How to Survive in Law School...With Your Sanity and Principles Intact

National Lawyers Guild

Welcome to Boot Camp!

Just like boot camp in the U.S. Marines, law school is designed to acculturate you as a future member of an elite corps with its own values, traditions, and illusions. Like any other boot camp, law school functions by depriving you of your individuality, grabbing all your time, weakening your previous ties to the people around you, and offering you resurrection and rebirth if you successfully embrace the institution's own view of the universe. You will receive subliminal training in how to evaluate future clients, fellow students and future peers, and the value of different kinds of law practice. The law school vision runs counter to the egalitarian, democratic impulses of people who come to law school to gain skills useful to movements for social change. Law school indoctrination mirrors the political, social and moral perspective of the Rehnquists, Scalias, Whites, and Thomas's who define and dominate modern jurisprudence. It also exalts the work of corporate law firms that wield awesome power in the service of their wealthy clients. Law school is designed to prepare you to accept and perpetuate these realities, not to challenge them. But what if you need to learn how to develop a progressive law practice that serves the community, how to get the most accomplished with the fewest resources, how to practice law in a way that empowers the disenfranchised? The curriculum will rarely encourage you to think beyond the acceptable range of conventional options, and the work load is enervating and demoralizing.

So what can you do to resist?

1. Stay off the academic treadmill. Don't overestimate the power of grades. Only a small portion of law school graduates get jobs based on outstanding GPAs. Demonstrated interest in a particular field of law counts for more than an A+ or High Honors in real property with most employers.

2. Keep active politically. Find a way to engage your energies outside of the confines of the law school curriculum. Obsessive focus on school is self-defeating. Make connections that will help you connect up with a public interest law job when you get out of law school. The National Lawyers Guild and other progressive organizations are projects and provide opportunities to find mentors who can help you find summer jobs and long-term directions.

3. Work with friends in your small section to classroom discussion from time to time. Professors are adept at co-opting or trivializing unconventional ideas. One way to promote critical thinking is to make sure that you and your friends agree that when one of you expresses a "subversive" thought in class, the rest will support and try to push the discussion further.

4. Early on, you will need to inoculate yourself against feeling jealous towards the classmates who are headed toward $70,000 or $80,000 a year positions straight out of law school. Even though years of banal workaholic drudgery await them, these students are the pride of each institution. Earnings of graduates are a major factor in U.S. News & World Report's annual rating of American law schools. The truth is, public interest jobs, though usually low paying, are far more interesting and rewarding than corporate law. If you become involved in extracurricular political activities, you will discover that there is a nationwide community of activist students, legal workers and lawyers who work together to make law a tool for social change. This discovery is the most powerful antidote to law school's message that what really counts is moving and shaking at a downtown law firm.

5. Try to keep up a life outside of school. Don't lose your old friends or your lover, forget to read a novel from time to time, or abandon your swimming regime. Life is too short and three years is too long to defer your living to some other year. Avoid the total immersion approach to law school.

6. Fight the power! Don't accept law school as it is. You can derive great strength from challenging practices that ought to be changed. The law school needs to be prodded on affirmative action in hiring and admissions, on developing curriculum relevant to the needs of lawyers who intend to serve as agents of social change, on adopting teaching methods that nurture students and help them realize their potential rather than teach them their place in a pecking order.

The First Year of Law School is not a mystical or mythical process - it's more like "intellectual boot camp." The very environment of the classroom is intimidating and scary for most of us. It's confusing and causes even the most competent and brilliant students to doubt whether they made the right decision.

Mastering the Material

But there is a bright side. Intellectually speaking, the material is usually not that hard. The concepts are no more mysterious than unfamiliar subjects you've studied before. Once you get used to the "legalese" and a few rules, legal analysis is very much like working a puzzle. No harder. Guaranteed.

The "casebook method," in a word, sucks. It's dry and repetitive and it confuses you. While studying cases, concentrate on learning general principles rather than the specifics of every case. Look for common themes and topics. Don't bother trying to find some kind of overarching logic or grand scheme - it's not there. Don't waste time searching for rationality and consistency. Often rules are contradictory and seemingly illogical. Remember the rules of Justice Holmes: "The life of the law is not logic but experience."

If you don't yet know how, you must learn to budget your time. Falling behind in class tends to make you miserable even if you are capable of studying under extreme pressure. By the same token, too much studying can be as destructive as too little - especially to your social life. There is no point in spending hours staring at unintelligible hieroglyphics where your brain has gone on strike. Studying should be treated as a job: put in your hours, but don't let it dominate your life to the exclusion of all other activities. After you've done your work, put it away. Save some time for more worthwhile activities like the Guild.

Performing in Class

One of the most frustrating experiences in the first year happens when you're studying a case that grates against your sense of justice and no one else seems to notice. It could be a contract case with a low-income customer getting defrauded by a furniture company, or a gay man challenging a state ordinance that prohibits him from engaging in consensual sex with his partner. You have to make a decision whether or not to "go out on a limb" and state your mind. It's your call.

Just keep in mind that by letting comments and generalities go unchallenged, we buy into the philosophy that nothing can change, and more importantly, we miss a golden opportunity to educate our classmates and maybe, just maybe, change the way they think about the law.

The Socratic Method

Many law schools rely heavily on the "Socratic" method, as it is portrayed in the move "The Paper Chase." This method has been known to send students home crying and feeling they can't hack it. But some professors begin their classes by saying "This is not 'The Paper Chase.'" So just relax, read the cases and give it your best shot. Generally, grades are anonymous and not based on your classroom performance. It's just not worth getting worked up over. Social injustice, now that's worth getting worked up over.

So. Why am I in law school?

When you are surrounded by single-minded students intent on making lots of money or using the law to help others profit financially, you can feel somewhat lost or out of place. Just remember, legal skills are extremely valuable when working with those who are oppressed and disempowered in this society. Once you master the skills of lawyering, you can use them to help clients and communities to develop their own strategies for dealing with the legal system. You will be better able to make a difference when you leave.

The Struggle Alone and Together

In law school, it's easy to get the impression that we are alone in struggling to preserve our progressive commitment and identity. It's not true. Even in the strongest bastions of apathy or conservatism, there are usually a few like-minded souls. Surviving law school requires finding people, organizations, and work which can help us maintain our perspective; it's a hard thing to do alone. It is critical to locate support networks both in and outside of school. Doing legal work with real clients can also help you remember why you wanted to be a lawyer.

It's also important to make time for some kind of political or community work. Being a progressive lawyer means not just thinking in political terms but aligning and working with movements for social change.

Adapted from Temple Law School NLG Brochure and Michael Friedman.