Law in Contemporary Society
Before coming to law school, I received two pieces of advice from coworkers about how to "succeed" at Columbia Law School. I found both of these to be really troubling and upsetting. I also think that they demonstrate attitudes that are indicative of some of the problems with the current law school set up and the reasons that people feel the need/desire to pawn their degrees. I figured this would be a good place to discuss them, hear what other people think about them and hear advice that others received before coming to law school.

The first piece of advice that I got was to go into each of my first year classes on the first day with one thing in mind - the exam. All of my work should be geared to "acing" the exam. I should read prior exams/outlines before coming to class to get an idea of what the professor covered on exams (black letter law, policy, etc.) and focus only on learning these things.

This was disturbing for quite a few reasons. First of all, I have always been one of those people who enjoyed school. One of my favorite things about maturing and being able to take "advanced" classes in undergrad was that I had the opportunity to chart my own course - to write my own papers about topics that I found interesting. Spending a semester focusing on memorizing only what was important for a 3 hour exam, and ignoring everything else, seemed terrible to me. Second, this seemed like an awful way to learn. There is no way a three hour exam can cover all the material on a broad subject, like Contracts or Torts and it seems wrong to that I am paying quite a bit of money and devoting three years of my life to learn three hours worth of information per class that I likely won't even remember in a few years. A friend of mine described the first year of law school as like having your brain taken apart and rewired, and this is what I was looking forward to. The idea of spending a semester focusing on an exam seemed like it would prevent this from happening.

The other piece of advice that I received was similar in many respects - my other coworker told me that the hardest part of law school was learning to ignore the things that interested me and instead focusing on the things the professors wanted us to learn for exams. Again, this seemed to go against all of my instincts and everything that I had previously stood for. At the same time, apparently this was the way to be "successful" and get good grades, and as the career counselor told us during the first meeting in October, good grades open doors that will otherwise be shut.

So, these were the two pieces of advice that I got. If this is the advice we are being given, it is easy to see why so few people here end up in jobs that they truly enjoy and that allow them to make a difference. If, every time I come across something interesting, I must ignore it and move on, the chances of me discovering what I want to do are pretty slim. But at the same time, I know that I'm definitely motivated by the fear of not "doing well" and getting good grades and not having any opportunities when I leave - something the career counselors seem to be implying will happen. I think that the only thing worse than being stuck in a job that I hate would be having a lot of law school debt and no job with which to pay it off.

I don't think that grade reform is necessarily the best way to change this situation. We need to change the attitude that people have coming into law school. I understand that there are basic facts and principles that we need to learn, hence the standardized first year curriculum, but I think that Columbia could provide a better environment for people to make informed career choices and to become better lawyers if it found a way to encourage students to truly explore interests instead of suggesting that students should ignore them. Figuring out both a way to do this and to overcome prevailing attitudes about law school (such as those of the people whose advice I've rejected) is the hard part.

Anyway, as stated above, I'd love to hear advice other people got and how they've responded to it, as well as ways to improve law school as a environment where we can figure out what interests us and how to turn it into a career. I think that if the current environment doesn’t change, people will continue to pawn their licenses, and will fight harder than ever before to do so.

-- DavidGoldin - 04 Feb 2010

The second years here have been generally laidback in their advice to me, probably assuming first years already pressure themselves so much they do not need to urge outlining or taking practice exams or taking school too seriously. We should’ve already known that. Might have figured that out from the fact that there are surprisingly few non-resume enhancing activities. We are the only law school without some sort of singing group (even the notoriously stressful University of Chicago has one!), though thank goodness we still have Law Revue. To be fair, law students can always join undergraduate activities. I continue to go to the radio station, and I know of alums of the College who still attend meetings and events hosted by undergraduate favorites. Of course, the point is probably that we should be spending time on the many meaningful activities available to first years: tutoring schoolchildren, writing petitions for victims of domestic violence and the welfare-eligible, immigrant rights, etc.

My mentor emphasized spending time on relationships, perhaps as a way of blocking off that slippery slope leading down to a life of always putting clients’ interests and needs above those of family and friends associated with the stereotypical lawyer – “bad” and “good” lawyers. There are no prizes for how close you are to friends and family; didn’t the professors on the advice panels of orientation urge us to be congenial for the sake of our professional reputations, encourage friendships for their networking and study group benefits?

