Greetings from Romania (and also Serbia, I had to do this in two parts).
I still can’t access my blog. So this time I’ve traveled to Romania/Serbia of all places to access it. Which means that things are still quite slow. So, don’t expect an avalanche of pictures or anything this time. WordPress media doesn’t seem to be too friendly towards my proxies (I still don’t think that video from the the last post ended up working). I also just realized that my button to create links has ceased to function, so I get to do that in a complicated roundabout way as well, awesome.
Anyways, enough complaining. Its time for my “Law School” post. Now, if you are not me and you’ve just recently started reading this blog and/or you don’t remember my Law School 101 post, I highly recommend you go read that one first. That post will give you the general landscape that led up to this point (Also relevant to this post from my “101 Series” are: Lawyerdom 101 and Ivy League 101). Having suggested that, which you ignored, lets continue on.
So what is law school like? What do I think about it? Well, honestly, I can sum it up with two words:
Really, I could probably stop there. But I won’t because “It Depends” is both a genuinely correct AND a genuinely incorrect statement. How can something be both wrong and right at the same time? Because law school. That is one of the most frustrating aspects to law school. The entire process can basically be summarized as “It Depends.” So what does it depend on you might be asking? Well that is good question. So let me respond to your question by asking you Why does it matter what it depends on? You might think “Well it obviously matters because when you say It Depends you are referring to something.” And that is correct, I’m referring to something and the something to which I am referring depends on how you interpret It Depends. So, really, it depends, is dependent upon what sort of dependent interpretation of it depends you are operating under, which is further dependent on how you view it depends both within, and outside of, the aforementioned view of it depends, so really It Depends. Confused? Welcome to 1L.
If you think I’m purposefully being obtuse to try to confuse you, no, I’m really not. What I’m showcasing is the logical format of law school, which rests upon the pillar of: The Answer to Everything is: It Depends. But, as I showed you above, even It Depends depends on It Depends. To make things as simple as possible, there really is no answer, only a series of questions that go so deeply down the rabbit hole that Lewis Carroll would be envious. I was under the mistaken impression that the split would be about 50/50. 50% would be “Black Letter” law, such as statutes, etc. The other 50% would be the “Grey Area” where it was mostly just interpretation. Well, turns out it’s more like 5/95. Sure that “firm” area exists, but the thing is, that is the area that you pretty much never, ever hear about. In fact, many times lawyers don’t even really need to get involved with that 5% because the system is fairly straightforward. These kinds of instances might be a statute that has an extensive history of the same, firm kind of interpretation, so that its very clear what the outcome will be. However, in the real world, 95% of the time there is some argument to be made, and thus law school.
What this means is that from the first minute of your first class, you are subjected to uncertainty and to more specifically, to It Depends. This takes on a lot of different forms. But normally it ends up with you being in the spotlight with the seconds ticking away and the entire class (including professor) staring you down. Its fun – No Really! And if sarcasm could seep through the screen you would currently be drowning in it. But enough about It Depends, this post isn’t really about the theoretical nature of learning the law. If you are super interested, you can find out for the low-low price of around 50 – 60 thousand dollars a year plus lots of stress fun!
So here is what I am going to talk about in this post.
1. First Year (1L) Overview
2. The Classroom Environment.
3. The Professors
4. The Classmates
5. The Workload
There will obviously be some overlap between these various areas, but it’s a nice concise overview. So let’s get started!
First Year (1L) Overview
To understand 1L, its best to first understand the class size. At my school for your first year the entire class is divided up into 7 Sections of 80 people each. These 80 people will have 8 out of the 10 classes during 1L together. There will be splits here and there, such as for Legal Research and Writing which halves the section, as well as the international law course which mingles sections a bit, but by and large you are with these people during the worst year of law school.
