Monday, August 14, 2006

The Second Time Around, The Coffee Tastes Better

This is seriously what pops up when you Google Image "law school":

Law school is so much better the second time around. You're less freaked out. No matter how old you are or how mature you are or what you've lived through, going to law school the first time is terrifying. I have known OWLs (usually at every school there is a chapter of Older, Wiser Law Students), former military people, and people with Ph.Ds freak out over during first year finals, memos, and moot court. It's just a different way of thinking and doing things, and nothing really compares. The shock of the new humbles even the fearless.

There is no comparison for how different law school is to any way of learning you had previously. From what I hear from my grad school friends, the small cohorts of grad schools can kind of compare to the fishbowl of the law school social scene, but nothing can approach the sheer junior-high schoolness of the lockers, the candy grams, and the law school prom (otherwise known as the Barrister's Ball). Qualifying exams sound horrible--but there is something about the first year memo that induces fear and loathing. On the one hand, you're being asked to produce something you would actually submit to a court--a legal brief. So you take it very seriously, particularly since it determines your grade (and much like in court, the outcome of the case). On the other hand, you're just "pretending" at this point to be a lawyer, writing on the same subject as the entire first year class. So that's really annoying too, and too much like being in Model United Nations or Junior Statesmen. You're writing something that doesn't much matter, but is just to test the skills of rhetoric and form.

Law school is much more about peformance than graduate school. Preliminary exams and qualifying exams are tests of knowledge--grueling tests, but they do serve a significant purpose. But what do the fake brief and the fake jury trial test other than some rhetorical and performative lawyer skills? You not only learn the law in law school, you have to learn how to think "like a lawyer," how to write "like a lawyer," and how to talk "like a lawyer." I suppose grad school teaches you how to teach--it puts you in front of a discussion section or a lower division class and makes you lecture and assemble syllabi. But you are not doing something "like" a teacher--you are teaching, and thus being a teacher. There is a difference between simulation and realization--in one, you want to approach verisimilitude, in the other, the reality is an a priori state of being--you just want to make it a good one.

I haven't been through much yet--just one orientation--but it feels different. Unfortunately, I lost the bet with myself and turned out to be completely wrong about what would be said. Okay, so they did say that the school, faculty, and student body were great, and that we were very special, and to not study all the time (although curiously, the advice "sleep less" was given too). But other than that, there was very little uplifting rhetoric. The advice was very pointed (make sure you stick to your draft schedule) and pragmatic (don't take too many classes). 3 hours of "go to this office for this" and "law school exams are not like the ones in Europe" later, I felt kind of good about it all. Things weren't talked up, which meant that we were not being talked down to. Everything was very useful and administrative, as if they knew that at this point in our legal education, we don't need much of the rhetoric anymore. Maybe we needed it the first time, to reassure us about our choice (many law students go to law school because they can't figure out anything else to do). Maybe we needed it because we need moments of uplifting treacle in what can be a dreary reality. But if you're serious enough about the study of law to pursue a graduate law degree--well, you don't need convincing anymore. And you've proven that you like the study or practice of law enough to go back for more training or to spend a lifetime teaching it--and so you don't need the oratory. You do, however, need to know where the reference desk at the library is.

I have quite a few more orientations this week, but it beats what the international students have to do--learn about the United States legal system (from the three branches of government to the adversary system to the common law to the casebook method) in one week. It's just a basic introduction designed to prove "Americans do things different." I used to love comparative constitutional law, until I started getting weirded out by how different we are from the entire world and how every other country thinks our way is not only confounding, but stupid, thus making me seriously doubt my American conviction that We're The Best.

But I am surprised to learn that after this week, there will be no more hand-holding. This LLM program is surprisingly more independent and self-directed. There is no mandatory workshop seminar for all LLM students, or even just the research-track ones. This is both good and bad. It would be nice if greater attention was paid to graduate law students to form a core curricula of jurisprudence, methods, and writing workshops. On the other hand, I like the freedom. But despite my prior polemic against paternalism, I think that law schools would do well to stop treating law students like children in some ways and pay attention to their adult educational needs in other ways. The AALS and the state bars have many requirements about courses and curricula, so why not the legal academy? It seems strange that I should say this, because it would directly impact my freedom to choose my courses and path of education. It also seems like a crazily doctrinal, rigid, and hegemonical way of structuring legal study. But I think it is clear now that I'm not the crazy wackjob leftist I used to be. There is the youthful proclivity to be categorically anti-canon in the first blush of political consciousness. Well, I got over that around the age of 21. I still get mad if I'm only taught the santized version of the law (you know, Con Law without the Civil Rights Cases or Bowers and Lawrence, or without discussing how racial prejudice infected law, or Property law without Johnson v. Macintosh). But I'd get just as mad if a law school never offered a class in Jurisprudence (which you rarely see actually) or Conflict of Laws (okay, they usually offer that one). It is strange being young, a former deconsructionist and sometimes critical pedagogist/theorist, and be asking for more structure and canon. But it just galls me the divorce between idiotic paternalism (banning laptops and wireless?!) and a hypocritical pedagogical superiority complex (if you truly do not want to view students as "consumers," then be serious about "teaching things that are worth learning").

