The one exception I’m willing to make to my don’t-put-the-cart-before-the-horse rule with regard to law school is reading One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School (*), by Scott Turow. I finally read it for the first time a few weeks ago (as a lawyer, not a law student), and I really wish I’d read it before going to law school.
Turow wrote One L “in the immediate aftermath” of his first full year of law school to capture the experience of the first year without “the mellowing of time.” It will provide you meaningful insight into the first year of law school including the emotions you will feel along the way and a vitrual road map to the consistent one L experience in law schools across the country.
For some reason, I was skeptical of any portrayal of law school. So I never read One L or watched The Paper Chase. I think I felt that reading about the experience would influence me in favor of succumbing to the madness and the group think mentality that the first year of law school can become. Or, that it would freak me out. Or, that it would show confidence if I felt like I didn’t need to read it… Whatever I believed was ridiculous! You should read the book, and because legal education has hardly changed since the 70s when Turow attended, it’s definitely still relevant.
Turow says, “I have written in the belief that the law, like any other field, is little more than the people who live it, and that lawyers – as well as the law they make and practice – are significantly affected by the way they were first received into the profession. If I am right about that, then the first-year experience should be of interest to everyone, for it bears on the law that bounds and guides our whole society.”
Below are some of the take aways I found:
The achievement ethic is everywhere in law school.
Turow does a good job of capturing the constant striving among law students to win and differentiate themselves through success with grades, law review, and impressive summer associate positions. He seems to think that much of this is specific to Harvard. Maybe it’s more intense at Harvard, but everything he described rings true with my experience of law school – both in specifics and in degree. I believe it’s representative of all tier one law schools, at least.
Law school will change the way you think, especially during the first year.
Emotional appeals or justifications of opinions become irrelevant, and the focus in law school is on facts and reason, as it is in the legal system. Professors condition students toward this rational, disciplined way of thinking, and sometimes old habits die hard.
Turow says, “[t]he demand that we examine and justify our opinions was not always easily fulfilled. Many of the deepest beliefs often seem inarticulable in their foundations, or sometimes contradictory of other strongly felt principles.”
Students typical add statistical and factual arguments to their repertoire relatively easily, but when pressed on a policy issue in a classroom full of your peers, it can be challenging to discover that you’re not really sure exactly why you believe what you believe. Turow quotes a conversation with a woman in his first year section about this divide between thinking and feeling. She says, “I feel a lot of things about prostitution and they have everything to do with what I think about prostitution. I don’t want to become the kind of person who tries to pretend that my feelings have nothing to do with my opinions. It’s not bad to feel things.”
Law school may overemphasize rational, logical thinking preeminence in the law for teaching purposes, but this disconnect from feelings and emotion is something I see lawyers struggle with on both a personal and professional level. Thinking like a lawyer isn’t without it’s consequences.
The first year of law school is a lot like learning a second language.
The early hurdles in law school involve reading comprehension and getting used to a whole new vocabulary. This is where previous experience in the law maybe be helpful. Keeping all of this information straight can be challenging and stressful at times. This is only part of the goal of the first year of law school.
Part of the way through the first year law school begins to become more than just learning a language. As Turow says, “[y]ou also have to start learning rules and you’ll find pretty quickly that there’s quite a premium placed on mastering the rules and knowing how to apply them.” This is what separates the men from the boys, if you will, within the first year class. Being able to step out of a traditional student mindset to adopt this approach of applying the law is critical to success in law school.
There are no answers.
Law school effectively teaches students that there are no answers, only questions. No black and white. All gray. This is the basis of the Socratic method teaching style. Some classes are more inclined toward answers than others (i.e. procedural or code related classes), but in general it’s all arguable. Hence, the infamous legal retort, “it depends.” This can be excruciating.
Turow writes, when reflecting on his torts class, that “[t]here are no answers. That was the point, the one Zechman – and some of the other professors, less tirelessly – had been trying to make for weeks. Rules are declared. But the theoretical dispute is never settled.
I believe that many people seek out professions, like law or medicine, not only for the money and social prestige, but also because they believe the path to success is clear and well-worn. Whether that’s actually true or will continue to be true is another topic altogether, but people seeking certainty can find themselves undone when the basis for their thoughts and opinions are challenged.
Legal education is flawed, and it’s only the beginning of your learning as a lawyer.
There’s substantial debate within the legal profession about whether law school actually prepares students to be lawyers or whether it just prepares them to think like law professors. There’s also serious questions about whether the LSAT, law school exams, or even the bar exam do much more than simply create a high barrier to entry to the practice of law.
“Correlations between exam success and worthwhile achievements in the practice of law are speculative at best. Until that connection is better established, the narrow and arbitrary nature of exams will continue to dictate a narrow and arbitrary means of selection for training for the bar. And that is a peculiar state of affairs for a profession and an education which claim to concern themselves with rationality and fairness.”
The legal profession has undergone substantial changes, but legal education remains shockingly unchanged. In the book Turow attends a speech by Ralph Nader, a Harvard law school alum, about the limitations of legal education. Nader argues that law school over emphasizes appellate case law and questions, “[w]here were we shown images of lawyers as organizers, determined advocates, rather than the disinterested hired hands of whoever could throw the price? Nader’s opinion clearly comes from one view of the law, but I agree that his view of lawyers as impassioned advocates for justice is no longer emphasized in law school. I believe this is both to students’ and the profession’s detriment.
Regardless of the limitations, it’s your job to get the best education your tuition dollars can offer if you attend law school and to challenge the establishment to help you achieve it while you are enrolled. Just know that law school only starts you on the path of being a lawyer it does not teach you everything you need to know.
No one is 100% certain about going to law school.
Absolutely certainty is impossible. That’s why criminal trials use the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof. It’s also a good standard to adopt for your decision to go to law school.
Early in the book Turow states that he “was still not absolutely positive that law school was the place where [he] should be.” Prior to law school he’d been a lecturer in the English department at Stanford and a graduate student in the program. Through his writing he become involved in legal research and engaged on legal topics, which caused him to consider law school. He took the LSAT prior to deciding to go to law school – “purely speculatively” – and said that he “came to realize how much [he] would regret allowing [his] interest in law to go unfulfilled.”
But even after he sent off applications, got accepted to top notch schools, and settled on attending Harvard, he still grappled with whether or not he made the right decision to leave academia. It’s nice to hear that a future successful lawyer and well recognized author had the same amount of apprehension as the rest of us when entering law school.
So you should feel certain that you are in good company!
*Above link is an Amazon Affiliate link. If you choose to buy the book via this link, I may make a few cents!