Greater Implications of a Conformist, Competitive Law School Culture

Greater Implications of a Conformist, Competitive Law School Culture

 

Law school is hardly a happy place.  Spending long hours holed up in your room memorizing case law and preparing for notoriously difficult exams while living in constant fear of being humiliated by your professors doesn't exactly make for an enjoyable or enriching experience.  Yet tens of thousands of students sign up for this ordeal every year, and law schools can barely keep up with the demand. 

In fact, law schools are so over-subscribed that there is little pressure to reform its teaching methods to meet the challenges of a new century.  Law school culture is described as one that fosters "competition and conformity" and strips otherwise bright, empathetic students of their passions to drive social change and think like an individual.[1]  This pervasive culture of conformity places students on a never-ceasing treadmill to biglaw jobs, if they are so lucky to obtain one in these difficult economic times. 

The academic structure of law school promotes self-interest, which in effect leads to the ubiquitous competition that places students in a constant state of peer-group unease.  Students, especially those who are not so fortunate enough to attend the top law schools, often lament the harsh grading curves that pit students against each other in a zero-sum game.  Grades and class ranking are of paramount importance as they will likely determine the career options available to law students upon graduation. 

Many professors subscribe to the Socratic method and grill their students, one by one, on the facts, key issues, and implications of a dizzying array of cases, some of which date back to the Victorian Era and hold little relevance in this modern era.[2]  Other institutional organizations, such as the law review, offer students a means of improving their career prospects, but only to the top ranking individuals in each class.  Student study groups have proliferated and offer students some avenue of cooperative work; however, these groups exist to maximize each student's individual exam performance and do little to change the prevailing culture of self-interest.

In preparation for exams, students are often required to pick apart an issue from a certain perspective, and students are evaluated based on their ability to discern fact patterns and apply existing rules established by previous cases.[3]  Unique problem-solving skills and teamwork capabilities are not tested by exams and are therefore not the focal point of students' attention. 

Paradoxically, this pervasive sense of self-interest does not foster individualism.  Current law students often report being caught up in a system that sends its top students to high-paying firm jobs while leaving lower-ranked students to fend for themselves.  A 2L at Stanford Law School observes that the "school of fish mentality is very powerful," reinforcing the treadmill hypothesis even in the top law schools.[4]  A 1L from a lower-ranked but still top-tier school reports:

"Big law firm jobs become this entrancing and intoxicating goal that people gravitate towards without knowing why ... I feel like I will have let myself down if I get anything less than those top jobs."[5]

This groupthink mentality primes students to accept the mundane tasks handed to associates at large law firms and discourages students from pursuing new, innovative applications of their legal training in other less-subscribed fields such as public interest law.  Indeed, surveys reveal that law students are less interested in public sector work even as an ideal career than their undergraduate counterparts.[6]  As a result, fewer qualified candidates are pursuing their passions for social justice in the public sector as the majority of students focus their attention on securing a seat on the exclusive train to biglaw jobs.  In this sense, law school culture has far-reaching effects that impact society as a whole as fewer graduates are willing to take on jobs that produce key public benefits.

Individual schools are in the best position to change law school culture by incentivizing public interest work, re-organizing the curriculum, and integrating project-based learning into the classroom.  Many law schools have established loan forgiveness programs and fellowships for students who pursue public interest work after graduation.  However, the restrictive requirements of these programs and scarcity of fellowships undermine their efficacy.  Law schools need to allocate more funding for these initiatives in order to effectively convince law students to get off the Biglaw track. 

Some law school administrators have proposed re-organizing the first-year curriculum, allowing 1Ls to take classes in legal ethics, economics of the legal profession, and other classes that are typically reserved for second and third year students.[7]  Diversifying first-year course material would allow students to get a better understanding of the legal profession while decreasing the cutthroat competition and exam terror associated with 1L classes.  Furthermore, these classes might afford opportunities for project-based learning, a rarity in current law school curriculum.  While many schools maintain legal clinics that allow students to solve real-world problems in group settings, these opportunities are not sufficiently integrated with existing classes which raises serious questions about the general applicability of course content. 

If arguments of ethics and moral responsibility fall on deaf ears, law schools should at least realize that the current economic structure of the profession - where an increasing number of laborers compete for an ever-decreasing number of jobs - is simply not sustainable in the long-term.  A system that pits students against each other for these scarce jobs instead of helping them develop the skills they need to finds jobs in a variety of sectors exacerbates the seriousness of this problem.  The issue of culture is a pressing one: law schools must initiate reform before its problems transcend institutional borders and adversely impact society as a whole.


[1] Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier, "The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity," Vanderbuilt Law Review, http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/guinier/publications/sturm.pdf.

[2] Anthony Chase, "The Birth of the Modern Law School," The American Journal of Legal History, http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/amhist23&div=23&g_sent=1&collection=journals

[3] Steven Friedland, "A Critical Inquiry Into the Traditional Uses of Law School Evaluation," Pace Law Review, http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/pace23&div=9&g_sent=1&collection=journals

[4] Survey conducted in May 2011 by Stanford University and Stanford Law School students.  Surveys targeted undergraduates interested in law school and current law students. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier, "The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity," Vanderbuilt Law Review, http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/guinier/publications/sturm.pdf.

 

Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.

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