Law in Contemporary Society

Letter to My Future Peers

-- By MarcusStrong - 16 Feb 2012

Personal Introduction

In many ways, my path to law school and any success at this point in life is traditional and formulaic. I went from public school and magnet programs to private school and an Ivy-league school, where I was in all the requisite extracurriculars and had all the grades to make it to a top law school. In one sense, I conformed to surrounding expectations to get where I wanted to go. But in between going to class and getting all my work in on time, I read about the world, learned new skills, and dedicated myself to causes larger than school or social status. I also learned to take care of myself in ways that I hadn’t learned by observing my peers. Most people I knew in college did the same, starting out one way but ending up a very different person in four years, not merely because of their surroundings but because of their own initiative in molding themselves. That’s an obvious observation when you look at people entering law school, but after my first year, I’m not sure if I can say the same of my fellow students or myself now that we’re here to (at least temporarily) stay.

Each of these sentences could be tightened. You don't need 200 words to say what's here. "Though I grew up before law school playing the conventional 'excellent student' role, I and the people I grew up with also developed ourselves as individuals, diversely. Yet it seems to me to have been less true of my colleagues and me this year, as law students." Probably that's not quite right, or quite complete, but 47 words is slightly tighter than 201.

Most students enter law school with at least 22 years of life experience under their belt, coming from disparate countries, regions, colleges, professions, and income levels. Yet when they enter law school, the system of rapid outlining before exams, eating pizza lunch at hosted talks, signing up for bar exam prep in 1L year, getting little sleep, drinking too much coffee, and grades quickly becomes the norm. And between information sessions on private sector or public interest work, our schedules outside of class are basically organized for us. But that socialization also occurs without the aid of faculty or administration. Students mythologize grades and “gunners” they first observe in The Paper Chase and One-L or from the stories their relatives tell. That socialization could be called a culture, but unlike a living and breathing culture, it does not change much year after year. But recognizing those differences I mentioned earlier, I have to wonder why the same process continues to occur.

Another 161 words. I leave it to you whether it couldn't be rendered sufficiently in 85. Taken together, those sets of edits would give us almost 225 words of space in which to develop the essay's ideas more fully.

Why the Conformity?

Duncan Kennedy points to the nature of the bar and firms as the reason for conformism in law school. For them, it’s natural and fair for law school and the legal profession to be organized the way it is. Law school as it exists now continues to produce hard-working, compliant employees so it must be successful. Students have respect for that product, because it gives them skills, but status and security, whether honorary or monetary. But do they also possess fear of what will happen if they don’t become that product? And if so, of what? I, for one, have a fear of the unknown. Lawyers invited to the law school talk about their experience at corporate firms or as in-house counsel, but fail to mention what to do if you can’t get a large firm job or try to make it on your own. Contrary to post-statistics on admissions brochures, everyone doesn’t get a job when they leave school, even at the top schools like Columbia. Without any discernible alternatives from their mentors, all students can see is darkness. As Kennedy points out, “it would be an extraordinary first-year student who could, on his own, develop a theoretically critical attitude towards this system.”

But how did "a theoretically critical attitude towards this system" come to be the same as, or even closely related to, the diverse self-development you were discussing above? Duncan may be right that it would be hard for a single first-year student to figure out what's wrong with law school, but it's evident from your account that it's not hard for an undergraduate to be an attentive, independent self-developer. So what's happening might better be construed as an inhibition of a previously strong capability, rather than an incapacity. As I said last time, this seems to be more "Freud" than "Marx" or "Gramsci."

Another reason that Kennedy gives for why students conform to the hierarchy is that law school teaches its students that they’re lazy. He’s right in some ways. The administration doesn’t tell us that in a bad way, as if we’re good for nothing, but tries to give us reasons to relax so students don’t have emotional or mental breakdowns. But by telling us to trust that our first-year professors always know what they’re doing, that the legal methods we learn will be helpful, the law school debilitates us from thinking critically about what and how we’re learning.

This seems a little confusing to me. I don't think it can be the case that "the administration" tells you what to think about law school, in any significant way. Even a very articulate, eloquent, deeply engaged dean (a figure you've never seen in your life) could hardly be more than a peripheral presence in your actual law school day, while the bureaucrats who actually make the law school function as an organization are pervasively and unfairly ignored and condescended to be pretty much everyone else in the place, students included. In other higher education institutions, too, you were told that the teachers were good and the subjects taught were valuable, after all. This doesn't seem to me to account well for any difference in psychological orientation.

One reason that students don’t challenge that hierarchy however is because the superstructure is difficult to change in three years. When you enter school, despite all the time and debt, you’re processedquickly, from first semester classes to journals and internships to graduation and a job. Given the speed and quantity of the work, there’s little incentive to criticize lecture style or ask career services to tailor their events to more diverse interests. There’s little incentive to change any part of law school when you’re encouraged to leave from day one. But this reason doesn’t make sense for the socialization among students themselves. Most law students being young adults, one would think that they would more carefully scrutinize their choices about health, friendship, and intellectual development. Actually, considering most students are in their twenties, that’s probably not true. That said, we made a conscious, independent choice to come to law school, and that independence doesn’t need to go away once you’re actually here. Maintaining friendships outside of social networking sites, experiencing culture, and committing time to others are valuable goals that don’t need to be paused for three years.

Which means that at the end of these ~500 words we haven't yet found why the phenomena you observe occur. Perhaps, as I suggested last time, it would be helpful to look in another direction.

Self-Preservation or Torture?

By acclimating ourselves to a larger culture, we law students also induce the same qualities in students who come after us. We put our time in as servants until we can become the masters, which is another reason for our conformity. Knowing there’s a time limit to our self-induced torture, we last long enough until we can watch others suffer. Putting your time in or getting hours served could be seen as a form of self-preservation, but this type of masochism and Schadenfreude belies the fact that law school isn’t prison. However rigorous or difficult, it should still be a school.

And what does it mean to be a school? What does it mean to have arrived at what should be a school, and finding yourself treating it as something else, a prison for instance? Do you really think that's happened because "the administration" told you to, or because three years is less than four? I don't think you do. You talk about whether people get jobs, and about the "darkness" of not knowing what to do if you don't get a job, and the absence of mentors, but it seems to me that you decline the opportunity to put it all together. Perhaps one might do it this way: arriving at a school in which teachers don't seem to care to engage with students makes the school feel like a prison. If the "school" that results is the last stop before adulthood and the struggle for employment in an increasingly savage economy, and if entree to the professional class and its social perquisites no longer feels assured, the result of having no real mentoring is anxiety, often leading to depression. The social as well as intrapsychic distortions that result produce unhealthy relationships in the student community. As a result, students disengage, teachers disengage further, and the community loses its ability to launch its younger members firmly and confidently into the profession.


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r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:41 - IanSullivan
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