Monday, February 05, 2007

The 1L Diaries: Dan

This entry in The 1L Diaries was written by my classmate Dan, who also started law school in the summer of 2005.

For most of this year, when people who were thinking about going to law school asked me how stressful it was, I told them that it was only as bad as you make it. I still think this is true, up to a point. Most books about law school (One L, Law School Confidential) are written by the most obsessive-compulsive people, and you can get the idea from reading them that law school is three years of multi-colored highlighting and intermittent panic attacks. There’s no reason it has to be that way.

But law school has a way of getting you to make it worse on yourself than you meant to. It’s partially because of the all-powerful curve. In your first two semesters at Michigan, you take all your classes with the same section of 90 students.
Your sectionmates are your friends, the only people you know very well at school, but at the same time, they’re also your competitors. Michigan students are pretty good about ignoring the competition as much as possible (to my mind the only sane way of dealing with it), but it’s always there, and it tends to become a bigger and bigger elephant in the room the closer you get to finals.

The sense of competition is worse because of the nature of the average law student. We are a fairly eggheaded group. I have a feeling there are far more eldest children in law school than youngest siblings. Of the 90 people in our section, there were maybe 10 of us who I imagine were genuinely popular in high school. The rest of us (myself included), lacking in athletic and social skills, leaned on our intelligence as a main source of self-esteem during our painful formative years. When you throw a bunch of straight-A students into an environment in which 75% of every class gets a B, the results are predictable.

But even if you get a lot of Bs, a Michigan law degree is a basically guaranteed path to a six-figure starting salary, in return for which you will work roughly 60 hours a week studying the rules, finding ways to use them to protect yourself and wound your opponents. To sign up for such a career is a good indication that you place a high value on having a stable, upper-middle class lifestyle, and that you have a great deal of respect for rules. (There are very few socialists or vegetarians in law school.) This goes back to the business of being unpopular in high school. While others were having fun, you kept your nose to the grindstone, resenting those less diligent and looking forward to the day that you would be more successful than they were. Being a lawyer is a way to make sure you get what’s coming to you, to cash in on those years of hard work. You followed the rules, and now you devote your life to studying them, bending them, glorying in the power they bring you. Before law school, you might have fantasized about getting back at someone who wronged you. In law school, you learn exactly how to do it, and you learn in an environment in which suing someone seems like only the most natural thing to do. You focus on what you legally can do to someone, not what you morally should do.

This kind of myopia, the tendency to mind the details instead of what actually matters in the big picture, can take over without you even knowing it. If you don’t believe me, look at the law review write-on competition. We just finished this grueling task, the last of the many competitive trials of 1L year, and the only one created entirely by law students. It’s also, not coincidentally, the one competition most devoted to slavishly following detailed rules. You are graded not only on the quality of your analytical thinking, but also on your ability to follow proper Blue Book citation format. The Blue Book is the Bible of legal academic citations, and it is vastly more complicated than any other citation manual in any other discipline. It is hundreds and hundreds of pages long, filled with layer upon layer of rules and exceptions, and is written in a way that seems to be intentionally difficult to understand. (Not surprisingly, it is written by law students.) Law review is probably the single greatest sign of success at law school, and whether or not you make it could easily be decided by your knowledge of which commas should be italicized, and which should not. Seriously. By the end of your 1L year, this kind of thing doesn’t even seem all that strange.

I’ve painted a ridiculously bleak picture of law school. It’s really not that bad, and I promise, I don’t go around in a miserable funk, nor does anyone else I know. Once we got into our third semester, our summer-starter section split up to take mostly different classes from one another, and everyone relaxed a little about the competitiveness. We started taking classes we wanted to take, saw some new classmates, and generally became less stressed. It’s only when I step back that I start to see some of the absurdities, and also some of the dangers of falling too much into a law school mindset – dangers that can have long-lasting effects if you end up so caught up in the chase that you make a drastically bad career choice. Law school is only as bad as you make it. But you have to work harder than you might think at not making it bad.

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