Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"The Paper Chase": A Real Look At Law School

I just finished watching "The Paper Chase" for the first time ever. It is a 1973 movie about the experience of a first year law student at Harvard Law School. Several professors and friends have recommended it to me. My professors have said it was a good look at what law school is really like. Most of my non-lawyer friends are shocked to hear that. I have to strongly agree with my profs -- it is a fairly accurate portrayal of the rigors of law school.

The movie does an excellent job of conveying the stress and intensity of law school. Also, it does a good job at conveying the lack of instruction you receive. For those who don't read my blog regularly, law school is the fourth academic discipline I've studied (along with engineering, an MBA, and a PhD in economics). I am still trying to get my mind and my expectations adjusted to the trials of law school. Law school certainly ranks as the #1 most miserable experience out of all four of the programs I've studied.

Unlike any other field I've studied, law is something we seem to mostly learn on our own, with our professors grilling us in class to come up with the correct facts and analyses of cases. In theory, this incentivizes us to prepare for class. In practice, it also makes us miserable. Most of GMU's law classes are a bit more cordial than what is portrayed in "The Paper Chase", but a few of our classes come pretty close. To be honest, I still struggle with seeing the benefit of this style of instruction.

There are two ways of looking at law school. One is to view it as a place to learn the law and receive practical instruction on how to become a lawyer. The other is to view it as a rite of passage that anyone daring to enter the legal field has to go through in order to enter the profession.

In the first case (law school as a place of learning), the expectation would be for professors to spend a good portion of class time lecturing on what is known as "black letter law" and for the school to give us practical training in presenting and arguing cases, and give us a good background on the functioning of the legal system as a whole.

In the second case (law school as a rite of passage), the expectation would be for law school to resemble more of a hazing process designed to weed out the weak. Professors would spend less time teaching and more time trying to make the students suffer in fear and intimidation.

There are elements of both present in law school, but in my opinion (and the opinion of many of my peers), law school as a rite of passage seems to be the dominant of the two models. Unfortunately, I am not convinced this is the best way to prepare student for the practice of law.

As one who has already been through two other professional programs (engineering and an MBA), I feel as though law school does the least of the three in equipping students with actual practical skills. (Bear in mind, this perspective is from one who has yet to practice as a lawyer, although I have practiced as both an engineer and a businessman.) It is common knowledge that the practice of law (in the big firms at least) often involves tremendously long hours (60-100 hours/week) and an incredibly high-stress environment. Rates of alcoholism among lawyers runs extremely high. (My guess is that divorce rates are also higher than average as well.) You could argue making law school extremely stressful helps prepare students for this type of environment (and signals to these employers that the students who do well can handle the stress). There is some value in that. However, as one who came to law school with the primary intent of learning how law functions, I find the experience to be somewhat wanting at times.

Having said this, I am often surprised by how much I have actually learned about law. When friends and family ask me legal questions I have been pleased on more than one occasion to discover a well-reasoned analysis come out of my mouth that I didn't know I knew. This is evidence that there does seem to be some method to the madness we are put through. On the other hand, I feel like I learn far more from my own self-studies using commercial outlines and case summaries than I do from sitting in class. For the first time in my academic life, I am tempted on occasion to skip class so I can spend the time actually learning the material instead. Other students agree with me and as pedagogical method, this seems like good evidence that the system of legal education has some serious flaws.

I am told that things improve after the first year. I hope that is true. For now, it seems as though law school often seems more of an impediment than a help in learning the law. It might just be me, but it seems that there is something deeply flawed about this characteristic of legal education.

People often ask me how I like the study of law. My response is typically to start complaining about law school. I want to work on changing my response to this question. My first answer should be to say that I love the study of the law. It is deeply complex and fascinating in its operation, its vagueness, and how well a seemingly complicated, chaotic process of legal formation and application helps contribute to a stable society. I just wish we had fewer impediments from the law school experience to the actual learning of the law.

For anyone interested in understanding more about what law school is really like, I would say "The Paper Chase" does a good job accurately representing the experience. (Be forewarned that the move does have some risqué scenes, but nothing overt.) As a law student, watching this movie had the same effect C.S. Lewis wrote that reading has. It lets us know we are not alone.

P.S. -- Here is a two-minute clip from the movie, showing what it's like in the classroom. And yes, law school is like this at times:

1 comment:

WackedEcon said...

I am told that things improve after the first year. I hope that is true. For now, it seems as though law school often seems more of an impediment than a help in learning the law. It might just be me, but it seems that there is something deeply flawed about this characteristic of legal education.

Things do not improve after the first year. They get worse for two reasons: you've already learned the analytical skills by January of your first year. There's nothing more to learn, except discrete areas of the law.

And second you understand that the discrete areas of the law that you learn are not going to help you when you practice. You're never going to think back to what you learned in Bankruptcy (let alone, Contracts) to figure out how to handle a client's problems.