Law school has become the subject of much criticism lately. Readers familiar with these criticisms have been bombarded with statistics regarding the shrinking job market, the corruption of the A.B.A., and the nepotism of the legal profession.
I don’t want to dissuade prospective law school applicants on the basis of such considerations. Rather, I am writing to warn you, budding legal scholar, about the inevitable intellectual dissatisfaction that results from attending law school, especially in the notorious first year.
First, a little about my journey to law school. I began my post-college career as an aspiring academic. After receiving my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I earned a graduate degree in the same subject. Yet, the “publish or perish” world of academia was not one I was eager to join.
So, I decided to attend law school, which seemed to promise a more substantive career path. Nothing can be more substantive or more meaningful, I thought, than proving that someone convicted of murder was really innocent.
The truth is that most people, including me, go to law school without doing their due diligence. This is true now more than ever. Many view a sojourn in law school as a way of escaping the clutches of an ailing economy. This is a big mistake.
I found that most students at my law school were just as uninformed as I was. Most had not done an internship or worked at a law firm before starting their first year. Many of us did not even have family members or friends who were attorneys.
So, I will attempt to set the record straight for those of you who are about to make the same mistake I made before embarking on a legal education. But first, you need to know a little about why law school is the way it is.
Most law schools in the U.S. operate on the case system devised by Christopher Columbus Langdell, of Harvard Law School. Langdell believed that the case method system was the best way to turn the study of law into a social science. The general idea is that by reading appellate case after appellate case and by engaging in a “Socratic” dialogue (actually, there’s not much that’s very Socratic about it!) with a professor, law students will distill rules of law that the cases illustrate.
What all of this means is that legal education revolves fundamentally around (1) pattern recognition and (2) rule implementation. This modus operandi is diametrically opposed to what one encounters in other disciplines, particularly philosophy. The real difference is between mere rule implementation, on the one hand, and rule creation on the other.
But here’s the big disappointment for anyone who values intellectual creativity: rule creation has no place in the first year of law school. You cannot create your own legal rules to reason your way out of a tough Torts exam. You cannot do this, no matter how sound your legal principles are. Law professors are only interested in whether or not you can spot issues (pattern recognition) and apply legal rules to the facts that support the issues (rule implementation). That’s it. Period.
Unfortunately, for someone with at least a spark of intellectual curiosity, it does not get much more banal than this.
Obviously, this makes for an alarmingly uncreative intellectual environment. This might shock you, but the first year of law school is actually quite similar to being in the military: the least bit of independence is viewed as subversion and is punished. In the legal writing context, any deviation from the formula is treated harshly with a low grade. In the “Socratic” context, any failure to perform adequately in the rigid question-and-answer procedure will result in public humiliation, being sharply downgraded, or both — 1Ls are to be kept in line.
It’s no wonder that law students are the kinds of individuals they are. At my law school, most law students are regulars in the therapist’s office. During orientation week, a 3L told a large group of us: “The only people who are happy around this place are the people who see the therapist. If somebody tells you they haven’t seen the therapist, they are either lying or miserable.”
What’s wrong with this picture? What went so wrong with our system of educating future attorneys that the process results in mental illness?
In my experience, there is a type of law student: most are gym rats, they play beer pong and video games, and they take Adderall to stay up all night writing their outlines. Many of these people will become judges and some will become elected legislators. This situation constitutes a perfectly intelligible tragedy.
The truth is this. The instructional methods in the first-year curriculum are not designed to inspire a love of justice in 1L students. Law school is not like other graduate programs. The law school at UCLA is not like the UCLA mathematics department: it is not a place where great ideas are discussed, where there is a love of the beauty of truth, or where students are actively pursuing answers to the most ancient of problems.
So, above all else prospective law student, before you embark on a legal education, think carefully about what you want out of life (riches, spiritual enlightenment, fame, etc.) and seriously question whether law school will be able to provide that for you.
Marc Laroche has studied and taught philosophy in North America and Europe and is currently a second year law student.