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November 13, 2004

Oh, and....

I forgot to say yesterday: I want to be Chris Baty! What could be better than traveling around the country basically giving pep talks to writers, meeting writers, and writing? Why am I in law school, again? I mean, am I in law school? Is there really only one more full week of class this semester? Do I really have a 25-page paper due at the end of this month? Do I really have four finals to study for and take? Do I really need to apply for jobs for next summer? I mean, really? Is all this necessary? It all seems like such a useless bother.... Does this mean anything, or am I just being silly? Nevermind. I'm behind on my words...

Posted November 13, 2004 08:05 AM | 2L NaNoWriMo

I'm having the same thoughts as you. I wonder, are there people in your classes at GWU who are like, totally bent on being lawyers are their life goal? Life is such a crock of shit. First they tell you to follow your dreams, and then when you're a disrespected Lit. Prof. doing what you love and eating tuna every night, they laugh at you. But if you're a lawyer they laugh at you for having no soul. And if you're a human rights lawyer, they say you're supporting a hopeless cause because you've got something to hide/prove. What's the deal with this lawyering business? Are you satisfied with your decision to go to law school?

Posted by: Phil at November 13, 2004 04:13 PM

Satisfied? Um, no. I have not gotten to the point where if I had it to do over again I wouldn't go, but, I know this: If I had it to do over again, I would have done everything possible to minimize the cost. To do this, I would have picked schools to apply to based on cost first, location second, and rank third. I probably would have gone to a state school, and in order to get in-state tuition I would have moved there for a year and temped or whatever in order to qualify for residency. Unless you want to work at a firm, I really think the rank business is a crock of crap. So the most dissatifying thing is the cost and the way I'm feeling increasingly strait-jacketed with debt. Another source of dissatisfaction is the classes themselves, which I've complained about before b/c they're so large, allow almost no discussion of material, don't even attemp to teach critical thinking or a critical approach to the matieral, etc.

So, um, before I get onto a full-bore rant, I'll just say yeah, you're totally right. You just can't win. But who cares what "they" tell you? You gotta do what you gotta do, and if being a lit. prof. floats your boat (my boat ran aground on those shoals), you should do it.

Oh, but also, as to your first question: I'd say there are a tiny fraction of people at GW who really really really want to be lawyers, are loving law school, love the law, etc. But there's a huge majority that love *money,* and that love is stong enough to drive them to do most anything. Ah yes, it's a wonderful world...

Posted by: ambimb at November 14, 2004 09:22 AM

Well, I thank you for your advice. You've confirmed for me a plan that I was previously very shaky on thanks to my family's obsession with the rankings, and their absolutely unconcerned attitude that I might be forced to do something I'm not sure about because of the incredible debt. I value your thoughts.

Posted by: Phil at November 14, 2004 05:59 PM


I find that most students at GW are actually pretty happy with the place. Is my impression inaccurate? If not, why do you think you view things differently? More broadly, if you could change GW law school, what would you do to change it?

Posted by: Orin Kerr at November 14, 2004 06:03 PM

Phil: You should know that you probably won't find a lot of people who agree w/me about the rank thing, and before you go making life decisions based even a little on my opinion, I encourage you to thoroughly investigate all other available sources of information. Two reasons my thoughts above might not be great data points:

1) I may be wrong. I haven't been conscious of any benefits of going to a relatively well-ranked school, but what if the benefits are intangible? What if I've had the opportunities I've had because of GW's rank, even though I have no evidence of that? I think just being in D.C. and the other qualifications I have have been enough to get me the legal jobs I've gotten so far, but I could be wrong. Perhaps one of my current or former employers saw the "GW" on the resume and that was the decisive factor. It would be hard to know something like that.