So why is 1L is the worst year? Well, it’s the only year where you pretty much have no choice at all what you do. For some schools its worse than others. I’m fairly lucky in that I get 1 true elective my first year, which is better than nothing. So the classes that you are forced to take are what are called “Substantive” courses. I think it’s a rather stupid identifier since almost every class is “Substantive.” However, that is what these courses are called. Examples include: Civil Procedure, Property, Contracts, Criminal Law, Legal Research and Writing, Legislation and Regulation, Torts, etc. These are the “fundamentals” of a larger legal education. In other words, these are the kinds of courses that young lawyers have cut their teeth on for many, many generations (Thanks to Harvard, who designed law school as well know it – and no that isn’t bragging, its factually true). Unlike undergrad, where you start off with courses that are probably not all that difficult (though some 101 courses are oddly hard), law school throws you directly into the mix; just because these are “starter” courses does NOT mean they are even remotely easy.
Not only are they difficult, they are extremely important. Also unlike undergrad where it is a slow race to the finish, law school is ultimately something where you need to be sprinting from the start. The grades you make during your first and second semesters WILL determine what options are available to you. Plus, you’re still learning how to be a law student. Throw in all the extracurricular activities such as student practice organizations, journals, clubs, and reading groups and suddenly you have no existence other than law school. Pair this with crushing curves and 1L is just one giant trip through Candyland, except every space is that piece of shit fudge Gloppy who holds you in place until you get a certain color, despite being like FIVE SPACES from the Candy Castle (/childhood rage). Which brings me to my next point, curves: As I mentioned in Law School 101 curves are pretty critical in law school. But since you didn’t read it again I’ll briefly recap here.
Essentially, out of however many people there are in a given class, the grades are already determined. So if you have 80 people, a certain (very small) number of them are going to do very well, most will do average, and a certain number will do very bad. It doesn’t change. It’s set before the class even starts. So, you drop in a bunch of very smart people and suddenly the work that would have got you an A+ in undergrad is now a borderline failing grade. I’m being ENTIRELY serious, TRUST ME, I speak from experience. This means the bar is very high, and by very high I mean Mt. Everest is nibbling at the ankles of this bar. And remember, all this stuff I am mentioning is combined into one giant bundle of joy and splendor and homicide.
So: Grades heavily contribute to your future, you can’t just go to class – you must also be involved in multiple organizations – you have reading groups in addition to class readings – your classmates want to kill you to make the curve better for them – and the material is It Depends – I think you’ve got a good general lay of the land.
The Classroom Environment
Now, take all of these smart people, force them into a bitter competition, and then plop them down into a room with a (usually) brilliant professor who mercilessly grills them with questions and even intentionally creates arguments between students. That is law school. If you ever wondered why some lawyers are massive assholes, it’s because law school trains you to be an asshole. In fact, it predicates success on being an asshole. Now, that being said, it’s ENTIRELY up to you how much of an asshole you want to be. Some people are just lil’ assholes, other people are such large assholes that expeditions have been launched into their cavernous abyss, never to return. But everyone is an asshole in some way. This really is no different than “real life” but its magnified here by the classroom environment.
So what does a class consist of? Well, classes are generally either 80 minutes long or two hours long. For 1L you’ll be in class five days a week for most of the time. The way credits are calculated, you’re in class for more time than you receive credits for, lots of fun there. There will be between 10 and 15 minutes between each class generally. At my school we always have a lunch hour, which is nice, many schools are not so fortunate. So, you have the general timeline of any given day. The class itself is actually fairly similar to what you would imagine. There is very, very little lecture. So, if you are one who likes to fall asleep in class, do so at your own risk. Here’s why, the professor is constantly scanning the room, looking for the weakest link (and trust me, they are damn good at finding it). When they find them, this amazing thing call the “Socratic Method” begins. Named after none other than the great thinker Socrates himself. You’ve probably got an idea of what the Socratic Method is like, but I’ll briefly discuss it here.
Basically the professor asks a question. The student then answers, the professor then asks another question. Repeat this process until the student messes up, and the student always messes up (even Gunners, more on them in a moment). More importantly, “messing up” doesn’t necessarily mean you are “wrong” since it’s normally not as simple as “right” and “wrong” (95%) it just means you trigger the trap the professor has laid for you. Cue explosion of clenched anuses throughout the room.
