A 2L wrote and asked me if I’d blog about student stress from a 1/2/3L perspective, but first a word on my blogging tardiness.
After pushing forward with my misspelled and ungramatical first draft of the Fanning review (below) I’ve been lost to the blogging world via law school responsibilities.
Actually, my life has been an exercise in tongue biting for the past couple of weeks. I’m surprised that I’m not left with a bloody nub in there. Sometimes that translates into my not blogging a lot, although there are plenty of good bloggable things – conversations with Photogal and Thinks-Before-She-Speaks, good outcomes in court, and many small victories, including a Pushcart nomination.
However, I’m not sure how to characterize all the stuff that’s made me clam-up-or-irreparably-damage-relationships. From the social perspective, much of this is tangential; meaning that I can interact with people and fulfill my scholastic and legal obligations without dealing with this stuff.
Yet from another perspective, it’s central – I’ve made a long career of getting by on the slim solace that I’ve spoken out. Often not articulately. Often not with maximum effectiveness. Sometimes to my detriment for issues people might think are trivial. Sometimes irritatingly at parties. But it is one of the few integrities allowed me, and thus I’m quite happy to stir the pot, even if it leaves some tongues bitter.
But oddly, the benchmark for my giving up on something is adhering to social order, to not saying that which crosses my mind, to not questioning or prodding. And honestly, I’m either just finally burnt out and/or simply don’t care about a number of things. Which a) I’ve said before and b) makes me feel small-minded and mean. So who knows? I expect that I will care again, that I will re-engage.
Another reason for not blogging is that I’ve been going through a difficult personal time – breakup, car accident, health issues, etc. So take what I’m saying with a double dose of salt, as studies suggest that humans tend to morally judge things more severely when they’re feeling discomforted. (Yeah, science confirms what we know.) Things in general though are fine, they’re just really hectic and sometimes disappointing.
Forgive the above foray into abstracto-land. It’s kind of hazy and humid in there, I find. Yet it does have direct bearing on what I’m about to write about – which is Stress across the 3 years of law school.
Law School Stress in a Nutshell
Stress in law school is sort of a given. I think we ought to ask what the root causes of stress are. We should also ask how we can deal with stress that’s produced by law school and the various pressures of legal profession (yes, we feel some of those effects now). A third inquiry is what (if anything) can be done to change the root causes so that the burden for bearing great and unnecessary stress isn’t unfairly placed on each individual.
First off, law school pedagogy stinks. Most law professors are not professional educators. They’re successful lawyers and/or academics working in a horribly dated system that does not even attempt to instill students with much needed skills and understandings. To be successful you must teach yourself on many levels.
Law school is essentially an inefficient winnowing system, disguised as a meritocracy and confusingly staffed with interesting and successful people. Grades translate into a hierarchy of desirable employment, a hierarchy of desirable fellowships and clerkships, and to some extent given journals, a hierarchy of 2 and 3L social activity.
Hence, one enormous prong of student stress. (Seriously, ask yourself – “How do I set up an educational system to train all students entering it to be competent and successful lawyers that would beat the pants off any other school's graduates?” You won’t find anything close to what we know as law school in your ideal response, because whatever factors you list then beg the question of *how* such knowledge/skills can be most effectively transmitted, and *there* is where 3 years of case-method runs full tilt into a brick wall.)
Another prong is the *massive* financial pressure that many of us face (contrasted with the fact that some LS come from the top 1% of wealth and prestige.)
The first two would be enough pressure without the additional element of the arbitrariness of evaluation. We’ve all had the good knowledge/poor result, mediocre knowledge/excellent result experience. We’ve all been shocked that we’ve outscored/underscored student X. Professors will even tell you that grades mean little, and are full of anecdotes about poor scoring students going on to be great lawyers in their course’s field. That’s meant to be comforting, but really, isn’t that just fucked? Think about it.
And yet the really odd thing is that even though grades sometimes seem to be a crap shoot and/or selecting for weird factors like typing speed, people will tell themselves that things must even out over the course of the 3 years and that their 38 grades or so will certainly average out. Hence, they’re on the first step to internalizing the grading standard, and in some measure beg the question of whether the system itself is simply drastically off course.
Given the relatively unappealing nature of much legal work, this systemic uncertainty produces a competitive scramble for any accolades you can get – even if you hope to “translate” or parlay those accolades across legal disciplines.
And then of course you must apply in great detail for dozens of jobs to be offered a handful of opportunities to perhaps get a final offer of employment. And while PI law is happy to have you intern for bread money, the actual jobs are just as hard to find.
But we all get jobs goes the pabulum. May take us 400 hours of work, but we all get something, somewhere, even if it’s not our first choice.