2) Rank is less important if you don't care about money. (I obviously care about money; I don't want to be in debt. However, I resist making life choices based on how much income I'll have.) As a corollary, rank is less important if you plan to represent indigent clients (either criminal or civil) or go into some other relatively low-prestige area of law. Gov. jobs and many public interest jobs -- including public defender or legal aid jobs -- are still highly competitive, and again, it's very difficult to quantify how much your school's rank will have to do w/the job you get. It's nearly certain your school's rank plays a big role in whether you get a big firm job, but the role of rank in non-firm jobs is much less certain.

That said, knowing what I know now, I'd trade whatever intangible benefits I'm getting from attending a relatively well-ranked school for the intangible challenges I'd face if I was attending a lower-ranked or unranked school where I was paying significantly less money. Everyone must weigh the variables for themselves, and I may yet change my mind about this (i.e., if I get a great job after graduating and my employer convinces me that the "GW" on the resume was actually meaningful in his/her decision-making process), but that's how I feel after almost 1.5 yrs.

Oh, and responding a bit to Prof. Kerr's question, the above has little to do w/GW as GW. It's about money, pure and simple. GW charges an arm and a leg for law school, just like so many schools in the top 50 or 100. I just feel very certain that price is too high for my purposes, and that would be true almost no matter what school I was attending at such a price.

Posted by: ambimb at November 14, 2004 07:50 PM

Yes, see I think that you and I have similar values in this area, and while I don't doubt that you've gotten a lot out of the GW name, I do doubt that you are confident that you wanted to pay as much as you have for that name-brand benefit. But I think we can both conclude that only time will tell. Anyway, I still appreciate the honest advice. Many law students are totally obsessed with the money, and it's hard to get a read on whether I would really enjoy doing what they're doing.

As for Professor Kerr: I don't think it's a matter of changing GW. External forces give GW a reputation that actually has very little to do with the classes and programs there. My mom knows its ranked #20. She doesn't care if I'd like it. She doesn't care that it has a Small Business Clinic. She doesn't know who teaches there. But she cares that it guarantees cash when you graduate. But for students like myself and Amb Imb, other concerns are important. And though neither of us is sure of it, we have a sneaking suspicion that GW is perhaps not worth its price if one does not intend to work for a large firm with the primary goal of making money. But, while saying that, I must also clarify that I think GW is a top-knotch school with excellent programs and excellent students.

Posted by: Phil at November 14, 2004 08:24 PM

Prof. Kerr: Yes, I think most students at GW are pretty happy with the place. I don't hear a great deal of complaining, so I would say your impression is quite accurate. That's part of the problem, as far as I'm concerned. Law students should be critical thinkers; I see GW teaching them to be mechanical thinkers who apply their critical skills only when a client requires it and will pay for it. As I said above, I could be wrong.

For more about this, I'd refer you to Duncan Kennedy, Legal Education as Training for Hierarchy, in The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique, 54 (3rd ed., David Kairys ed., 1998). As the title of that essay suggests, it argues that law school is focused less on creating good advocates for justice than it is focused on creating good cogs in the machine of the legal profession (which largely serves U.S. business interests). I think Kennedy makes some good points that apply well to my experience at GW.

I expect I view things differently because I have a different background and worldview than most GW students. Prior to law school I spent several years in grad school reading about how social structures (such as law school) shape and indoctrinate people, naturalizing certain things and ideas, marginalizing others, and ensuring that the status quo is never truly threatened. For those happy with the status quo, that's fine. For the rest of us, it's a problem.

What would I do to change GW? I'm not sure, in concrete terms. I'd start by putting money and manpower toward public interest law, possibly replacing one of the first year courses with a "what is law?" theoretical course that forces students to examine what it is they're supposed to be doing in law school besides buying a piece of paper that may enable them to learn lots of money. I'll never forget the Dean's speech when I started law school where he reminded us all that lawyers could do a great deal of good, but they could also do a great deal of bad. (He asked us all to go to the Holocaust Museum as a homework exercise to trace the role of lawyers in the holocaust.) That's about the last I've heard of that kind of rhetoric except each fall when the CDO brings in a few public interest attorneys who remind us that making money isn't everything -- you can do good work, too!