I suppose I would be even more bothered about this if I were a 1L again and locked into some kind of module, but I would be so frightened I wouldn't say anything about it. But at least, this second time around, while I am still bothered by the same things I was bothered by four years ago, I am at least happy that I'm in a position to do something about it. I know more. I am a little more savvy. I have more time (sort of). I frequently google for syllabi on topics of law I would like to learn more about but did not have the chance to, and it takes me to new worlds. I read Legal Theory Blog with devotion. I don't eat out for a week or two so that I can build up my legal/political theory library. I am thinking of auditing a graduate methods course this year, but for now am (believe it or not) doing sets and problems out of a statistics course book. Not so that I can do Empirical Legal Studies later (well, never say never if I actually get some serious training), but so that I can understand ELS now. I am going to inquire whether faculty colloquia are open to students at Liberal College Law, as they were at Bourgie Law School--if so, I will do what I did then and sit on a discussion of Joseph Raz's theories (and eat really good free cookies). I don't know if it was because I was lazy or just stupid, but I wasn't proactive enough about correcting my ignorance the first time around. Actually, it was probably more a function of time, or at least the perception of time. Nowadays I realize there's always an hour of the day I spend slacking that I could otherwise spend at an interesting colloquia, and that there are just some things you should make an effort to know.

Remember the story I told of a friend criticizing a John Singer Sargent exhibit for being "too Eurocentric" and how such a statement is not only 1) obvious and non-revelatory, 2) pointless and useless, but 3) completely ridiculous and stupid? Well, I fear falling into that trap all the time. I don't want to continue with my critiques of white hegemonic, heteronormist or paternalistic pedagogy without really understanding the intellectual tradition. Heck, I can't be a Critical Race Theorist who has never read more theory than the literature in my sub-field. I don't want to start my heavily doctrinal master's thesis without well, understanding the doctrine. I didn't get enough of the doctrine by studying the reaction to doctrine as being white hegemonic, heteronormist, or paternalist. I learned the reaction before I learned the canon (well, I did read H.L.A. Hart, Lon Fuller, Dworkin and (some) Rawls before law school, but I read the reaction to Herbert Weschler's Neutral Principles of Law before I ever read the Weschler piece). It just doesn't make sense to me, this type of path of learning. If, as an English major (and love of literature) I read the Western canon before I read post-colonial literature (e.g., Jane Eyre before Wide Sargasso Sea), then how is it I am undertaking my first major doctrinal analysis after several deconsructionist projects? I am not submitting any of those projects for publication, by the way. But I will probably submit my thesis. Even my current "side" project (the article on employment discrimination law that's quite hip and interdisciplinary) is an examination within the current doctrinal framework (it criticizes it, but it doesn't pretend that it doesn't exist or argue that the entire framework of burden of proof/rebuttal should be abandoned). I don't think it's so much that I'm becoming (gasp!) more conservative as it is I'm just being more honest and outspoken about the illogicisms inherent in both rigidly conservative pedagogy and radically reactive pedagogy. I don't like the limited nature of either, and I'm certainly prepared to craft my own path of learning in the absence of good direction by the academic institution.

I don't think I had this confidence, proactiveness, and determination when I was 21 (yes, 21) and in my first year of law school. I don't think I would have done anything about it even if I had such qualities. Things are just better the second time around. Even if I am disoriented and feeling lost in a new physical environment, I'm pretty certain about my intellectual path. Okay, so maybe not how my thesis will actually shape out to be, how well I'll do in my classes, and whether I'll get into the JSD program---but in terms of what I'll be doing day in, day out? Yeah, I think I got it figured out by now. You know, I'll be reading and writing. I'll set up a work schedule to allocate my time between writing projects and classes. I'll set up a draft schedule for my thesis. I'll set some deadlines for independent projects. I'll try to fit in what extra reading/intellectual breadth-seeking that I can. And some fun too, of course. And I'll do what I didn't in law school, and make sure I eat and exercise well. What's the difference between now and four years ago? Four years ago, I thought it all couldn't be done. Four years later, I know that the thesis, the papers, and the classes are the most important--but there is room enough to fit in a little of everything else. Four years ago, I actually ate energy bars for one or two "meals" a day. Four years ago, I would miss out on Savion Glover coming to town. Four years ago, I would never have been so bold as to invite myself to some faculty roundtable discussion (by the way, sometimes they let you in on those too, and that's when they have sandwiches). This time around, it's better.

I have to admit though, I am sleeping less. Between cooking, cleaning, spending time with joie de vivring Europeans ( a late (they always eat late) dinner on Friday night, brunch this morning, dinner this evening), working on my paper, and going for hour walks, the Dean is right--you sleep less, and it's not such a bad thing sometimes.

I am certainly living more, this second time around. Lots of late nights and early mornings, lots of work and lots of play. I'm a bit tired, and drinking coffee again for the first time in a year (if you have met me or received a letter from me, you know that I don't generally need it). But it's a good cup of coffee. Not the kind you drink at finals to cram. But the kind you drink in large ceramic bowls with thick caps of foam to perk yourself up because you are writing late into the night and early in the morning so that you can share a meal (omelettes au fromage; orange-cardamom brioche french toast with lavender honey) and a many-accented conversation with new friends in a new city.

That's the difference between the first time around and the second--the coffee tastes better, because you allow yourself to enjoy it more.