This was inspiring to me: I am going to assume he was able to train himself to be such an impressive lawyer because he knew his client and was driven by a very specific goal that is more persuasive than good grades for jobs. Law school is like high school in that we have to take foundational classes in order to understand anything else and those tend to be duller than elective courses. And what an odd situation to be in, to be so esteemed because his lawyer failed to persuade the jury or judge or prosecutor to acquit. Were we supposed to realize chance placed us as students here so that we would not take our opportunities for granted? I was not unaware of the fact that what I took to be the way the world in relation to me simply is could have very easily not have been. The concept of my parents’ choices being chance in relation to me is not difficult to grasp and my own choices being chance – yes, it is true.

-- CeciliaWang - 10 Feb 2010

If what it really takes to do extremely well (aka Stone Scholar) at Columbia is to focus one's energies solely on the exams throughout the semester, use other people's outlines, etc...I think we truly have a serious problem. That means that the top-performing students are in some ways the least creative and most risk-averse. If it's true, such honors shouldn't be honors at all.

-- JessicaCohen - 10 Feb 2010

Hey David, I received very similar advices. I think all these advices are geared toward one thing, to get one step ahead of others on the 1L curve. We have very limited time, 14 weeks of classes, and yet we have tremendous amount of work. If you spend more time on what interests you the most, you will likely spend less time on what interests the professor the most. I think the real problem is that we are still adjusting to the “how to think like a lawyer” and this is why these advices are all based on the assumption that we cannot learn what the professor wants to teach us and pursue our own interests at the same time. The bottom line is that the professor writes the exam however he/she likes and grades the exams however he/she likes. I am actually very intrigued by what Professor Moglen said in class on Tuesday, just have no first year grades and give students more time to adjust. This way you don’t have to refrain from spending more time on topics that interest you. However, this will definitely create chaos for the employers during EIP. We just have to face the truth that the purpose of grades is probably more for the convenience of employers than for providing feedbacks to the students. Now transition to what really bothers me about law school is that professors do not have to provide mandatory feedbacks to the students. How are we supposed to improve if we don’t even know what we did wrong? How can we become better lawyers without knowing how to improve?

I also feel that the student loan is not the primary reason that leads people to pawn their licenses. Let’s face it, majority of the people come to law school (especially at Columbia) for one thing only, money. Even if they are loan free, the temptation of making the six figure salary at a law firm is just too persuasive.

-- RyanSong - 04 Feb 2010

The most vivid "advice" I received came from a group of drunken 2L's my first week on campus. EIP was ongoing and they took the presence of a naive 1L as a prime opportunity to vent. The short theme (language cleaned up for posterity) was this: I should spend every waking hour focusing on my core classes, study like hell, ace the exams, and make Stone Scholar. After first semester, I understand a bit more of what they were saying beyond just excelling relative to classmates or being able to pay back debt. Without offers, those 2L's faced yet another semester of hard study trying to get their GPA's up. Part of my motivation to do well is so I'll be able to spend 2L year taking advantage of some of the programs the law school offers besides just classes, rather than trying to ace Securities or Corporations so I can increase my value in the eyes of the firms.

I've also heard of the exam focus strategy and read a lot of material on how to accomplish this, usually centered on taking practice exams and learning how to write an A exam through some combination of Getting to Maybe, reading model answers, LEEWS, etc. Some advocate complete disengagement with the casebooks/in-class material by simply learning the material out of supplements or canned briefs, a strategy that appeals to me as I find myself unable to keep up detailed notes (the sound of fingers on keypads during class sometimes reaches dull roar level). I think a lot of this disengagement results from the way our classes are structured (Socratic method, lecture, diverse topics, no feedback during the semester). Professors have the same teaching methods and style from week one all the way to week 14- some of the material we're learning late in the semester may not even build on anything previously covered. Some professors are trying to tweak this system- I had one professor assign us to summary judgment motions and complaints to draft (which I thought was very helpful), and I've heard other professors do written assignments/midterms, but I haven't seen a concerted effort to try and revamp teaching styles.

-- JonathanWaisnor - 04 Feb 2010

I have heard this advice too and my experience last semester seems to suggest it is accurate. I think another problem not mentioned yet is that if we take the advice and either key in only on what the professor likes to ask about on exams or disengage from the material (as some 2Ls suggest) in order to get better grades, we may be disadvantaging our clients later.

-- RobLaser - 15 Feb 2010

I got very similar advice coming into law school as well, and I agree with what has been said so far. I think what everyone forgot to tell us is that we are disadvantaging ourselves by simply focusing on the exams and the grades. I agree that that is a terrible way to learn. As was mentioned in class, law school is as much about the means and the process of learning as it is about the ends. I am not denigrating how difficult it is to forget about the “end”, the goal of getting a job and security, or finding something you are passionate about. That is very difficult to do in this environment, both because of the actual institution of law school and our own internal fears and anxieties. (see thread) Law school, though, should be on many levels an intellectual experience for ourselves. I think in the end we will learn the material much better, and be able to assist our clients at a higher level, if we are intellectually engaged with it now, rather than viewing it through the lens of our upcoming exam or the newest commercial study guide.