GULC's "section three" sounds like a good model, for starters, but GW could do a great deal more. Smaller classes. Real class discussion. Making students accountable for their opinions, and ideas, pushing them to critique their assumptions and find arguments to support them or reject them if they're unable to do so. Create a running theme throughout all curricula that we would be much less likely to see future Abu Ghraibs, Enrons, environmental disasters, etc., if lawyers took seriously their moral and ethical responsibilities and refused to stand by silently or even help their clients down the roads that end in these horrors. The fact that Alberto Gonzales still has a job in public service, let alone being seriously considered as our next AG, is perhaps exhibit #1 in the failure of the legal profession to produce quality advocates for justice. I'm disgusted by his record in TX making it easier for Bush to ignore pleas for clemency and in the White House making it easier for the U.S. military to engage in war crimes. That the legal profession as a whole doesn't rise up in disgust and outrage that this man would be considered for our nation's "top cop" greatly decreases my desire to join the great ranks of the American Bar.

But back to the point: I recognize that little will change, not at GW or any other law school, which is why I'd rather not go into so much debt for the joy of sitting in large classes and never really being asked to do much more than memorize, synthesize, and regurgitate large volumes of material. Oh, I know I'm learning how to "think like a lawyer," and I'm glad for some of that; I just feel pretty sure I could learn that just as well at a state school paying half as much.

And if I feel this so strongly, why didn't I transfer last summer? I wish I had an answer. If I'd felt last May how I feel now, I probably would have. But the bottom line here is this: GW is a fine school. As law schools go, it's probably well above average. By most standards, GW serves its students quite well. My disappointment is with the legal profession as it exists today, and with the role of legal education in that profession more generally. Both are failing America, as far as I'm concerned. But that's not GW's fault, in particular. It's systemic, structural, hard to change....

Posted by: ambimb at November 14, 2004 08:35 PM

Wow, this is a great and powerful argument, and should probably migrate to a public post, or to Blawg Wisdom. I agree with everything you say, but I think that the crux lies in the fact that, as you say, the status quo is not challenged. For someone making more than 99% of the people in this country, the status quo is working pretty well. I'm not sure than an overwhelming sense of justice would be enough to overpower an overwhelming sense of comfort and security, especially for a lawyer with a family to support and provide for. I don't see this system changing soon. I wonder what you see as potential solutions to the problems you mention here?

Posted by: Phil at November 14, 2004 09:37 PM

Thanks, both AmbImb and Phil, for the thoughtful responses. A few reactions:

First, my sense is that for-profit and not-for-profit legal employers are relatively similar when it comes to the role that law school prestige plays in the entry-level hiring process. In my experience, at least, I don't know of a significant difference in the standards that a typical law firm uses for hiring and the standard that the government, a public defender's office, or a non-profit public interest advocacy group uses. Legal employers interested in hiring freshly-minted attorneys share the common problem that it's very hard to assess who among recent grads will turn out to be a top lawyer. As a result, they tend to rely heavily on proxies such as law school, law school grades, clerkships, etc. The more competitive the job -- and that does *not* correlate with the more high-paying the job, of course, as public interest spots are often more competitive than law firm jobs -- the more elite are the proxies that the employer tends to demand. It's certainly possible that law firms rely a bit more on the name of your law school because they may have a long tradition of hiring people from a particular set of schools, whereas public interest hiring tends to be more case-by-case, but my sense is that there is a lot of common ground.

In terms of what GW could do better, ambimb writes, "GW could do a great deal more. Smaller classes. Real class discussion. Making students accountable for their opinions, and ideas, pushing them to critique their assumptions and find arguments to support them or reject them if they're unable to do so." Ambimb, what classes are you taking? That should be happening in every law school class. If it hasn't happened in yours, you ended up with the short end of the stick in your 1L classes and need to pick professors more carefully now that you're taking electives. While the size of classes are hard to change given the size of the law school student body, you can certainly pick more challenging profs.

