Law in Contemporary Society

The Skeptical 1L

-- By CarlaChow - 16 Feb 2012


What has struck me most about this course so far is the message to be more aware; more aware of our selves, surroundings, actions, and assumptions. From our discussion about time to the daily musical interludes we are constantly reminded to do the difficult thing and stop and question and, as clichéd as it sounds, to actually think for ourselves for once. And we must constantly be reminded to do this very difficult thing since all our lives we have been rewarded for lazy thinking, for simply accepting certain things as truth. This principle is very reminiscent of the main theme of the late David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon University commencement speech in which he describes this kind of mindful attention and effort as real and true freedom. “The alternative” he said “is unconsciousness, the default setting, the ‘rat race’ - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”.

Law School as Imagination Test

In my limited experience thus far, law school (and the Big Firm lifestyle it seems to promote), as much as anything in the world, enforces the so-called ‘default setting’. In its first semester it serves up a fixed set of courses, a fixed set of principles and definitions, and a seemingly fixed set of career options. We are given a singular ideal of success promising extraordinary wealth and physical comforts built upon a tried and true formula that cannot be questioned or changed. To see grades not as a limiting force or law school as an imagination test thus seems, at best, unrealistic or idealistic and, at worst, a blatant lie told to calm those who have already been barred from attaining this ideal of success. This skepticism is to be expected and obviously why almost no one shows up/everybody fails the real test.

I am, generally speaking, a pragmatist. Echoing Cohen I believe that it is not enough to talk about what something is or what it is called but that one should focus on what something actually does. This is especially true when trying to convince the skeptical 1L who, unlike Holmes’ bad man, is not only self-interested but is often also either self-righteous or defensive about this self-interest, claiming that she has been forced into this position of self-interestedness by outside circumstances. Thus, it is not enough to talk about personal freedom and unfettered thinking; one must talk about results and, more specifically, how those results affect the skeptical 1L and her circumstances.

Like the law, this type of thinking does not carry with it a moral judgment. It is not virtuous in and of itself and one should not do it simply because it is Good in some inherent way. Likewise, it would be difficult to say that doing Big Firm work is inherently Bad. Instead what we have seen is that consciously deciding what does and does not have meaning allows one to think creatively about what the law is, what it does, how it works, how it should work, and how it knows things. The skeptical 1L dutifully accepts these principles while still clinging to the larger default paradigm. She sees no reason to abandon it as the former are interesting thought exercises but ultimately have little to no effect on her career, her need to repay her student loans, etc. This is of course a tautological fallacy. They only have no effect if she subscribes to the belief that the tried and true formula leading to extraordinary wealth and physical comforts is the only way to be successful.

And here is the not so well kept but surprisingly well ignored secret: the tried and true formula does not work or will not work for much longer. Almost everyone recognizes that the legal market is in crisis and undergoing substantial restructuring which will not disappear with an economic recovery. It is equally obvious to people that the ideal of success we are grasping at is not what it once was. It is becoming more and more difficult to attain and, perhaps more importantly, less and less desirable a lifestyle.

So, the ship is sinking and we are clinging to floating debris instead of trying to change boats. This is where law school can and should play a pivotal role in changing the rules of the game. By challenging students to think creatively, a thought exercise in how judges should rule could translate into how they actually do rule. To engage in this type of thinking is to eschew with any preconceived notions and the skeptical 1L may finally be able to arrive at what it is she actually wants to achieve and in what she wants to believe. The ideal of success is not a predetermined bundle package. Now perhaps more than ever the legal world is waiting to be built and shaped. Suddenly, the skeptical, self-interested 1L finds herself suddenly a part of something much larger than herself and her career. With it she finds the power to change the world, to choose what is important and what is not – a power she had all along.

This is Water

Wallace began his commencement speech with a story with which I will now end: To paraphrase, two young fish swim by an old fish who then asks them how the water is. They do not answer. After a while one young fish turns to the other and asks, “What the heck is water?” I believe the message of this to be a fundamental one: You must recognize what is essential and realize that everything else is bullshit.

This is pretty much how I see it, minus the David Foster Wallace bit.

But as you see it that way too, you understand why I feel as though it would be better to help you write about your ideas instead of mine. This is a good draft: it expresses clearly ideas I hope I expressed clearly too, and now we should move on to another experience, in which you try to express with equal clarity and force an idea of your own, in which I try to follow you.


Webs Webs

r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:19 - IanSullivan
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