General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

The Compleat Lawyer, Spring 1996, Vol. 13, No. 2

Creating Lawyers
The law school experience


Susan R. Schick is a third-year student at the University of Michigan Law School. She is the Articles Coordinator of the Michigan Journal of Gender and Law.

The professional life of every lawyer begins with the law school experience. On the first day of law school, we sit, nervous and scared, in that large lecture hall in the company of strangers from diverse backgrounds who have many different reasons for being there. The one thing that we do share is an expectation that the next three years of training will turn us into lawyers.

In law school, we experience a multilayered process designed to transform a heterogenous group of individuals into people with the tools required to practice law. The survival and growth of the legal system depends upon the existence of certain types of individuals who can act as adversaries, withstand stressful situations, and reason in a certain way. The quality of life of law students is dependent upon the experiences we must have in order to become those individuals.

The Classroom Experience
While the substance and nature of classes differ among and within law schools, most law schools have similar basic first-year curricula and upper-level classes designed to prepare students for the bar exam. Law school classes have two main goals: teaching students the law and teaching students how to think like lawyers.

Learning the law. The first layer in the process of being transformed into a lawyer is learning the law. Because of the complex nature of the law, this is not nearly as simple as reading a how-to manual. To the beginning student, learning the law feels a lot like taking an immersion course in a foreign language. Conversing with other law students feels like speaking in that secret language we created with our childhood friends. Walking down a slippery sidewalk with our fellow students, we joke about the "tort waiting to happen."

Learning to "think like a lawyer." The second layer in the process of being transformed into a lawyer is learning how to "think like a lawyer." Law school operates as the boot camp of the legal profession. In order for the basic precepts of the adversarial process to survive, law schools must create lawyers who can think "objectively" and who can take either side in a conflict. Law students must be able to put aside their personal beliefs and reason in ways that will basically maintain the status quo of the law. The process through which we learn to do so is subtle, but it can have profound effects on the way we think about the world around us.

Law professors are usually individuals who have succeeded in the legal world either academically or as practicing lawyers. They have internalized the modes of thinking like lawyers and are responsible for passing this knowledge on to the next generation. Many use the Socratic Method. The professor asks a student a series of questions about the class material, and the student's answers are either accepted as correct or criticized and probed until the correct response is attained. The student who is being grilled is led to the answer that one who thinks like a lawyer would give. Alternative views are characterized as illogical, inconsistent with the existing law, or otherwise inadequate. Eventually, law students are supposed to be able to reach the correct answer instinctively.

The Socratic Method is very stressful for many students. They do not control when they participate in class and on what subjects they give their views. Some of the harsher professors will humiliate students whose answers are not what the professor wants, which can be especially painful when the student is giving an answer in which he or she strongly believes.

Our transformation into people who think like lawyers can be stressful in other ways. We find ourselves arguing with our nonlawyer friends and family in ways we never did before, and those around us become frustrated by our ability to turn their words around, split hairs, and win every argument. We even argue points for the sake of arguing them, even if we don't believe in their truth. Some law students enter law school eager to step into the traditional adversarial role. Others, however, enter law school with the goal of maintaining a critical distance, of entering the legal profession in order to change the law. For these students, the discovery that law school has succeeded in changing our way of thinking can be disillusioning.

Learning to think like lawyers can also be frustrating because we are supposed to be learning how to think objectively, as a "reasonable person" would. The reasonable person standard pervades the law, a recent successor to the former "reasonable man" standard. The problem for many students is that often the reasonable person our professors, legislators, and judges envision is really still a reasonable man, and a socially and economically privileged one.

The Exam Period
Another layer in the process of transforming law students into lawyers is the final examination. Since most law school grades are based entirely on a student's performance on one final exam, the exam period is a very stressful time for law students. For first-year students, the first set of exams can be even more stressful because they have never experienced law school exams and do not know whether their methods of studying will result in high grades.

Grade curves also contribute to high stress levels. At many law schools, professors are required to give high or low grades to certain percentages of the class. Grade curves can lead to intense competition among law students. Since helping another student means decreasing one's chances of doing well, some students are unwilling to help others.

Exams test students on their ability to think like lawyers. Students are often asked to advocate for one particular side of a dispute or to give arguments justifying a particular legal policy, regardless of whether the side or the policy is one in which they personally believe. Thus, the exam period can create intensified feelings of frustration for students who have not developed this skill or who do not wish to think that way.

The exam period can also be particularly stressful for law students because of the amount of time required to prepare for exams, even for students who have kept up with the reading and have outlined their classes throughout the semester. It is difficult to find a law student who isn't exhausted mentally and physically during exams. Many students become ill, irritable, or simply impossible to be around. The exam period heightens the conflict between law school and our obligations to our families and friends.

Still, law school exams are an important tool in preparing students for practicing law. In order to have successful careers, lawyers must be able to apply the law to factual situations, to anticipate an opponent's arguments, and sometimes to advocate for a side of a dispute in which they do not personally believe. Practicing lawyers are often in competition with other lawyers in situations where one will win and one will necessarily lose, even though both have worked hard and produced excellent work. There are times when lawyers must work despite the competing demands of families and friends.

Searching for Gainful Employment
During the first few weeks of law school, or even earlier than that, law students start worrying about their future employment. The message is made clear to them by their placement offices, professors, and upper-level students that whether they will have jobs after law school depends upon where they work during the next two summers. The stress of the job search continues throughout law school, and sometimes even after graduation.