On a related note, one of the things that your tuition bill pays for is GW's large faculty with its diverse range of teaching philosophies and goals. Some professors at GW are doctrinalists; they like to teach rules. Others like to focus on big-picture policy arguments or to pursue critiques. Some are focused on imparting knowledge of the law or legal reasoning; others are focused more on agendas for reform. Some are on the left, some are right-of-center. Some are law and economics types, others are crits.

Why does this matter to your education? It matters, I think, because most people learn more if they are exposed to a wide range of approaches. You won’t get a very good legal education if you only take classes from doctrinalists; similarly, you won’t get a very good legal education if you only take classes from crits. You will learn the most from experiencing all of these styles and approaches and learning their worldviews; each has something important to offer.

This doesn’t mean that you should abandon your own views, of course. It’s just that the best and deepest educational experiences tend to occur when people are challenged by views they disagree with. My sense is that this is the primary weakness with proposals such as Georgetown’s alternative “section 3," to the extent I understand it correctly. If you go into law school with a set of beliefs and all of your professors spend the year telling you that your preconceived beliefs are correct, how much are you really learning?

Finally, on a practical level, keep student evaluations in mind. In my experience, GW professors pay a lot of attention to student evaluations. Many professors teach the way they do at least in part in response to student preferences. If you think a professor isn’t pushing students to think critically about the big picture, please say so in your evaluations (and get your friends to do the same). It won’t do magic, but over time that kind of feedback can make a difference.

Posted by: Orin Kerr at November 14, 2004 11:04 PM

Thanks for that perspective, Prof. Kerr. I do try to make the most of my feedback on course evals, and to be fair, many of my profs at GW have tried to press one or two students each class hour on a particular issue. However, as you say, the size of classes is a serious limitation. Why are law school classes so large? Why do so many other disciplines have such small class sizes in their graduate programs? There are no easy answers to such questions, and it's not GW's responsibility to answer them on its own. Like I said, many of the most egregious problems in legal education are systemic.

Briefly, on the question of learning from diverse perspectives, I'm all for it. One of my most conservative law & econ professors was quite stimulating, and I enjoyed attending his class each day just to see what outrageous thing he'd say next. Yet, in a class of 100 students, there was precious little time to challenge him, or to test my own positions against his, so I could see if they would hold up. Visiting him in office hours was futile; he was always rushed and dismissive, and the line of students in the hallway waiting to see him made me feel the same way. Again, this is a problem of huge classes....

So why pay so much for rank? To get a job. Ok. Maybe. Like I said, time will tell...

At any rate, I'm grateful for your thoughts on these subjects. And congratulations on the recommendation for tenure. GW is lucky to have faculty such as yourself who seem sincerely dedicated to its students. Maybe I'll see you in class one day...

Posted by: ambimb at November 15, 2004 12:03 AM

Yes, thanks to the Professor for his thoughts.

Posted by: Phil at November 15, 2004 02:41 AM

As I often do in conversations similar to this, I urge any prospective students or those otherwise interested to consider Northeastern University School of Law. I'm a 2L there, and love it. Although the tuition is not competitive, AI, I often end up telling people that I wouldn't have gone to law school anywhere else. We don't have grades, so no class rank either. We have cooperative learning experiences (i.e. 4 required internships) in our upper two years, and are almost all focused on public interest. The school was re-started in the 1960s when some law professors at Harvard decided legal education needed to be refocused, so they moved accross the river and started their own school. Many of those professors are still here.

Posted by: monica at November 17, 2004 04:16 PM

oh, we also have a Law, Culture, and Difference program during the 1L year. For the first semester, it's a small group seminar with readings from different perspectives on how the law affects different groups of people. The second semester is a community lawyering project - each of the small groups works as a law office for some social justice group in the community. It's a great and one-of-a-kind program.

Posted by: monica at November 17, 2004 04:19 PM

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