As Professor Moglen pointed out, “You aren’t selling your grades, you are selling your judgment.” Knowing what we do now after our first set of exams, are there things that people are doing differently in learning the material for the second term, or that have changed your attitudes at all towards law school in this short time? Are there ways that people have found to balance what the teacher wants and what they find interesting?

-- SuzanneSciarra - 17 Feb 2010

The advice I got going into law school is the same advice I got going into college and high school before that: the harder you work, the better your grades. Still holds.

-- AerinMiller - 17 Feb 2010

I don't want this to come across as an attack, but I take great issue with your statement, Aerin. At best it's a meaningless tautology and at worst it's a recipe for exactly the type of "fear and anxiety" that plagues us. Grades are not some quantitative indicator of effort expended. In fact, Moglen seems to be the only professor here who claims to base some of the grade on "effort" rather than strictly on end product. True, to a certain extent some people with less than stellar grades could improve those grades by putting in more work, but this is certainly not axiomatically true. As a tautology, if a student isn't trying, then trying will likely increase his grade - so long as other students don't "work harder" and keep him at the same point on the curve. And the curve is where the real danger of this statement comes in. Does the A- student "work harder" than the B+ student? It would be absurd to say yes. I know plenty of students who worked like dogs and got lower grades than students who, relatively speaking, coasted. If a student took this statement to heart, I could only see it leading to self-destruction. At some point, extra study hours have a negative value. Our brains, like our muscles or pretty much anything, can break down if pushed too hard. The B student doesn't just need to "work harder" any more than the man with the underwater mortgage needed to "be smarter".

-- StephenSevero - 18 Feb 2010

It’s interesting, Aerin, because the advice that I got coming into law school (from my parents and friends – definitely not from most law students) is the flip side of the advice you received: If you know you’ve worked hard, the grade doesn’t matter. This advice presupposes that there will probably be a time when I have worked my hardest and still did not receive a “good” grade. This is supposed to be okay, and to me, it is.

I find that the older I get the less I take a bad grade personally. In a way this is odd since my enthusiasm for school actually has only increased over the years. I think that my changing attitudes are due in part to the fact that I realize and accept that the playing field is leveling as I move up the ranks of school. I went to a large public high school where there was every combination of work ethic and so-called intelligence. Call it snobbery, but back in those days I worked semi-hard and expected to get a good grade because, well, that’s just the way things were. In college, many of my classmates had been just like myself in high school. I worked harder and felt a bit less entitled to an “A.” And now in law school, I feel the least entitled to a good grade as I ever have. One may ask that if I hold this attitude, why work hard at all? I think that like most law students, I enjoy school and I do enjoy working hard and pushing myself. That is why many of us have gotten to this point. And, of course, if working hard can earn me a good grade I will take that chance with no complaints. It certainly won’t hurt me.

What I had been told before coming here – essentially that I could work hard all I wanted but was guaranteed nothing – seems to place me in some kind of scary frantic crapshoot. When I think about it, though, it is actually so liberating. Obviously, there will always be people who are just “smart” (in the sense that they do well in school), but honestly, that is just a part of life. There is always a higher playing field, a bigger pie, a greater goal that correlates to whatever values you set for yourself. In the end, as Professor Moglen said, we are luckier than most of the people in the world. In the grander scheme of things, we are lucky to have this chance even if right now it just seems like a chance to worry more.

-- JiadaiLin - 19 Feb 2010

Jiadai, I like what you wrote here. One thing I (and I'm sure many other students) was told to do before coming to law school was to watch the film The Paper Chase. The movie, although fun, has been completely unreflective of my law school experience. (In retrospect, I realize that the people who told me to watch the film had never been to law school themselves, which may be why they mistook Hollywood for reality.) Nevertheless, one moment I could relate to even before attending law school was the scene at the movie's conclusion (spoiler alert!) when the main character, who has nearly worked himself to death through his 1L year, receives his grades and throws the unopened envelope into the ocean. There is a deep sense of achievement that one feels simply from having truly worked hard and done one's best, and that satisfaction means more than the grade.