Law students' ongoing search for employment can include seeking summer jobs after first and second year, applying for judicial clerkships, and looking for permanent employment for after law school. At each step of this process, law students must make difficult decisions that require much soul-searching. In deciding what type of work we want to do and where we want to do it, we are making decisions that will determine the quality of our lives for years to come. At the same time, the job search requires us to assess our strengths and weaknesses and come to terms with the limits our resumes may place on our job prospects.

Initially, we must choose an area of substantive law in which we want to work. This can feel like choosing between what's behind curtain number one and door number two, considering that first-year students have not yet had much exposure to various areas of the law or to the practice of law in those areas. Upper-level students also have limited experience, and their experiences at previous summer jobs may have scared them away from some areas.

Then we must determine what type of practice we want to pursue. This decision is not as simple as picking the places we want to apply and choosing among offers. Much of the outcome of the job search is out of our control. Factors such as employers' needs for recent graduates or their desires for candidates with particular academic backgrounds or grades, our need to pay large loan debts, and whether we happen to hit it off with a particular interviewer from a firm often determine whether we will be able to work at certain places.

Students who do not attend top law schools criticize their placement offices for providing little or no help in finding job opportunities. At some schools, the availability of on-campus interviews depends upon one's grades. At other schools, students feel that their placement offices steer them into practicing at the big firms, rather than offering them a range of possibilities from which to choose. While some students choose to work in public interest jobs or small firms, many end up at large firms because it seems to be the easiest option available. Other students feel compelled to work at high-paying firms because of financial need.

Throughout this decision-making process, students must constantly look toward the future, because each stage is a building block towards the ultimate goal of obtaining permanent employment as a lawyer. We are told that employers will want to hire future lawyers who have connections to the place in which the employer is located. Thus, we must determine where we think we will want to be living several years later and apply for summer jobs there. This can be a complicated decision, especially for students who must also take their families' needs into account. Since some employers rely on their summer associates to fulfill their future hiring needs, deciding where to work for the summer often feels like making a long-term employment decision. Despite this stress, the job search encourages law students to clarify our goals and develop our individual legal identities.

Life Outside of the Classroom
The law school experience does not occur in isolation. Law students are human beings; as such, we experience the ordinary ups and downs of life. We have jobs, families, friends, and outside interests. Some students make the law school the central focus of their lives. They live in law student dorms, associate mostly with other law students, and join law journals and various student organizations. Others treat law school more like a nine-to-five job; they attend class and study at the law school, but their social lives occur elsewhere. Many students are either married or in serious relationships, and some have children too.

Our outside lives do not come to a standstill simply because we have classes, reading assignments, papers, and exams. Sometimes our commitments outside law school are more important to us than going to class and studying. It often seems as if our professors pile on the work without recognizing that we have other commitments. Our families and friends outside of law school do not always understand why we are not as available for them as we would like to be.

Thus, another part of the process of becoming lawyers is finding ways to integrate academic work and other obligations and interests. Many students feel that they do not have enough time for any of their commitments, so they feel they are doing an inadequate job at all of them. Others feel stressed out and tired all the time. At the same time, the practicing lawyers we know tell us that we should enjoy law school while it lasts, because the stress is only going to get worse. As we witness them working so many hours and trying to juggle work and family obligations, we realize that their advice is sound. Thus, we are led to doubt our decisions to follow their footsteps into the life of the lawyer.

Learning to Cope
Presumably, by the time we graduate we have learned ways to survive the stress law school places on our intellects, our relationships, and our bodies. We have not, however, learned these survival skills in class. Thus, students' coping methods are not always healthy. We leave our work to the last minute, stay up all night, and sleep through class in the morning. Coffee cups line the rows of desks in class. Some students turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with feeling overwhelmed. It is not uncommon to have a periodic law school night at a local bar, where students can get drunk together with social approval. Another common way of dealing with stress is watching hours of television. But some students find healthier ways of coping with stress, such as exercising, joining sports teams, or playing instruments.

The quality of life of the law student must mirror that of the lawyer so that those who do not thrive in law school, or at least those who become miserable, are weeded out. Thus, if the life of the law student is to improve, it is not enough to make changes in the ways classes are taught, exams are administered, and jobs are filled. In fact, law schools would fail to produce adequate lawyers if changes were made unilaterally. In order to improve the quality of life of law students, while still transforming law students into lawyers, changes must also be made to the legal system, so that the human beings it requires to maintain its existence can be a little more human and, hopefully, lead happier, less stressful, lives.

Sidebar: Do Law Schools Prepare Students to Practice Law?
Law schools have varying degrees of success in preparing law students to practice law. At the end of law school, most students have probably learned some substantive law and developed some ability to think like lawyers. Graduating students at many schools complain, however, that they have not learned the law of any particular state well enough to pass a bar exam. While the required classes at some schools are designed to prepare students for the bar of a particular state, classes at other schools are more general and theoretical. Thus, students must spend thousands of dollars on bar preparation classes after graduation.

Many students complain that they have not learned how to practice law. If a student does not participate in a clinical program, which is usually not required, he or she will graduate law school without knowing where to sit in a courtroom. Ordinarily, law school does not teach students how to write legal documents such as pleadings, wills, or contracts; handle clients; negotiate with adversaries; plan case strategies; or structure corporate deals. We must acquire these skills after graduation from the other lawyers with whom we work. Depending on what type of legal practice we enter into, however, our coworkers may not have the time or resources to train us. Thus, for many students, the large law firm, like the bar preparation class, must fill the void left by law school.

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