My client is finishing her 1L year. She’s bored.
“I study. Then I study some more. Then I go to sleep. Then I get up and study again. It’s the same for everyone.”
At least, I proposed, the subject matter was interesting.
She demurred. “Yeah, I guess…but – really? I mean…Property law? Contracts? Torts?”
Her demurrer was sustained. She had a point.
Maybe it’s your turn to demur. The subject matter of law school – law itself – not interesting!?? That’s unthinkable. It has to be the school’s fault – my client must be attending some fourth-tier degree mill, with sub-par teaching and a dull-witted student body…
But the school’s not at issue here. She’s attending one of the top places in the country. Not that it would make much difference, since every law school essentially teaches the same thing, first-tier or fourth-tier.
Then it must be her fault. If she doesn’t appreciate the study of law – if this Philistine isn’t drawn to the greatness of legal scholarship – she doesn’t deserve her seat at an exalted institution.
I’m not convinced. This young woman projects intelligence, and turns heart-felt-y and passionate discussing her real interest – international human rights law. Unlike most law students, she did an internship and reads books, so she knows what international human rights law is (even if, like most law students, she vastly over-estimates its significance.)
It’s possible things will get better next year, when she takes a course on international human rights law. On the other hand, law school courses have a way of making topics less interesting than they were before you took them.
Maybe the fault doesn’t lie with any particular school, or any particular student. Maybe it lies with the myths surrounding law school itself.
Let’s gather for a moment, and contemplate the inconceivable: Maybe law school is just…well…not that big a deal. Maybe it isn’t engrossing or life-altering or – much of anything. Maybe the whole schtick – law school as the turning point in a young lawyer’s existence – is oversold. The legal industry itself is a bubble recently popped. Perhaps the mystique surrounding law school is due for puncture.
Ask yourself – is the subject matter taught in law schools really so engrossing? Or were you taught to believe the subject matter taught in law schools is really so engrossing?
It would make sense, in the greater scheme of things, if the whole “law school experience” were massively over-hyped. Lawyers remain, after centuries of skill-honing, master bullshit artists – especially with regard to any matter touching upon their own significance. To judge from their own press, you’d think lawyers were free-lance philosophers rather than the guys who draft purchase agreements to keep holding corporations from paying taxes, or file minutiae-laden briefs to sustain Big Pharma’s eternal patent infringement battles.
Lawyers incline towards the hoity-toity the way heliotropes incline towards the sunny-sunny. Phrases such as “precise intellect,” “formidable legal mind” and “brilliant analytical prowess” get tossed about like so many croutons over a caesar.
I doubt accountants speak of a “formidable accounting intellect” or dentists praise one another for “brilliant dental prowess.” I hope not.
It follows logically that the legal world’s fetish for pretension trickles down to the law schools, and the law students themselves – who soak up all that pomposity and behave during their first year as though their cosmic entireties lay balanced each hour on a fulcrum between existential completeness and the barren void. They take it so seriously you want to smack them. No, the professor doesn’t want to stay late after lecture and argue some point of tort analysis. He wants to go home and play that new level of Angry Birds set in outer space, just like you should want to do. He’s only pretending he cares that much about tort stuff because that’s what law school is about – pretending law is the most fascinating thing in the entire world. Maintaining this illusion plays a key role in keeping law professors, and law schools, earning big bucks.
Remember the official schtick beaten into every law student’s cranium: Law school is where they re-make you. Law school is where you learn to think like a lawyer.
In case you were wondering, here is the formal definition of to think like a lawyer: verb, 1) to display a neurotic tendency to hostile, oppositional behavior; and/or 2) to obsess over unnecessary, pointless detail.
The extravagance of lawyer egotism is matched – if not exceeded – by lawyer humorlessness. The result is a professional edifice so laden with pretension that, if anyone so much as farted, the whole rig might tumble Earthward, accompanied by giggles.
For better or worse, in a room full of lawyers, no one could ever loosen up sufficiently to launch such blessed mirth. So, once again, The People’s Therapist steps into the breach – and does what he must.
Without further ado – and just in time for exams! – I present The People’s Therapist’s Three Key Rules to Surviving Law School…
Rule number one: avoid your classmates.
A 1L client refuses to so much as avail herself of the “study break” events planned by extracurricular groups at her school. Spending time with classmates pointlessly spikes her anxiety level.
“I’ll be chatting with the one friend who’s cool – shooting the breeze. Then some idiot from our section walks up and suddenly it’s like: Have you done your outline for Torts yet? Oh my God, do you think there’ll be a question on fault liability?”
Ignoring your classmates is an essential key to surviving law school. For starters, eschew “study groups.” Those other people will get you riled up and distracted, and they won’t help you do any better on the exam. And by the way – hello! – you’re competing against them. What’s the point of pretending you’re not?
Go home and study. To heck with those other people. Shun them like plague victims.
I had exactly one friend in law school. Later on, after spending time in the company of real live lawyers, I still had exactly one attorney friend and it was the same guy. That’s when it clicked, and all became clear.
(In the interests of receiving no more than my usual quota of hate mail, I’ll try to put this delicately.)
Lawyers, as a group, are pompous, uptight, miserable, or boring. That begins in law school.
(Of course you’re the exception, so yes, you can relax.)
Rule number two: use commercial outlines.
It’s that simple. One client, who attended a tippy-top school and earned lousy grades first year, told me his big mistake – embracing his professors’ snobbery against commercial outlines. He bought outlines second and third year and, predictably, his grades shot up. Unfortunately, no one cares about second and third year.
Law school is about first year. First year grades. That’s it. And that means memorizing commercial outlines from day one, then practicing essays until your fingers bleed.