-- SamHershey - 19 Feb 2010


I enjoyed reading your comments and agree with much of what you have to say. With all the talk of grades, summer jobs, exams, and all that other stuff, I often find myself unable to take a step back and realize how lucky I am. One of the reasons that I started this discussion was that I strongly felt that the advice I had been given came from people who made it through law school without grasping this. They spent three years trapped in a bubble and as a result didn't take advantage of the incredible chance that they got, largely by luck. Being able to take a step back, accept the fact that we won't always be the very best at what we do, but to nonetheless strive to take as much as possible from what we've been given is admirable and important. Thank you for the response!


In an abstract sense, I definitely think that hard work is important and correlated with success. Telling someone to work hard is very good advice in the vast majority of circumstances. Working hard enables us to fully take advantage of the opportunities afforded us. That said, I take issue with your statement. I don't think that hard work necessarily leads to good grades - especially at the high school level, but also at the college level and the law school level. It may be necessary, but definitely isn’t sufficient.

Most people would argue that they are here because they worked hard. They took "honors" classes in high school to get into college. They spent extra time in the library during college while their friends were out having fun. Most people have worked hard. But hard work is only a part of what leads to success. One's background is probably a much more important indicator of success. Below is a survey - I'd love to know how many people in the class have a parent who is either a doctor (MD) or a lawyer:

I have a parent who is a doctor
leftbarmainbarrightbar No 0% (3)
leftbarmainbarrightbar Yes 0% (1)

I have a parent who is a lawyer
leftbarmainbarrightbar No 0% (4)

I suspect that a large number of people in the class will answer Yes to at least one of these questions. This is just a rough measure, but a lot of people come from very privileged backgrounds and this must be taken into account. There are hundreds and hundreds of people in New York alone who have worked harder than we ever have, who aren't here, and who could work 100 times harder than we do and still wouldn't get our grades. Many are smarter than us. A large portion of our student body grew up in houses where they were exposed to superior learning experiences very young and had parents who went out of their way to educate them.

Someone who grew up in a non-English speaking house, who went to a failing elementary school and a junior high school that was even worse is at an inherent disadvantage. Even if they work incredibly hard, there is a good chance that they will get lower grades than the kid who grew up in an English speaking home in a nice neighborhood whose father is a doctor who cares about education very much. I am not arguing that our capacity to succeed, or to earn good grades (which is a completely different thing), is completely dependent on our backgrounds. That said, I don't think that "work hard" and "get good grades" are necessarily correlated for all people. It is important to take a step back and look at all the factors that got us to where we are and take them into account as they should be.

Overall, however, you do make a good point – working hard is a good factor. I appreciate your comments on the thread!

-- DavidGoldin - 21 Feb 2010

This is a very interesting thread and I have enjoyed reading your original post, David, as well as the comments. Like virtually everyone who has posted on this thread, I received precisely the same advice. I initially found the prospect of grades as an indicator of anything that truly mattered about me absolutely absurd. After all, I think I’m a pretty interesting person with good judgment. Why on earth should my potential worth to an employer turn on something so arbitrary? This is all the more ironic given my background. I went to a predominantly Black high school in Louisville, KY, the alma mater of “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali. I graduated first in my class, expending only a fraction of the effort that academic “success” in college and law school demands. Back then, my ever-wise mother’s advice was: “You must demonstrate your intelligence in your interactions with people. Most people don’t know and, in fact, don’t care what grades are on your transcript.” This conventional wisdom is turned on its head in the law school setting. It is easy to bash law firms as being grade and “prestige whores”, but the phenomenon of grades as a gatekeeper, or proxy for intelligence and work ethic, applies to many public interest organizations with equal force.

There are a few among us who, for various reasons (scholarships, trust funds, etc.), are not making a financial sacrifice by being here. For others, like me, law school and, specifically, Columbia Law School, was a calculated investment. After all, if I did not believe in the power of the return afforded by the Columbia brand, I could have attended my local law school for free. Given that in the present system – for better or worse – grades are our currency, it would be counterintuitive to not fight to the death to maximize the return on this enormous investment. Many of us want to be world changers and, at the very least, a positive force in our communities. If you’re like me, and probably can’t sneak into your desired destination through a side window (i.e. you don’t have “friends in high places”), you’re left playing the game by the present rules.

But, all is not lost. In many institutions and systems that have eventually been dismantled, there was someone who mastered the rules, out-smarted the game, and ended up wielding the power. In this sense, forward-thinking and reform-minded people – not unlike those who advocate grade reform at CLS – have value in every domain.

-- JenniferGreen - 24 Feb 2010



Webs Webs

r15 - 17 Apr 2010 - 14:44:42 - NonaFarahnik
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM