Law in Contemporary Society

The Problem with Law School Culture

-- By HarryParmenter - 25 May 2015


I was told by upperclassmen just before the start of my 1L year that law school was going to be much like high school; it didn’t take long to figure out why. In the first week of Legal Methods I was in a study group that at one point decided each of us should go around the table and share our post-graduation career goals. The unanimous choice was big law until it came to me. When I expressed discomfort at the idea of big law, for I already had a vague understanding of its exploitative nature, the response ranged from disbelief to disgust. “What will you do about money?” one of them sneered. High school indeed. I understood that what those upperclassmen were warning me about was a culture of intense peer pressure and conformity.

Law school culture is a problem, and it doesn’t end with the students who perpetuate it. Indeed, the culture is not merely the result of gathering a bunch of self-selecting, “risk-averse control freaks” in one room. It is a culture perpetuated by the structure of legal education itself. I propose that a restructuring of the 1L curriculum is the key to dispelling a culture that tells law students that their best bet is selling out to big law jobs that are unlikely to contribute to fulfilling or sustainable careers.

The Curriculum

Essential to restructuring a curriculum that reinforces law school culture is gaining an understanding of what it is about the curriculum that contributes to that culture. One of the most marked structural similarities I noticed between high school and law school is that in both, students are given little control over their academic lives. In fact, law school is far more paternalistic; there is no choice involved in the 1L curriculum, barring that between foundation and specialized moot court (which are essentially the same, anyway) and a single second-semester elective (by which point, as Eben once noted, the indoctrination has already occurred). A uniform curriculum means that all 1Ls are in direct competition with one another, and thus can easily measure themselves against one another according to a single metric: exams. This is a problem because grades on exams provide only a very narrow concept of academic success, one that is centered on issue-spotting and appellate court style arguments under harsh time constraints. Further, exam scores are an easy and, therefore, tempting way for students to measure themselves up to one another, which perpetuates the law school hivemind. This is especially problematic given law students’ general tendency to take such black-and-white metrics too seriously. Indeed, as Patrick Schiltz describes in his article, “On Being a Happy, Healthy and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession:”

"Many of them have spent almost their entire lives competing to win games that other people have set up for them. First they competed to get into a prestigious college. Then they competed for college grades. Then they competed for LSAT scores. Then they competed to get into a prestigious law school. Then they competed for law school grades. Then they competed to make the law review. Then they competed for clerkships. Then they competed to get hired by a big law firm…They’re playing a game."

The 1L curriculum appeals to the “gaming” natures of risk-averse law students by offering them extrinsic motivations for learning that prep them for extrinsically motivated careers, i.e. one at a big law firm that they think will grant them prestige and a comfortable salary. This has to change if we are to have any hope of dissembling the law-school-to-big-law conveyor belt and instilling integrity and an independence of mind in law students.

The Pedagogy

Not only does the choiceless nature of the 1L curriculum contribute to law school culture, but the kind of learning that occurs in 1L classrooms does so as well. There is an emphasis in the classroom almost exclusively on appellate court-style questioning, known as the Socratic method, from the professors who act as judges as they guide students through legal problems. The Socratic method is not inherently bad, but because it tends to be the sole teaching method of law professors, it contributes to the conformist culture of law students in a number of ways.

First, the skills tested by the Socratic method are practically the same as those tested on exams, and thus provide the same sort of metric by which students measure themselves against one another. Unlike exams, however, the Socratic method puts students’ skills to the test publicly. Students can thus even more easily discern who does and doesn’t “get it” by how well they fare against the adversarial professor and measure themselves accordingly.

Further, the emphasis on appellate court style reasoning in the classroom implies that other skills lawyers need are either unimportant or may be easily picked up on the job. Faculty and students can often be heard to say that law school merely teaches one to “think” like a lawyer, the implication being that the pedagogy somehow transcends the actual practice of law. What happens with this sort of approach to legal education, however, is that it fragments law students’ academic and career goals. Professors are not integrated in the job search process; that process is left to counselors whose goal is mainly to get as many students hired as quickly as possible, and, as Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier note in their article, “The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity,” their advice often reinforces the notion that law students need to conform to a “corporate ideal,” namely one that suits big law firms.

Finally, the only feedback from professors law students tend receive are minimal comments on their exams along with a sample answer written by the professor of what could have been argued. This lack of a collaborative effort to hone students’ analytical skills reinforces the notion that exams exist purely to rank order students; the result is that students treat it that way, and law school becomes a process extrinsically motivated by a punishment/reward system, and very little by an intrinsically motivated development of skills.


For law school culture to change, we must reorient the pedagogy away from its rigid adherence to foundation courses and the Socratic method and toward one that offers more academic freedom, is more collaborative, and attempts to integrate professional and academic goals. Hoping for faculty to do any of this for us might be wishful thinking, however. It is up to us, the students, to be critically engaged with our education, to understand and challenge the feedback loop created by the culture, curriculum and pedagogy of law school, and shape our education to suit our needs. When we take our education into our own hands, perhaps then the schools will have no choice but to follow suit.


Webs Webs

r5 - 29 Jun 2015 - 21:44:39 - MarkDrake
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