Law in Contemporary Society
Based on my question in class today regarding the applicability of Arnold's analysis of organizations to our experience in law school and Eben's subsequent answer that law school is likely no different from other organizations in society in that it coheres because of shared creeds and ceremonies, I thought it might be interesting if we as a group collaboratively brought to light some practices and ideas where we think we see the Columbia Law School creed manifest. If a business organization's creed is "rational business judgment" then what is ours? I think such a discussion is valuable because one of our (or maybe not, but my) goals in law school is to do some creative thinking while I am here, and awareness of the way our law school sustains itself might enable more creative thinking then if we engage the law school institution as if it was a "person" to which we can rationally appeal. So what does everyone think? What is our creed? What are some of our ceremonies? And how do they inform who we become as law students and how we go about practicing law in the future?

Arnold makes the argument that organizations take on personalities, the content of which depends both on accident and environment. The accidental features of CLS's personality will depend mostly on the personality of those who first assume control, after which the personality is very difficult to change because the same type of person succeeds prior leaders. In what ways do people find themselves influenced by the personalities of their professors either through personal interaction with them or through the way/style/bent in which they introduce legal concepts in class? One of the ways I see this happening is when professors cut off certain lines of analysis in classroom discussions. In my contracts class, in a dialogue between a student and the professor, the student articulated argument for why courts should compensate defendants for breach of contract on fairness grounds, to which the professor responded that it in his class, "fairness" is a "bad word" and that we should not use it when we construct arguments. He also interestingly noted that this was a rule that his contracts professor enforced when he went to law school. This seems to highlight Arnold's point that personalities, once entrenched, are difficult to remove because the individuals in power are succeeded by people with like personalities.

Another example is the way that law school rewards certain modes of analysis over others when we take exams. In the small sample of people I have talked to about what grades they received first semester and what approaches people took in writing their exams, it seems like there is a correlation between good grades and sheer volume of writing in exam answers. Does this suggest a reward system that engenders a practice of maximizing breadth of analysis over depth, a practice that continues to be rewarded upon our graduation by law firms that champion volume of billable hours over quality of work? Perhaps this undermines opposition to the dominant ideals in law school since superficial analysis lends itself more towards mere regurgitation then qualitatively superior analysis that goes beyond what has already been said. That is, it is almost axiomatically true that if law school exams are graded by an accumulation of "checks," then depth of analysis loses out and conformity wins the day.

In any case I hope that everyone contributes to the discussion because I think it will be beneficial for everyone to see how other people have seen law school as an organization draws its boundaries and excludes contradictory ideals to sustain itself. Certainly it might alleviate the grip that law school as a hostile occupier has on us as the occupied. Perhaps people might start by thinking about our ceremonies since my analysis focuses primarily on ways of thinking. For example, what do people think about Harry's point about pizza lunches? Apologies for any spelling/grammar errors I wanted to put this up while it was still fresh in my head.

P.S. Maybe people could pick different font colors or sign what they write so we can keep track of who is saying what.

-- PrashantRai - 21 Feb 2012

I think the case method has to stand out as a ritual in law school with no "rational" purpose per se. It's based, it seems to me, on the idea that the best way to learn law is imputing logical principles from judicial decisions. Most of us (and most professors, I think) know that cases, especially when our treatment of them is confined to a heavily edited appellate decisions, are a really clumsy way of figuring out how courts are going to act. But cases tend to be the lens through which view the vast majority of law, at least in the first year. This is particularly frustrating, I think, in an area like Constitutional Law. We'll spend a lot of time combing through the logic of New Deal economic power cases, desperately trying to create logical standards which make as many cases fit as possible. At the same time, we know that the political composition of the Supreme Court has way more to do the outcome of these cases than the logical veneer of their official decisions. And yet we're going to spend hours discussing cases for, literally, every second spend talking about, say, the nomination process.

The deeper question, obviously, is what sort of creed does such an anachronistic pedagogical method serve? Can't say I've figured that one out yet. But I think it has to do with lawyers still liking to pretend that we are scientists of a coherent logical body.

