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May 11, 2004

Pre-Law School Summer Reading

Along with the handful of requests from people wondering about GW in particular, I've also received a handful of requests for advice on pre-1L-summer reading and preparation in general. All I can offer are my own impressions of what was helpful or might have been helpful; many others have been down this road before and if you look around you'll find terrific insights on these topics on other blogs. That aside, I'd say that as far as preparation goes, I wish I'd spent the summer before 1L working in some sort of legal position—volunteering for a judge or an attorney or a nonprofit, or even working in the mail room at a firm or temping at a legal copying service or something. Anything that gets you thinking about the practice of law and in a position to at least observe the profession at work should be a good way to spend the summer. Of course, a law-related summer job isn't necessary; I'm just saying that if I had it to do over again, I would have tried a little harder to get one. It will give you a taste of what you're getting into, and it won't look bad on your resume when you're trying to get that first summer job after your first year of law school.

Other than that, there's the reading. About a year ago I was thinking about books I might read in preparation (and here). In those posts and comments you'll find a very short survey of the most likely suspects. I did end up reading Law School Confidential, and once I got to school it seemed like a very high percentage of my peers had read it too. I guess I'd recommend it as a general primer, but the study schedule it suggests is just insane.

I also worked my way through most of Getting to Maybe and I found it to be indispensable. It's both an exam preparation book and a way to think about law more generally, so it's something you can read at any time. I found it a bit hard to read before I'd started class because it seemed too abstract, but once I'd started school it was hard to find time to read it, and you should really read it before your finals. If I had it to do over again, I'd try to get through more of it before school started, then I'd finish it in bits as the semester progressed.

But while those books are useful, they're not necessarily fun summer reading. For that, I turned to Brush with the Law by Robert Byrnes and Jaime Marquart , and the infamous One L by Scott Turow. What follows is a review/comparison of the books that I wrote upon finishing them but never posted.

The first, Brush with the Law, is a rather new entry in the field of law school accounts. (Note: It was slowly being serialized here, but it looks like all that's available now is the last installment.) The book offers parallel accounts of the authors' experiences at Stanford and Harvard, respectively. In a nutshell, Byrnes was a bike-riding crackhead who never went to class and did just fine at Stanford [note: I'm not sure his drug of choice was actually specified, but it sounds pretty cracklike], while Marquart began as a sort of sincere straight-arrow at Harvard, attending every class and trying to dot every "i," but gradually became a gambling-addicted slacker who never went to class and, you guessed it, still did just fine at Harvard. Their stories are at once hilarious, insightful, and strangely deflating, like a confirmation of many of my worst fears about law school. Rather than participate in the mythical account of law school as "America's most demanding post-graduate curriculum" (that's really the title of a book), Byrnes and Marquart describe two of the United States' most prestigious law schools as little more than empty facades behind which mostly wealthy, self-aggrandizing students and professors play out their fantasies of what law school is supposed to be. Meanwhile, the "smarter than you" bad boys are learning to laugh at the whole grand show. And while it's refreshing to see law school cut down to human proportion like this, it's also disappointing and dispiriting because it raises again one of the main questions that makes law school seem like such a bad deal, namely: If law school is such a big joke, then why do students have to spend so much damned money, not to mention three years of their lives, to practice law? (I'll leave that question hanging for the moment to spare you a rant against the cartel that is the ABA.)

I then picked up the infamous One L, which, as I mentioned before, struck me as melodramatic in the extreme. As strange as it sounds, I'm glad to have read these books together—they're like antidotes for each other. For every instance in which Turow tries to mystify, aggrandize, or otherwise inflate some aspect of the law school experience, Byrnes and Marquart offer an anecdote to mock, belittle, and otherwise eviscerate the same aspect of law school (probably along with a few others at the same time, for good measure). Jeremy Blachman offers the best summation I've seen for One L when he writes:

I read One L. I recognized it for what it was -- one guy's successful battle to have a miserable time at law school. Read it for an illustration of everything you don't need to do unless you want to be sad.

The best aspect of One L for me was its historical value. I found myself thinking again and again that little has changed since 1975. One of the first points where I noticed this was in Turow's notes about coming to terms with "legal thinking," which he at first finds "nasty" (86), but later seems to realize is valuable once he accepts that "there were no answers" (101). I fear humanity is doomed if we don't start learning the difference between "nastiness" and "critical thinking," but again, that's another rant for another day.

