Setting the Stage: Or, How to Do Law School Wrong
Here’s the scene: a group of eager new law students file into the front doors of a law school sometime late in August. Filled with nervous energy, they’re nearly bouncing off the walls with excitement. The halls bustle with this energy. Anything seems possible. Yet much of this energy is channeled negatively. To cover intense feelings of inadequacy and nervousness, nearly all seem to blurt their life résumé when meeting each other: “Hi!…I’m Chip!…Yale undergrad and Exeter!…Heard of it?” “Hey!…I’m Suzy…just got back from my second summer in [pick some Third World spot]…guess it helped me get in here…did I mention I went to Princeton?” It’s amazing more students don’t pass out; they’re so busy racing through their life accomplishments they don’t seem to have time to breathe. And so it goes. For anyone within earshot (which is nearly everyone, as voices rise to eardrum-piercing levels), each self-flattering declaration causes, simultaneously, even more self-conscious nervousness, pangs of inadequacy, and, more than occasionally, dry heaves. Like electrons, students bounce nervously from one to another, eager to electrify others with their impressive credentials. Like spastic, autistic caricatures of themselves, many morph into almost-unrecognizable, egocentric boors. “Me, me, me!” Someone then mentions that the assignments for the first day’s classes are posted, and more than a few students gasp. Huh? You mean we really were supposed to have prepared? Quickly they make their way to the poster (or web page), jot down (or download) the assignments. They grab their casebooks, and start reading. Ohmygod. This isn’t like any reading they’ve ever seen. They attend a presentation on how to brief a case, and of course are eager to get started. They already have a dozen to do! Okay, they buy the extra highlighters and start to brief cases. Dutifully. Painstakingly. Man it seems to take forever. Each case seems to take hoursand it’s sometimes hard to focus halfway through on what was just read. Their minds start to wander ninety seconds into the first “hereinafter.” A holding? Huh? Procedural history? Gah! In the first week it seems that they’re spending every second of free time reading and briefing casesand they’re supposed to go to class too! In class they take notes. Lots and lots of notes. Surely this will help to make sense of the Greek (well, Latin) they’re reading in the cases and hearing from the profs and other students. Oddly, the notes don’t seem to help. At the end of the week, they look at their piles of notes and it’s hard to tell what they’re even about, much less to help understand the cases. If they forget to put the class name on the note, they can’t even tell what the subject is! If they get out of order, they’ve no idea which way they go. So they put them in a stack that grows ever more disheveled, and on and on it goes, week in and week out, as they bumble through their first week, second week, and then first month. Someone mentions another taskoutlines!and now they’re starting to panic. How can they possibly do more?! The cases are taking all of their time, and they’re struggling just to keep up. Class is getting to be a joke. It’s fine to pretend to know what’s going on, but they’re worried about getting called on and goodness that is a sure killer, right? Then they’re called on. Ohmygod. I’m dead, they’re thinking. If only I understood that case! The facts! The holding! What are they getting at?! The prof must think I’m a real moron, you fear silently. Everyone feels this wayeven the cocksure gunners (who hide their fears by having their hands nearly constantly raised). Surely they know how lost we are and will help. Now it’s a real panic. It’s the middle of the semester, they’ve been attending classes like clockwork, the professors are certainly nice, but it’s just not making sense. Gosh it’s hard. Hmm, outlines have been forgotten…there’s no time!…but with exams just around the corner, they know they have to start doing something. They’ve also read they’re supposed to practice with exams, and gee-it-would-be-good to have a study group. No way! This is a madhouse. It’s hard enough to keep up with the readings, much less deal with others and their peculiarities. Especially not those assholes! Didn’t you see how so-and-so looked at some other so-and-so? Exams! They’ve always done well. Surely these won’t be that bad. The semester is drawing to a close, and panic hangs in the air. Students are wide-eyed with fear. In just about every class something is said that brings utter dread: what are they talking about?! Some are like the undead…they’ve never come close to failing