That’s really about it. What makes it so lovely is that its one-on-one, it is the proverbial hot-seat. Professors vary in how they deal with it. Some are just absolutely as rude as f*cking hell. Others try to “pad” the massive pwnage they are delivering unto you. The only way to properly avoid looking like a huge moron and more importantly, wasting class time, is to be prepared. I say wasting class time is bad, because we don’t “make-up” missed information. If we don’t get to it, because the class wasn’t prepared enough, then we don’t get help deciphering it. But you WILL still be expected to understand it on the exam. Now, we do have make-up classes, but these are not for missed portions of class we already had. These are literally days where we make up vacation days. Yes, I swear to God above. We have to make up our damn vacation days, so you really don’t get vacation days. Yeap, that’s fun.
Aside from the one-on-one between professors, they will also try to start “debates” (read: arguments) within the class. I find these to rarely be useful as far as learning the law. I honestly think the professors just enjoy the chaos. It’s like if you gain one piece of knowledge from a 10 minute argument, they are like “YEAH WORTH IT.” But, to be fair, these are generally high level arguments. I can only think of a couple times that they descended into playground brawls. Certain kinds of people are more prone to playground feuds than others. But really, it’s a classroom environment much like any other, there is just more hostility and much, much less lecture.
Law school professors are too varied to really describe in any uniform manner. So I’ll keep this brief. They are generally very intelligent, but often have a bit of an eccentric nature. This comes out in a variety of ways, but none of them have been full-on crazy thus far. Really, if you’ve had any interaction with professors before, law school professors are not that much different. They just teach an entirely different kind of material. I will say, at my school the professors tend to have extremely prestigious backgrounds, but that really isn’t much of a surprise since I’m fortunate enough to be on the top of the law school pile.
Rather than spend a lot of time describing professors, I’ll share an experience from my Property course. To set the scene this was my very first law school class. It was in the morning, the room was dead silent, because everyone was balls nervous. We had been assigned the infamous case of Pierson v. Post (Involving foxes and horses). The professor was nowhere to be seen. When suddenly an old man walks into the room:
He reaches beneath this podium and takes out a large toy riding horse. You know the kind, the ones that have a stick attached to a horse head that kids ride around. He starts prancing around the room, using his hands like guns “Pop-Pop!” and then he circles back behind the podium and grabs a full-size, taxidermy Red Fox and begins waving it above his head while riding around the room on the toy horse. He then suddenly stops and places his toys back inside the podium. Then, without hesitation, asks a girl in the back row to recite the holding of the case.
Welcome to Harvard Law.
Ah my beloved law school classmates. How I utterly despise love you. I kid, they aren’t all bad. Some are. But not all. I’ve already described how we’re essentially in a fierce curve battle with each other from here until graduation. So in this section I’m just going to sort of semi-satirically describe the various kinds of law students I’ve encountered. I can’t stress enough, these categories can and do overlap, some of them far more than others. Point being, “Pure” members of these classes are uncommon (though they certainly exist) normally one person will find themselves in more than one category (such as a 50/25/25 split). Anyways, in no particular order, my classmates:
As much as I loathe the recent “Check Your Privilege” trend, there really is no better way to describe these people. They are almost exclusively from the top 10% of households by income (if not top 1%). They are normally straight from undergrad and none of them have ever had a job that wasn’t handed to them with no expectation that they actually do anything. They wear nice clothes, have brand new Macbook Pros (which they are happy to share that they replace every year) and they have no concept of money at all. They are by no means all white, every race is well represented within The Privileged. Some of them are insufferable, others are quite fine to be around (if you can get past the fact that they have no idea why you would want to “save” money).
Their entire family went to *Insert Ivy League School Here* and their entire family also went to Harvard Law. Their family all have awesome positions at awesome places. And they like, totally didn’t even have to apply, they were just accepted because.. in case you didn’t know their entire family went here. Almost a sub-class to The Privileged, but still distinct enough be its own category. These people tend to be very annoying.