So, does everything get better after graduation? No. Johns Hopkins did a study in 1997 and found that lawyers have immense job-dissatisfaction, high levels of OCD (21 and 15% as opposed to 1.4% general pop.), abuse alcohol at twice the rate of the general population, and exhibit other indicia of, well, non happiness, including high divorce and suicide rates. And it's not as though there's a sharp line of demarcation where everyone that does not fall into the suicidal alcoholic box is happy as a clam.
In short, it’s not a humane system, and you’re not going to get much of a sense that anyone wants to really *help* you develop, although they’re happy to tell you to work hard at developing, then to *test* you to see what you can do.
So, in many senses, the legal educational system stinks. And just landing good grades the first year won’t erase the factors that cause stress. You’re then on the scramble for employment. (What if I get a B in Conlaw? Will the 2L-summer partners notice me coming in early, leaving late?) So on, so forth. Some people never escape the stress, completely internalize issues, and in general become miserable human beings.
Now, I’d apply all my usual caveats. Yes, we learn a lot. Yes, many of us will go on to be good or decent lawyers. Yes, the system does produce some really impressive people, or, rather, some amazing individuals retain their humanity throughout all this. Yes, I think my professors are (often) lovely humans with fascinating lives. Yes, many of them fight against the systemic drift and try to help dedicated students get jobs in the fields they’re likely to engage with. But all this is rather beside the point. The question we should be focusing on here is “Can the legal educational system, set up as it is, be improved upon, to be a more human and holistic experience?” The question is not “can the current system be justified in some way as to preclude significant change?” Because it can, yet the end result is not pretty.
If there’s a trick to resisting this on the individual level, I think it has to come from a sort of zen-like detachment. One must maintain a sort of faith in action – you must get up, study, take the exams, but do so wide-eyed. Know that Student X, dosed to the gills on ritalin, might score much higher than you, even though they’re a blind product of privilege. Know that Student Y is just plain smarter and more articulate than you are. Know that Student Z espouses the professor’s far left/right philosophy. Know that you might outscore all of them based on the random mental connection you make in the span of a 3 hour spot-issues and type like hell exam. Know that these small things mean the difference between clerkships and no clerkships, cool jobs and whatever you can get.
It’s absurd. But here you are. Do whatever you can to do maintain your sense of personal worth and integrity.
Different people have different sustaining faiths – their parents, their spouses, their children, their religion, their friends, their philosophies or non-law disciplines and interests. And in the face of corrosive stress these should be embraced, fervently, and with a respect that remains immune to the cycnicism inherent in the practice of law.
I obviously can’t tell you where to find peace, but I can’t lie to you and say that if you stick within the system and do your good and honest bit “things will be better, soon.” For some they are, for some they’re not.
And if there’s hope for change, I think it comes from what I am singularly failing to do in recent days – one must speak out. Not necessarily from the soap box, but you must articulate and communicate your thoughts and feelings to your friends, mentors, professors and fellows. I firmly believe that it’s only through this type of dialogue that people will begin to understand the various unnecessary pressure creating flaws of the system and begin to address them.
Every time you don’t speak out, that you swallow your stress and confusion and sense of absurdity is, in part, perpetuating this ridiculous system. Every time you put a social gloss on things, and do not deal with substantial issues, well, that is what it is. It works for some people I think, on some levels, but what it won’t do is produce change.
Anyway, sorry for the relatively grim thoughts on stress.
One practical thing I can suggest is something I wrote about a year ago, something I still believe in:
A Word to the 1Ls
Your grades are coming out soon – today or tomorrow, I forget which. As a friend recently pointed out, they’re going to suck. Approximately 15% of the class will be happy with them: the students in the top 10% and the 5% of students who are just damn-fucking-happy to be here, at Georgetown, so happy that it does not matter what their grades are.
I fall uneasily in the second camp, for all of my critiques of the pedagogy and evaluative methods of law school. I do love it here, and I am mightily impressed with my peers and friends.
Please remember – you will get a job, you won’t end up living under a bridge. If it won’t be in the city you want, it will be in the region you want; and if it’s not exactly what you want to be doing it will be damn close. A huge minority of associates don’t stick with their first job beyond a few years anyway, so it’s not like you’re locked into a life of doom and legal drudgery at Sid’s Law and Muffler Shop.
As much as I have problems with Stoicism, please remember, there’s an arbitrary element to grades, and all they’re really telling you is what you know anyway – that you’re in the same ballpark as your peers; better on some things, worse on others. They don’t measure your worth as a person. (So don’t act, positively or negatively, as though they do.) They also don’t measure your knowledge of the law against an objective standard. They also don't measure your future ability to be a lawyer or even begin to assess the myriad of skills that you can bring to bear on lawyering. Grades are just points on a curve relative to your peers.
If you find yourself freaking out, have a beer (or two), sit down, and think about all the worthwhile things you accomplished on your way to this point in time; you're going to accomplish just as many, if not more, great things after you leave here. And whatever psychological impact grades have, it's already come too late - it can't undo who you are, what you've done, or what you can do in the future.