One thing that has changed in the last 33 years is the value of a dollar:

A poll taken during interview season and published in the law-school newspaper [circa 1975] showed that the 1Ls responding hoped for an average income of $28,000 in their twentieth year out of law school and a starting salary of $13,000. (94-5)

Can you say "inflation"? The same poll also showed that 80% of students at Harvard in 1975 said they'd prefer something other than corporate law practice (BigLaw), i.e.: "public interest work, political work, work on behalf of the poor" (95). Have those numbers changed, or has it just become
harder than ever to follow that path?

Apparently, law students thought school was already pretty expensive in 1975, so students wanted to know why their classes were so big. According to one of Turow's professors, schools adopted the Socratic method because it enabled a professor to effectively teach 140 students at a time, and this made a legal education "cheap" (122). Perhaps this is true, but if so, the cost savings were never passed on to students. (Cue silent rant against ABA Cartel, take II.)

So law schools still have large classes, and they still charge rapacious tuition, but do they still serve the status quo? On this point Turow writes at length about a speech he heard Ralph Nader give to the students at Harvard in November of 1975 in which Nader pointed out that the law taught at U.S. law schools is largely the law of "the well-to-do [who] could afford the huge legal fees of prosecuting an appeal, of bringing a case to the stage where it was likely to be reprinted in ... casebooks" (133). Turow's description of this speech alone makes One L worth your time. He writes:

There were wrongs, [Nader] said—violations of law, legal problems throughout the society—which were never the subject of courtroom battles and case reports. "How many sharecroppers," [Nader] asked, "do you think sue Minute Maid?"

[Nader] talked about the model of a lawyer's work that the steady stream of appellate cases suggests. Weren't we really training to be lawyers who only interview clients and write briefs and argue before courts—the kind of lawyers Legal Methods was teaching us to be? Where were we shown images of lawyers as organizers, determined advocates, rather than the disinterested hired hands of whoever could throw the price? Did we honestly believe, as was sometimes suggested, that the most intriguing legal problems were those presented in cases? Was it really more absorbing to fuss over the details of some company's tax shelters than to face (as our education so seldom asked us to do) the gravest legal problems confronting the society—corporate and government corruption, the bilking of consumers, the dilemma of bringing adequate legal services to the poor? (134)*

Yes, nowhere, no, and no. Sure, the Dean's welcome speech at GW touched on these issues, but the fact that a law school Dean feels he needs to place special emphasis the public service and social justice aspects of a legal career show that those aspects are still tangential to the mainstream of legal education and legal practice. (I doubt many Deans feel the need to remind students that they could work for big law representing corporate interests; that's the default.)

The results of Nader's speech on Turow are a terrific example of this. Turow leaves the speech "feeling high ... full of hot purpose," but "not sure where those feelings could be rightly aimed" (134). Then, in a typically melodramatic turn, Turow aims all his "hot purpose" at agonizing over whether to join his fellow students in trying to censure one of their professors for being an ass in class. Um, Scott, I'm pretty sure that's not what Nader had in mind. What's more, if legal thinking is "nasty" at all, it's not because it asks its practitioners to think critically about the world, but because—thanks to "law and economics"—it too often encourages them to dehumanize situations and events, and to reduce questions of justice and equity to naked economic equations.

That said, I can't condemn law school as an evil tool of wealth and privilege that hasn't changed at all. For example, I'm pretty sure most law schools today have much more robust clinical programs than they did in 1975. Besides, according to Brush With the Law, none of this matters because it's all just a big joke, anyway, and the key to getting the most out of it and getting on with your life is to never take it too seriously. That's good advice, regardless of what you hope to do with your JD.

* This is what I was trying to get at when I mentioned my frustration in my first Torts class when my professor spent an hour discussing the merits of the "sausage beater" case. Our culture gives plenty of attention to pro sports and other tangential issues as it is; meanwhile, countless injustices never get press or time in court (or appearances in casebooks). PTorts could have chosen many different cases to introduce us to the subject; why did he choose this case?

Posted 06:33 AM | Comments (1) | law school

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