The Undergraduate Guy/Gal
The person who stopped mentally aging at age 21. In fact they probably aren’t physically much older than that either. This person went to THE BEST UNDERGRADUATE SCHOOL IN THE WORLD. And yes, the small school in the backwoods of Oklahoma that no one had ever heard of qualifies. They wear shirts from their undergraduate school every single day and never cease talking about how it is the best school in the world and their sports teams never lose (even when they do). They are almost exclusively former Fraternity or Sorority members (Harvard has no Greek System, thank God) which they also never shut up about. But even their almighty Greek System with its sea of (imaginary) 4.0s pales in comparison to the greatness of their undergraduate institution, no matter if it is ranked 1 or 1000.
The “Small Town” Person
These people are especially annoying. Namely because I come from real small town. But here, “Small Town” really means anything under about 100,000 people (normally closer to 100k than further from it). Yes, 100,000 people or less is a small town. Small Town Person speaks endlessly about the great times they had in the rugged wilderness of their town of 100,000 people, something us city-slickers couldn’t possibly understand. Small Town Person tends to bleed into Undergraduate Guy/Gal since every small town has its own massive university, in case you didn’t know. Actually you wouldn’t living in a city like you do.
The Social Justice Warrior
If you are familiar with the term as it applies to websites like Tumblr, then it’s no different here. The Social Justice Warrior is composed of a wide range of archetypes, from the “Reverse Racist” to the “Radical Feminist.” Basically, these people are offended when an ant farts on the other side of the planet. If you are white, you are racist. If you are black, you are also racist. In fact you are racist no matter what (except them, never them). If you are a male you are a rapist, if you are a female you are a rapist, and if you are in-between you’re still a rapist. These people are never satisfied, ever. Holding the door open for them is a deep offense since you are implying they can’t open the door themselves. Not holding the door open for them, well you just defiled their existence with your bloated self-righteousness. In other words, the best thing to do with these people is just to stay the hell away from them. They tend to be from “The Privileged” and generally only care about their causes as long as it doesn’t inconvenience their Netflix schedule.
Ah, yes, The Gunner. The most infamous class of law student by far. Just whispering the word “Gunner” inspires visions of grand Asperger’s in any seasoned law student. Basically the Gunner is that straight A student from high school that you wanted to beat the shit out of. Yeah, you know the one, the one who had his head so far up the teacher’s ass it was impossible to tell them apart. The one who would tattle-tell on you the instant the opportunity presented itself and would also go way, way out of their way to ensure that the teacher made the tests as hard as possible and was made aware of ANY issue that might make things easier. They were also the person who told the substitute teacher that class got out at 2:30, not 2:00. Yeah, that person. Well guess what, The Gunner is the exact same person 15 freaking years later. The Gunner never shuts up, The Gunner raises their hand before the professor even asks a question. The Gunner kisses ass so constantly that their lips have permanently turned brown, and most importantly The Gunner will not rest until they are a Supreme Court Clerk. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, hates The Gunners (even the professor). Do not be The Gunner. Seriously.
Almost the exact opposite of The Gunner, and only marginally less annoying. Whereas The Gunner seeks nothing but to please the professor, The Outlaw spends all their time trying to “challenge” the system. The Outlaw is a weird blend of simple douchebag and Social Justice Warrior. To them the entire system is flawed. I’m not saying it isn’t, but The Outlaw goes about their “crusade” in a way that generally just screws them and everyone else in the room other. They challenge minor issues, but don’t do so in an especially effective way. The end result is that the professor just gets frustrated, which feeds the tiny ego of The Outlaw and spurs them onwards to save the world. Basically, The Outlaw is very outspoken, but doesn’t really know what they are pursuing, other than to challenge every little point, even those with no purpose.