before. But will they pull this off? The law still isn’t making sense. It seems mysterious, even bizarre. All these phrases they’re supposed to know. What do they mean? Well, cramming worked before, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much choice now anyway. Exams are right around the corner! So, just like in a scene in The Paper Chase, cramming it is! “I’ll show them!” says nearly everyone to themselves, silently. More silently, they’re praying just to make Bs. Maybe one A, just to keep some dignity. Students huddle together and separately (this might seem an oxymoron, but that’s what will happen…like an academic fetal cry for comfort, students will almost hug themselves). Some will seem as if they’ll burst into tears at any moment. Others have distant looks, as if they see something important far, far away. Anywhere but here, they seem to say. Just let this be over. Taut faces and even shorter tempers give their fears away. Panic is contagious. Even those who were doing a good job and who do know the law succumb to a foreboding dread. Like cattle to the slaughter, they file into the exam rooms. Even with polite chatter, they can sense their impending doom, and the certain knowledge that they’re just not ready. If only a meteor hit, destroying the exam rooms and giving them even just 24 hours more! Perhaps ancillary fires will engulf the neighboring buildings, buying a week! Sadly, no meteor hits, and three and a half hours later they leave the exams knowing they could have done better. If only, if only…. Their thoughts trail off, and they pray that they’re not one of the ones in the bottom half, as by now they’ve seen and heard what happens to students in that dreaded statistical pool. Now starts the bargaining. Just give me this, Oh Lord, and I promise I will be good. Even committed atheists begin negotiating with deities great and small for their future lives. Like a bad science fiction movie, they stagger the hallways, putting on a show but knowing all the same that their dreams for a high-paying job are deadalong with how they feel. Many start acting out, and many of those go to the dark sidesecretly planning to cheat, lie, or otherwise do whatever it takes to reverse the fate that’s been so unjustly handed them. Or they profess never to have cared at all. But they know better. Before, they’d been the best. Everyone had said so. Now they were a whole heap of nothing. Not just fighting for a good jobfighting for any job. With anyone! Pleeese? It’s so humiliating. The winter holiday is hardly worth enjoying as the stress of the semester never quite leaveshow can it with exam scores still hanging in the balance? Somehow, they eat the turkey and smile weakly through the family accolades. The new semester starts, and one by one grades start to come in. The reactions are painful, and predictable. A few positive surprises, but mostly very, very long faces. With the curve’s uncaring median, nearly everyone is seeing grades far below what they would ever have expectedor have ever gotten. For those hoping for an “A,” it’s a long, long way down. From undergraduate classes where nearly everyone gets an “A” or a “B,” in law school even a “B” seems shockingly rare. It’s as if hundreds of students are hearing the worst news they’ve ever heardand for many, that’s exactly right. Classes are already a few weeks underway, and in a sort of post-traumatic shock, the whole process starts up again. Cases. Briefs. Notes. Panic. Frenetic worry. More notes. Panic. Cramming. More panic. Another, final set of exams. This time, however, the exams count. Spring fills with even more intense dread, if that’s possible, and for most, very little that’s remotely positive or productive. In less than a year, hundreds of the most intelligent, most decent individuals who’ve excelled in college have been reduced to a quivering mass of despondencya surprising percentage of whom have suicidal thoughts. (But who won’t confide in a counselor for fear of an impact on bar examiners’ committees for fitness to practice law, which can investigate even intensely personal counseling.) Even the lucky few who actually did wellif you asked them privatelywould find it hard to explain just how they did it. So the next year somehow starts with the undead wandering the halls, putting on their brave faces, and watching as an eager new crop of law students bounces off the walls with excited, expectant faces to class.
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The above, admittedly way-too-long paragraph might seem unbelievable. It is unbelievable. It certainly was to me, and to everyone I knew. Yet this is what happens, year in and year out, at every law school.