Law in Contemporary Society

The Importance of Words

Neither of my parents went to college. I can say with some degree of confidence that their embarrassment and regret over that fact blazed the trail I have followed for most of my life. Even as a young child I could sense that a great deal was riding on my academic performance - more, I think, than on my classmates with similarly grade-conscious but college-educated parents. My accomplishments in school measured more than my own ability; they provided the benchmark by which my parents gaged how successfully they'd prevented their own limitations from burdening me. Aware that my failure would disappoint in complex ways, I learned early on to equate academic success with self-worth.

When I first began to contemplate the propulsive force of expectations, I was certain that I had become a puppet rather than an adult, that my parents were constantly pulling strings in my subconscious. In the years after college and the distance they provided, I found some comfort in the realization that, more than anything, my parents were motivated by a desire not to seal my fate. I cannot deny that their regrets have had a lingering impact - because of them I have resisted central messages in this class, been unwilling to close certain doors, and have continued, to a degree, to view grades as determinative of my ability. I am confident, however, that they are not the reason I came to law school.

I came to law school because I care about words. I've cared about words for as long as I can remember and to an extent that I know often frustrates those closest to me. I enjoy splitting hairs and I am frustrated by imprecision. I was worried for a time that I chose law school on the misguided belief that I would make a good lawyer because I like to "argue." Over the course of the year I've realized that I came here not because I like to argue but because I am fascinated by what can be accomplished in a sentence and because I believed that it would lead to a career that recognizes that words matter.

This year has been challenging for me for a number of reasons. The most difficult aspect, and that which has given me the most pause, has been the first year curriculum's profound disrespect for words. I can appreciate what cold-calling encourages and I can hope that a three-hour in class exam at least teaches me to think on my feet. I cannot, however, find a silver-lining in the fact that, outside of this class, I had absolutely no valuable input regarding my ability to use words effectively. I learned to write like a stressed-out law student with not enough time, but gained almost no insight into how to write like a lawyer. I began the year confident that law school would provide me with the tools by which to turn my fascination into a career. I am ending it concerned that my writing skills are worse for the wear.

I am aware that I have finished less law school than I have left and that I am therefore speaking from a place of minimal experience. I do not think, however, that it takes three years to realize that the first is severely lacking. If lawyering is making things happen in society using words, the first year curriculum should begin go teach us how to make things happen in society using words. A one-credit, pass/fail writing course that meets once a week is not enough. Perhaps the Columbia administration assumes that none of us could have made it here without above-average writing skills. From reading the papers written for this class, I feel comfortable saying that that assumption is probably grounded in reality. But our collective linguistic facility should be cause for cultivation, not neglect. Each of us has the capacity to shape society - we should leave law school confident that we can do so using words, not pressured to accept unfulfilling jobs in order to "learn" to be lawyers. A system that provides first year law students with continuous feedback throughout the year is, I believe, a necessary first step toward accomplishing that goal.

Perhaps I am na´ve to maintain the belief, after this year, that successful lawyering requires an interest in words and the ability to use them precisely. I think (hope) that, in reality, my expectations about law school, rather than the legal profession, were misguided. As this year ends, I am concerned that I will be returning next year for the wrong reasons. While I came to law school for myself, I am afraid that if I don't learn the skills I came to learn I will be staying only for my parents. I am especially worried that if I leave here without the ability to use words effectively I will be tempted to walk through one of those doors I've kept open only for them.

-- By ElizabethSullivan - 15 May 2012

In one sense, this is the counterpart to the inquiry I suggest in response to your first essay. It is a reflection on what you haven't been taught, more than have not been learning, in the past year, and establishes a way in which you do not feel more effective or socially powerful. It is also a subtle continuance of the line you were on, without the social theorist or the social theory, but with a sensitive and insightful understanding of the effect of socialization on your parents, and on you.

The two parts of the essay don't join neatly at the moment, leaving me to wonder whether the effort should be to join them more closely, or to concentrate instead on the second, more immediately pressing, of the parts.

Justification could be given for the failure. It's hard to teach people to write like lawyers who don't yet have control of legal language. (This is in fact one of the primary problems with situating where the "legal writing" offering is presently situated. But freshman composition is for freshmen, right?) Teaching writing is difficult at all, and is obviously impossible at the high student-faculty ratios characteristic of law school courses taught by experienced career teachers who are also capable lawyers. Such people are too important, and have too many valuable and necessary things to say, to justify using their time to correct peoples' sentence structure. We are an elite institution, and should take students who already know how to write well, etc.

There are some important elements of truth in all these excuses. They amount, indeed, to a pretty strong showing that changes would have to be made in order for you to get the assistance in learning that you think you need. As you will have guessed, I don't think the excuses, good as they are, justify not making the necessary changes. So the inquiry becomes, how to change. That requires experimentation. This is one experiment.

In my view, we need to use the basic technology of the 21st century, networked collaborative communication, to increase massively our productivity as teachers in reading, editing, and helping students to collaborate in editing, their writing. We need to make that activity a present, indeed central, part of the workflow in every course. We need to deliver experiences of writing, editing, rewriting and rethinking, in every teaching interaction we design. Properly developed, this set of changes will make it possible to take future students, produced by "drill and kill" test-focused primary and secondary education systems lightly dusted with the "college research paper" fallacy, and prevent them from becoming significantly deteriorated writers and thinkers, which will otherwise occur over the next two decades.

But if you really mean to be someone who cares about words, you must be more intent in training your consumption than your production. Everything you write is a reflection of everything you read. And everything you read without retaining you might as well not have read at all.

The decay of reading in most young peoples' lives is more serious than the decay of writing. Law school is even more flawed in what it encourages people to read than in what it doesn't bother to encourage them to write.

Almost everyone has a great deal of catching up to do. But the habits of constant connection and the resulting low priority accorded to memory training (in which people have gone from not being able to remember any Shakespeare, because they haven't read any, to not being able to remember any telephone numbers, because they're all stored in the cellphone, and who calls people anyway when you can click to leave a message on some completely-surveilled, totally data-mined, no-privacy-here "wall"?) mean that no one is building habits that would allow catching up to occur. Most of the young adults with whom I deal are fifteen years behind on the reading they should have done, and are building or have built life habits that will prevent them from catching up, let alone proceeding further, in a long lifetime. They have been brought to believe that grades matter, that what you need to read is what will be on the test, that the condition of "having no time to read" is a non-emergency that can persist for years without harm after graduation, and so on.

The reality, however, is that one's mind is stocked with all the words and all the concepts one leads it to and helps it hold. I never took a test, or wrote a paper, or a letter, or a brief, or a license, without drawing upon both words and concepts I came upon in contexts very far from the immediate occasion, or the "reading list." I needed Bleak House to write an exam in English Legal History, while Finnegans Wake provided both a quotation and an argument in a brief in the US Supreme Court. All the history I've ever read that's carried in my head has affected every strategic decision I've ever made in ways I'd never be able to define.

Reading and remembering are the bones of writing. Law school at present does, as you see, a poor job dressing the body. But the real harm to the physiology of the mind is being done elsewhere. Not only can you meditate on what to do for the benefit of your own intellectual and stylistic development, you could also consider how, as a person trained to produce social consequences using words, you might put your powers to work dealing with the problem more broadly, so as to avoid the destruction of the intellectual environment of many more people.

Elizabeth, I really enjoyed reading your paper and you were able to express a lot of what I felt (but didn't really realize) about words and about law school. I don't have much to add right now other than you are not alone in what you are feeling.


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r4 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:53 - IanSullivan
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