The Class Clown
Do I really even need to describe this? The Class Clown is the same as always. They aren’t as bold as The Outlaw, in that they normally don’t challenge the professor (at least not often) but they painfully go out of their way to try to be funny. For them, if one single person laughs in 1/100 jokes, then they are the hottest shit in town. This person normally gives lengthy (incorrect) answers that build to some punchline that is embarrassing at best. Yet, somehow, they manage to get just a few laughs (normally from The Outlaws) to continue their tirade onwards and outwards. The Class Clown is basically as you would expect them to be, except now they are 25 instead of 11, so it’s just sad.
Yeah, there are Hipsters at law school. They are an odd blend of The Outlaw, the Social Justice Warrior, and The Rags to Riches. This category might also be titled “The Mac Fag.” Really I can’t add anything to the Hispter/Mac Fag that you wouldn’t guess.
The Graduate Graduate Student
So there are people out there who already have graduate degrees. Yes, some people have Masters and the rare person even has a Ph.D. already. So they are “Graduate Graduate Students.” Thankfully these people are few in number. They spend all their time talking about their prior successes (see The Privileged) and about how easy law school is compared to the crushing difficulty of their MA in Women’s Studies. They generally try to relate any conversation back to their given field and to say how much less important law is in comparison. They frequently comment on how easy the material for the day was, but then quickly rush away when you ask a substantive question. They spend most of their time crying in the library from the workload.
These are the people that you sort of forget exist. One day ¾ of the way into the semester the professor calls on them, and you are suddenly like “Who the hell is that?” That’s The Ghost. The Ghost generally runs about a 50/50 split on answers. They are either spot on, or way, way off. The Ghost is involved in very few social events and probably feels much less invested in the whole “culture” of law school than their peers. They miss out on opportunities that their more leech-like classmates capitalize on. But the flip side is that they rarely seem crippled by stress. The Ghosts are more likely to have families than the other categories.
The Rags to Riches
This is the person who has overcome everything in the world. They are an AIDs-Cancer-Rape-War-Abuse-Anorexia-Alien Abduction survivor. They grew up living in the middle of a field, raised by wolves, abusive wolves. They walked 3000 miles on broken glass to get to their school house which was a hole in the ground – of Siberia. No matter what you have struggled with, they struggled with it first and they struggled with it far worse. They have every mental disorder under the sun (ESPECIALLY ADHD/ADD). Additionally, every moment of their life is a glorious conquest to triumph over the hell that has been their existence. You will never know their pain, you will never know their victory. May or may not be a Social Justice Warrior, may or may not have actually overcome anything in their life. Almost definitely a narcissist.
The Average Joe
This is the “catch all” category. Now everyone perfectly fits into any single one of these categories, but honestly they encompass a very large majority of people. The Average Joe is the answer to that. Nothing about them especially stands out. The Average Joe is, true to form, the “Median” student. The Averages Joe might have categorical days, where they tend to lean more towards one category or the other, but their baseline is just fairly front and center.
[I’ll leave it up to you to guess which categories I fall into]
(Yes, those are my notes and briefs as well as few extra readings not in the casebooks)
So one of the most commonly feared things in law school (aside from the Socratic Method) is the workload. I have to say, this fear is rather justified. I estimate that I read around 3900 pages this semester. That is 3900 pages of Caselaw and statutes mind you, not some fun fictional romp. There is also briefing those cases (basically taking notes on the logic within the case), taking class notes, then doing all your extracurricular stuff (which in the cases of SPOs and journals can be quite a lot). Law school is easily a full-time job from a time perspective. But the issues isn’t really time, it’s the nature of the work that takes up so much of that time. The material is just insanely dense and of course, as always It Depends. I did a solid 6 days a week of work and I wasn’t even really striving. Some people do 11 hour days 7 days a week, if not more (I am not just saying this, I know it to be true). I never did anywhere near that, but I was generally near or above full-time job status when you factor in classes and reading. Extracurricular activities definitely pushed me above that, but those were more of a “Rain or Drought” type of situation.