The professors are charming and eccentric and amusing, but it’s rare to find one who can deliver a coherent lecture. More common are coots mumbling into their notes, or psychos who fetishize wasting class time tormenting students with the “Socratic method.” That’s another bit of schtick, where you call on people at random with confusing, arbitrary trivia questions and try to humiliate them until they cry. At least for the professor, it’s fun – and easier than preparing a lecture.
In terms of the content of the classes, law schools – all law schools – hit you with one thing – a pointless tsunami of legal doctrine. Doctrine, doctrine and more doctrine. More “three-pronged tests” than you can shake a three-pronged stick at.
For actual, practical legal skills, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Schools don’t teach that stuff. Neither does anyone else.
Happily, there’s nothing on Earth better-suited to the task of cramming an assload of pointless legal doctrine into your head than a commercial outline. They do the trick because that’s what they’re for.
A guy in my NYU section skipped lectures and crammed commercial outlines all semester. The following year he transferred to Yale. You can do it too! Just memorize everything, and practice those damned essays until you reflexively plop out something shiny and nice on command. If it’s a teensy bit shinier and nicer than what the people sitting next to you plop out, you’re golden.
(By the way – in case you’ve never contemplated the horror of grading those exams, an old friend of mine is a law professor, and he took me there. He sits on the floor with a big pile of the hideous things, dips into a few, divides them into A B and C piles, then keeps reading and sorting. The awful process takes weeks, is admittedly rather arbitrary, and the sheer drudgery of it almost justifies his bloated salary.)
If you want to act all holier-than-thou about using commercial outlines, I invite you to go ahead and read the sacred “cases” in your “casebook.” But be forewarned – the old ones were penned in Saxon dialect during the Bronze Age. I defy anyone to elucidate, without a commercial outline, what Marbury v. Madison is trying to say. Might as well be carved in stone with hieroglyphs.
(Of course, as an attorney, I am eminently qualified to discourse at length on the crucial role this seminal work of jurisprudence played in weaving the fabric of our democracy. But somehow I sense you’d rather I not.)
More recent cases remain dense, self-indulgent and circumlocutory. Of particular note are those super-annoying and utterly impenetrable “concur in part but dissent in part” Supreme Court decisions that make you want to pull your hair out trying to deduce the bottom line.
Buy an outline and save yourself the agita. Deciphering recent high court decisions is as fulfilling as trying to coax Antonin Scalia over his terror of homosexuals, or teach John Roberts how it feels to be poor. A pointless exercise.
Rule Number Three: Don’t kid yourself this is either a big deal, or going to be a lot of fun.
It’s isn’t and it isn’t. The only thing that matters to anyone in law school – including you – is your grades. Each semester amounts to a waiting period before you take exams.
A client told me he could strangle the Supreme Court Justice who advised his class (at a hot-shot law school): “Grades don’t matter anymore. You’re here. Now you can relax.”
Doh! He landed at the bottom third of his class and is still looking for a job.
Don’t fool yourself. It’s all about grades – which means it’s all about exams – and the difference between an A and a B on a law school exam can be measured under an electron scanning microscope. So good luck.
As for the material itself – there are two kinds of law students.
If you cherish and adore Civ Pro – if the subtle distinctions between subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction ignite your mind with radiant epiphanies – then kudos to you. Maybe you were born to be a lawyer.
For the rest of us, Con Law is the most interesting course, first, because there isn’t much competition – Torts, anyone? – and second, because Con Law boils down to a self-gratifying debate over values disguised as an intellectual debate over legalities. Here’s the big insight: In any Con Law case that you actually care about, Republican judges vote one way and Democrat judges vote the other way. That’s why elections matter. The rest is so much pontificating.
Con Law isn’t merely bogus – it’s also useless. It might make you feel like a better, more educated citizen, and perhaps that’s a legitimate purpose. Most Americans don’t realize there is a Constitution, or know what one is – but – as a nation – we all adore pondering the meaning of liberty. I suppose the few of us with the money to purchase a higher education ought to possess a smattering of familiarity with the foundational documents.
On the other hand, the staggering loans you’re taking out to pay for that education are real – and you’ll never get paid for patriotic navel-gazing. Maybe half a dozen times per year, a law suit actually raises an issue in the US Constitution – something like gay marriage. Then it gets voted down along party lines, and that’s that. The chances that you’ll ever litigate an issue under the First Amendment parallel the chances that you’ll win the Mega Millions – or that my client will wield the authority of international human rights law to wipe evil dictators off the globe. Not gonna happen.
You study Con Law because it’s part of the schtick – the law school gestalt. You play along and savor the ambience of hushed libraries and leather-bound tomes. The exam, and your grades, are all that matters. Then passing the bar. Then year after year after year after year in hell, paying loans.
If you’re attending Yale, you might spend third year in a seminar with a federal circuit judge, mulling “Law and the Experimental Films of Southeast Asia.” One client – a Yale grad in her 60’s – experienced paroxysms of nostalgia recalling a long-ago seminar on the “history and philosophical underpinnings of injunctions.” Yes, an entire semester plumbing the etiology, phenomenology and epistemology of injunctions.
Whatevers. It’s still law. It’s still a bit boring, and a bit pointless. You’re not splitting the atom – you’re fussing over fine distinctions, splitting hairs, exhausting exhausted arguments.
I invite you to savor a lively discussion of injunctions – among yourselves – while I grab a beer from the fridge and watch reruns of “Fashion Police.”
Law school is oversold – the law-school/law-firm establishment makes it out to be a life-altering peak experience. It’s not. The intellectual challenge is more like philosophy lite. You might find it rather ho-hum. If you do, you’ll be following in the well-worn footsteps of those who went before.
Basically, it’s college all over again – but less fun.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)