Monday, September 25, 2006

Moneylaw: The Student Edition

or Trying To Game The (Law School) System

Due apologies to Jim Chen for cribbing his idea.

I'm no longer a J.D., and while I very much care about my marks (and they do matter), I feel less "pressure" about them. LLM students are graded on a separate curve here at Liberal College Law, and in general, at this stage, you feel less emotional and psychological pressure about it all--and that is what matters the most. Plus, while I work like crazy on my master's thesis and my independent research article, my courseload is manageable. Even though I have an goodly amount of reading per class (100 pages per week for Federal Courts, 200 pages per week for my "Courts As Engines for Social Change" seminar). But, after all, they are only two courses, and seriously, I remember doing a lot more work when I was taking 4 or even 5 classes in law school during one semester. Plus, work on my thesis and article is less structured work--I have no lecture hours, only unscripted till 3 am in the morning writing hours, and roughly biweekly or monthly personal due dates. Not a bad deal. I dont' sleep much, but it's on my own time and of my own volition.

The biggest draw about academia is not that you work less, but that you work on your own terms, and in general, whenever you want (with allowances for lecture, committees, meetings, office hours of course). Right now I am ill, charmingly consumptive in a Puccini-esque way (think Mimi in La Boheme, cough, le cough) and so I slept most of the day--and am working by night, slightly feverish, but quite alive. If I had to get up tomorrow morning, I'd be quite unhappy. As it is, my classes run only Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday--and the unscripted days in between and after mean all the world to me.

So while I pull in good long days (and weeks) of work, for some reason or another, I feel less pressure than I did as a J.D. There is not as much stress about "outlining" for one thing. I have only one class to outline. Dude, by now I know how to outline, and so I'm not so worried about it--I'm more worried about how well I'll do on the final, which I think J.D.s tend to forget when they do exam prep. You can prep all you want, but you still have to ace the exam. For me, there is a lot more pressure about research and writing, but as an aspiring academic, I feel like I should just suck it up and get used to that. And so I have, and will, and this is why I'm up so late at night/early in the morning.

More importantly, I feel like I'm playing less of a "numbers" game. Every law student tried to game the system, even though the house always wins. Gaming the system doesn't mean cheating, it means trying to be savvy (and those who were privileged enough to know this information going in were ahead of the game). You do the obvious things like look at grade distributions, read course evaluations, ask upperclassmen which professors to take, try to find some of the easier "and the Law" seminars (the permutations of that course title can bewilder). If you have to take mightily curved large bar courses, you find out the best professors to take, who has the best outline you can crib, etc. etc. Notice that in the above equations, considerations about how interesting the courses will be, or how useful in order to obtain a set of legal tools, or how valuable they will be to one's personal development as a lawyer (like say, a community economic development clinic) are noticeably absent. I'm not saying all law students think like this. But a lot, and I mean a lot do. A lot of students take courses not because they are interesting or even useful, but because the grade distribution for this particular seminar looks good (mostly A's, smattering of B's). A lot of students take bar courses they know they can float through because they have "the ultimate outline." This is a really sad way to think of and structure your legal education.

Look how much all of the above depends on some preexisting data set (the course evaluations, the grade distributions) or on social network ties (the upperclassmen to ask for advice, the people who have previously taken the same course to get old outlines from). Look at all the ways in which students try to "game" the system, which arguable rests on pillars of meritocracy and objectivity ("blind" grading, if grading essays can ever be "objective"). If students can figure out what to do to get their GPA higher than others, is law school really a fair system? Aren't those with stronger social network ties rewarded over those who are new to the system, or heaven forbid, socially awkward? Is it right to reward those with better social skills, in the sense that in order to succeed at the legal profession you do need to have them? Then why not weed out the socially awkward ex ante, in an interview process? Why not reduce the number of applicants to those who achieve a certain combined GPA + LSAT index, the way they do for medical school applications (in which if you don't achieve a certain combined index, you are dropped by the computer for consideration at certain schools). Why not combine this presorting with the interview, if we so value the combined package of good test-taker, good student, and socially capable? Well, then law schools couldn't game their rankings with incredibly low acceptance rates/number of applications.

This is cynical, I know. But it is sad to overhear so many conversations from students who do not care about the quality of their education, only their grade. It depresses me. I know that my idealism and romanticism about the study of law (and academia in general) probably explains my own rather "depressed" GPA from law school. Well, whatever, I'm here now, at a better school, and with a supposedly higher grade curve (ironic, isn't it, that the higher ranked the school you go to, supposedly the easier it is to get good or decent grades there). So while I am working hard at my classes and am trying very hard to get good marks (dude, I am an LLM student, and I attend class more regularly and am more prepared than the JD students), I know that the grade isn't everything.

Oftentimes, as I sit in class, I'll take a break from obsessively copying down everything my Federal Courts Prof says to think a bit. "Hmm, with the rise of the administrative state, what has happened to the separation of powers now that administrative agencies perform adjudicatory functions (often with final review), and now that courts tend to act like administrators when they issue court orders and injunctions? Is federalism dead?" I give myself the luxury of abstract ruminations, in the middle of class (and I write them down too, because such thoughts dovetail nicely with the thoughts I have during Courts as Engines for Social Change). I wonder if what I'm doing is going to be "good" for my grade in the end, but I know it's good for my thinking, and learning. I'm trying to think deeply about my courses, and learn from them as much as possible, and then to integrate my thoughts from other courses (and research) so that for the first time in my life, my legal education will be holistic, good, and yes, reflective. I hope I do well, but I am not obsessing about it the way I know my J.D. classmates are. I think I am learning more, in the end.

I know the methods by which students try to game the system. I only wish I had enough disregard for the study of law as an intellectual, academic exercise to use them. Or maybe I don't wish. Well, I wish I had received better marks for the effort I put into my courses back in law school, as a J.D. And I hope I do well as an L.L.M. But mostly, I just hope that I can answer some of these questions I think to myself as I learn the law. And so maybe I'll never learn how to game the system, because I am not much of a player.