Law in Contemporary Society
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Catch-22 of Law School

-- By YinanZhang - 25 May 2009

After finally finishing the exams, I relaxed by re-reading the novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Interestingly, I realized just how analogous law school is to Catch-22 and that little has changed since Heller’s critique of our bureaucratic society. Bureaucratic operations and reasoning still dominate mainstream society and prevails among large corporations and law firms. Resulting from the specific use in the book, the phrase Catch-22 has taken on a common usage to mean a “no-win” situation, and that is exactly the situation that law students face today. Although law students seem to possess various resources to find and pursue their dream career, they do not really possess meaningful choices in the face of top law firms and big-firm-oriented law schools.

Early Indoctrination

Whether as an average citizen ruled by the government, a big firm attorney, or a corporate employee, we are shaped by the bureaucracy: we are told what to wear, how to act, and what role to assume. The traditional education system grooms us toward such bureaucratic lives since childhood. In elementary school, children who receive good grades and behave well earn compliments and gold stars. In middle and high school, teachers reinforce the increasing importance of grades upon students. Those students who are willing to and capable of thriving under such an environment earn admissions to top colleges and promises of future “success”, which is a vague concept narrowly defined by society. Indeed, only unquestioning and loyal, yet competent, students may become ideal workers. In contrast, the system labels those students who fail to conform as “losers” and sweeps them aside.

In college, this incentive based behavioral system still exists as students strive for the best grades to obtain well-paid jobs and gain admission to top graduate schools. No area of study is as pronounced in this goal as business school. I attended the McCombs? School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. The business school boasts of the largest endowment fund and the most modern building among all the schools on campus. Unsurprisingly, our business school mostly caters to investment banks before their downfall.

Lack of Meaningful Choice

Perhaps unsurprisingly, compared to undergraduate colleges, most law schools offer an even narrower path to a successful career other than one in a large law firm. Law school admissions often ignore soft factors that undergraduate admission focus on such as extracurricular activities and interviews. Law schools, and especially Columbia Law School, gears towards molding students into six-figure-earning lawyers in top law firms. From day one, 1L’s are advised on how to make outlines and approach exams in a way that would give them high grades. In return, law students would be rewarded with the prospect of a large salary, high prestige, and an overblown ego.

I am disappointed that Columbia does not focus more on other areas of legal careers. During orientation, the faculty hardly mentioned opportunities in medium and small-sized firms, and public interest law seemed almost obsolete. Sadly, this phenomenon is not unique to Columbia. Southern Methodist University Law School, at which my girlfriend attends, suffers from a similar bias. SMU career counselors seem to care little for students who are unable or unwilling to go into big firms. In contrast to the coldness shown towards average or below-average students, counselors eagerly help top 10% students in obtaining interviews in hopes of graduates obtaining big firm positions. Moreover, all the guest speakers sponsored by the SMU career office come from top firms and bombard students with their glamorous lifestyle. In contrast to the public interest funding program at Columbia for 1L’s, SMU and many other law schools do not even offer stipends for students interested in unpaid summer internships at public interest organizations to explore their career possibilities. It seems like law schools only create incentives for students to turn to big firms.

This one-sided incentive scheme, along with enormous tuition debts, turns students away from potential careers that truly fit them and instead package them into identical products to be sold to big firms. Indeed, even if a student wants to work at a smaller firm or a public interest organization, the burden of unpaid law school debts makes him run into the arms of the big firms. The question now remains, if we know about our predicament, why do we not do anything about it? Frankly, we are already deeply entrenched into the system, which started to indoctrinate us into such a bureaucratic system since childhood. On one side, large firms offer irresistible enticements to lure students into their hierarchical system. On the other side, law schools tirelessly push their students into large firms because they want to continue to produce students that may financially contribute back to their schools in the future. So what is the catch in the end? I see it as a no-win situation. Students are pushed into a career path they may not want, as evidenced by the high turnover rate in large firms due to long and tedious hours. Creativity is stilted because students are too focused on creating the perfect answers on exams. Professors are forced to grade on a curve to keep competition fierce. In the end, the only winner seems to be the big firms. They have succeeded and will likely to continue to succeed with their control over the masses. Bureaucracy will continue to shape future students, and corporations and firms will always have an abundance of workers. Like Yossarian in Catch-22, is our escape route mean that we have to first conform before we are able to leave? I sure hope not. The novel offers Yossarian an easy way out, by hurting others. He is tempted at first, but in the end finds another route for escape by deserting the army. Although the bureaucratic/law school system may remain unchanged, we as future lawyers should find our own escape routes that break from conformity.

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r2 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:43:45 - IanSullivan
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