What’s interesting about law school is that (excluding Legal Research and Writing) for your 1L year and most of 2L and 3L, your entire grade is your final exam. And I do mean your entire grade. So, there are not a lot of smaller assignments along the way. The day-to-day workload is mostly extracurricular projects and reading and outlining/notes. This means you have no real progress check. Since you only have one grade at the very end of the class, you have no idea how well you are doing. There’s no way around this but to just keep preparing and preparing, even when you already feel prepared. Remember, it’s all curved against very smart people in a world of It Depends. Which actually brings me to my next topic.
While the Socratic Method and the workload strike fear into most law school bound (and current) students, it is the exams that really keep them awake at night. And honestly, I can’t fault them. One single exam determines an entire semester’s grade. If you have a bad day, your screwed. In fact, some of the brightest people in class do the poorest on exams because they simple are not good test takers. It’s a problematic system, but its not going anywhere. So what is a law school exam like?
Well, they range from 3 to 8 hours. Yes, hours. The most common formats are the same as you’ve had your whole life: Multiple Choice, Short Answer, Essay. Of these, the Essay is the most common. But, in a nutshell, a law school exam is a several hour long period in which you must NOT recite what you’ve learned but rather APPLY it. Further, you must not only APPLY what IS, you must also APPLY what COULD BE. How you do that: It Depends. Basically, you must pull from an entire semester worth of knowledge to answer an incredibly complex question (sometimes the question alone is up to 10 pages long) and you must do so with the utmost precision and clarity.
Remember, your exam grade is largely dependent not only on your own effort, but on that of your classmates as well. You could miss one single thing in a 20 page response, and lose an entire letter grade simple because the 5 people in front of you did not miss that one tiny issue. Yes, that is how cutthroat the exam environment is. And unfortunately, your entire grade, and thus future opportunities come down to this exam.
I’m not an expert, I’ve only done four of them thus far (as I mentioned, Legal Research and Writing has a final legal paper – which is far, far worse than any academic paper I’ve ever seen – so while I’ve had five classes I’ve only had four exams). That being said, I can truly say the law school exams are indeed the hell that they’ve been made out to be. And like most things law school related, the higher ranked the school you go to, the harder the exams are going to be.
And that wraps us up.
So what do I think about law school? Well, It Depends. (I bet you didn’t see that one coming).
It’s a love-hate relationship, for sure. Much of the actual coursework is bitterly difficult and some of the people are a massive pain to be around. Professors can be near-vengeful, but they can also be extraordinarily helpful. The workload can be crushing, but it can also be fascinating. So, at the end of the first semester of my 1L year I have to say that I dislike half of law school, but enjoy the other half. I’ve met some very cool people in extracurricular activities and I’m involved with some great groups. I’ve had some awesome chats with Professors, and met some very, very important people. But it’s also balanced against the difficult, unrewarding nature of a lot of the other things I have to do.
However, in the end, I’m happy and content. I’m glad to be here and more importantly I understand how fortunate I am to be here (as I said in Law School 101, many law students are just freaking doomed). It’s not always easy. Especially when you are the guy wearing the old worn jacket with the broken zipper, who carries around the Wal-Mart backpack that is literally held together with duct-tape and who uses folders that are held together with Scotch tape. I’ve been made fun of (Jr. High style) because I bring my lunch in a lunch box and I’ve been excluded from more than a few things because I didn’t fit into the right “clicks.” But honestly, that’s ok with me. I’ve never really had the benefit of any of those things, but I’ve found plenty of places here where I fit in just fine. HLS graduate, Former HLS Dean, and now Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said it best:
“Harvard Law School is a big city, not a small town. It’s a place where there is always something new to do and someone new to meet. It’s a place where faculty members and students work on-and courses and activities relate to-the broadest possible range of legal and policy questions, and where students can prepare themselves for every imaginable career (and even some career options as yet unimaginable), whether in this country or overseas. Most of all, it’s a place of enormous energy, constant surprise and great adventure.”
And so, I’ll continue my adventure.
This will be my last post of 2014, so, until next year,
P.S. Fat Squirrel – Happy 2015!