policies. Working with some of the pro bono projects here has made me think that I’m interested less in the big picture than I believed, and more in effecting micro-level change. I appreciate learning more about how our legal system works (and how it doesn’t) but after four years at a liberal arts school the theoretical approach to social change is beginning to seem esoteric and unappealing and I find myself wanting to act.” (I would inset this but I don’t know how.) However, I still went to EIP orientation, even knowing that I didn’t want a firm job. I spent time in ConLaw? study group and almost forgot about how interested I am in educational policy. I found myself structuring my time wrongly-instead of working with the pro bono projects I know center me, or even reading something non-law-related, at the end of the day I wanted to do nothing more than turn off my brain and watch TV. While I wouldn’t presume to extrapolate too much or too widely from this, I hear this complaint a lot—people in law school reduce their interests to work, TV, and alcohol.

While I adore the people I know here, who are uniformly highly intelligent, well-informed, and interested in the world, I have realized that those people I am most drawn to are the people who are least insane about school—the people who skip class, who don’t read until finals period, and who, most importantly, retain outside interests.

Which brings us to Ortega y Gasset. Understanding the law should give us more power. But law school seems designed to keep us from defining ourselves, or at least to make that more difficult. The identity of “lawyer” is narrow here; the power understanding the law gives us is tempered by the box in which we’re put. By teaching ourselves how to market ourselves, our professors are teaching us how to limit and temper our ambitions. This may be specific to Columbia, but since getting here I have had trouble conceptualizing of what a lawyer actually is. I premised the first iteration of this paper on the idea that a lawyer is the person who deals with legal cases because my first year here seemed about that particular end- teaching us to become the people who interpret contracts, case law, and statutes and who mold them to our ends.

Of course there are many things one should be able to do as a lawyer, or with a legal education. But it is hard to hold on to those conceptions of lawyering when confronted with the realities of 1L year; when confronted with the time constraints that prevent us from remembering the interests we had before law school.

For me, then, law school has been a struggle to hold on to the ideals that brought me here in the first place.

But writing this paper so late has helped, because at my summer job (working for an NGO in South Africa) I have seen some of the ways in which a law degree can be used to further my own interests. And maybe in the end that is what is important- law school (or 1L year) may be about redefining oneself as a “law student” but that redefinition does not have to be permanent or self-altering. Because 1L year ends, and the flexibility (if we want it) of the rest of law school can allow us all the freedom of Ortega y Gassett. I end somewhat tritely because I want to end with hope; there is no reason law school has to take over our lives if we remember that it is a tool, not an end in itself.

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r9 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:55:03 - IanSullivan
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