Friday, September 28, 2007

And now for a random though on law school.

This might be a sacrilegious statement amongst my peers, but, the law doctorate, of all the doctorate degrees, is they easiest one to get.

When I think about my graduate schooling compared to what it takes to get a PhD or an MD, I am a little ashamed of that we get a doctorate too. We don’t have the research projects or advanced theses to pen, no, the heart of our education is simply reading and talking about what we’ve read. Sure, we have a testing period twice a year and there are memos and briefs to learn how to write and it you are a research assistant or member of law review you have to churn out a volume or two, but, compared with the rigors of anatomy or trying to isolate the DNA of microphages, this law stuff is cake.

It is, however, the most stressful of the doctorate degrees to get. The source of the stress is one simple item – competition. Every year law school admits thousands more students that the profession could possible need. This means that if you don’t come out of law school on top it will be a long hard slog to climb the ranks of the profession. For example, take the pay difference between recent graduates. A person graduating in the top 10% in Seattle could expect to earn 115-120K to start if they choose a big firm, the next 20-30% will probably take jobs at middle sized firm for 65-85K, this is could be a 55K difference for people with the very similar academic profiles. If you are in the bottom quartile it can sometimes take months, if ever, to find a foothold in the legal profession. Add on top to this the cost of going to law school and you can imagine the grade hungry feeding frenzy atmosphere at exam time.

Of course, it is possible to succeed without good grades. Every once and a while you will here of someone who graduated at the bottom of their class or from some 4th tier rinky-dink law school and went on to be one of the country’s best litigator’s, but I’m pretty sure this is just a local wives-tale cocked up by the administration to keep the bottom quartile enrolled and paying their tuition.

Even without the costs and the competition the very structure of law school instruction is stress inducing. The core of a legal education is reading cases and struggling to comprehend the rational and reason behind the court's decisions. In order to ensure that this largely solo activity, sitting at a desk pouring over pages and pages of legalese each day, is accomplished, law school is taught in the Socratic method. Although this method takes various form, it basically consists of an interchange between a student and the teacher with the teacher grilling the student about the material and their understanding of it. This exchange can some be between one student and the professor for the entire class period with the rest of the class simply listening and taking notes. Or it can be between the teacher and several student or, on the rare occasion, it may just be the professor having a conversation with themselves. Research has shown the Socratic method is an ineffective method for actual instruction for the majority of the students. But, instruction really isn’t the point of the Socratic method. Instruction in law school is the self taught kind, the Socratic method, instead, is designed to ensure you've read by introducing the possibility that you will have to prove your comprehension in front of the class at random times and to prepare you for the future verbal encounters you will have in practice. Therefore, the law school classroom’s primary purpose is not to serve as a setting for instruction, but rather, a stage for future performance.

A second source of stress in law school is the way we are evaluated. We have one instance, generally, for each class to prove ourselves. We have one test to earn a grade. So, if you have a bad day come test day all the time spent in class, all the reading, all the struggling with concepts could be for naught as there are no second chances. You can’t try again, there are no opportunities for redemption. On top of this, we have grading curves. Unlike a science subject, there are no right answers. There are wrong answer of course, there are misstatement of the law or complete misunderstandings, but there is not absolute right answers. There are popular right answers, there are right answers the professors tend to favor, there are right answers with or without justification, and there are even right answers that no one agrees with. Therefore, in grading, the law professors have to take all these answers that are right in their own way, as they represent knowledge of the law and might persuade a court, and choose the best ones. To do this, almost every law school imposes a stringent curve that the teachers must sort into. So, the difference between an A or a B is based not only upon how much you know but also, to some extent, upon the ability of your peers. This is a factor that can’t be controlled (unless you try to sabotage your classmates, which is known to happen from time to time, but that is another post).

So, is law school hard? No, understanding the properties of the Type B Histone Acetyltransferase Hat1: h4 tail interaction, site preference, and involvement in DNA repair is hard, understanding Chief Justice Marshall’s logic in the federal bank case is not. Is Law school stressful? Yes, realizing that if you don’t get a grade better then the kid sitting next to you that you won’t be able to pay off your student loans it enough to make your heart start beating and for you mind to question your every decision in life. I write this so that the next time a kid sits down next to me and starts complaining about how hard law school I’ll be able to explain to them that what they are feeling is an apprehension of stress, not difficulty.

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Sam said...
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