-- JoshuaDivine 21 Feb 2012

Columbia's creed (and that of all law schools) is "Thinking Like a Lawyer." Since Admitted Students' Day, law schools tell you that they're going to "teach you how to think like a lawyer." It serves the purpose of a) making you feel like you're getting something out of this institution that you couldn't get elsewhere while b) excluding the rest of the world from this "way of thinking." They treat "thinking like a lawyer" like this higher mode of thinking, one that inherently adds credence to your arguments and gives credibility to you as a Person of Reason (or, to put it differently, a Thinking Man). It allows you to look down on those who didn't go to law school, those who didn't learn what WE learned while they were getting their MBA or Education Masters or Political Science phd or (god forbid) no graduate degree at all. We'll quite likely succumb to the same line of thinking sooner or later, if we haven't already (and, to be honest, I for one probably have). This is in part because we will enter a profession where we are glorified service employees, advisors to the far-more-talented, leeches attaching ourselves to those who actually have the ability to create and produce, and we will need to justify our worth, tell ourselves that there's a reason why those actually contributing to society NEED us. It's because We Think Like Lawyers and they don't. And that's why it's okay that we just spent $200K on our educations.

I do see much of what animates Arnold's dissection of the organizational organism in law schools, their creeds and their ceremonies. From my limited experience, I do think law schools are generally backwards institutions stuck in the past whose emphasis on the ability to Think Like a Lawyer works to maintain the institution in two ways: First, it justifies the expense of law school, allowing them to sell us on a skill that we supposedly can't get anywhere else. But more importantly, it allows them to absolve themselves of guilt for not devoting the time and resources to mold us into well-rounded, thoughtful, humane lawyers and instead allowing us to leave after three years equipped with only two things we didn't have when we arrived here: That Columbia JD marked on our resume and that ability to TLAL. I'm only sure that one of those two things is actually useful.

To be perfectly frank, I said "in part" (and bolded it) in that first paragraph because I think much of what I said in the preceding two paragraphs is true, but I also think it's quite a bit of hyperbole. To my mind, there might actually seem to something to this whole Thinking Like a Lawyer bit aside from all of the institutional legwork that it carries: A real ability to think logically and critically, an ability to ferret out and dissect arguments, an ability to see in the details what others don't see. I agree with Josh that if you want to learn about how law is actually made, we should be spending far more time on the sociological/political/economic/etc. aspects of law (such as the confirmation process), but I don't actually think the purpose of law school is to learn how law is actually made. For that, a sociology/political science/economics degree is far more useful. Our training is in thinking, and going through cases and their reasoning teaches us far more about that than learning about the confirmation process ever will.

Or maybe I'm just drinking the Kool-Aid and buying into the creed because it makes me feel better. Who knows.

(ps Josh, if you put your signature and timestamp at the bottom of your entry, it'll separate the entries better and make it easier to read.)

-- JaredMiller - 22 Feb 2012

To me, Columbia's creed is that "law school is a competition." I already talked about it in this thread, so I won't repeat too much of it here. But I think this creed validates to your observation, Prashant, about the grading system and exams. Because we don't know any better, our main objective in the exam room is to vomit as much as we know -- names of cases discussed (and throwing in some not even discussed), judges, theories, some random point we think the professor really wants to hear -- into the small window of 3/4 hours. And we just don't see it in exams, right. Everything from getting an interview slot on OCI to getting the right housing to getting the right elective to getting on journals, it's all a competition. This creed is totally counterproductive to our professional development as lawyers and our personal capacities to even be remotely relatable to normal human beings. I'm really trying to be conscious of it as much as possible because it's easy to let something like competition define who we are.

-- LizzieGomez - 22 Feb 2012

Combining points made by Josh re: conlaw and by Jared re: Thinking Like a Lawyer, led me to this seemingly glaring dichotomy: The very schools that constantly assign us cases revering a constitution made “by the people” are the same institutions which brag that no common person could understand the law and think critically about it without a law degree. What the fuck kind of sense does this make?? If you have to study the law/have a degree in the law order to understand and be able to use the law, how is the average person – who the law is ostensibly made for– supposed to be protected by the law and use the law to his/her advantage?

I think a big ceremony in law school is reductionism – to the point of destruction. We are constantly trying to condense and reduce material into manageable little chunks we can use and immediately expel from our brains. We create outlines reducing months of books, thoughts, and classroom discussions into 35 pages or less. We reduce these outlines to attack outlines. Before going into interviews we Vault a firm or google an organization in order to formulate and list 3+ reasons why we want to work at that organization specifically.

In class Professor Moglen said “reductionism is the method by which things become simple enough for us to deal with them.” But in no other graduate school does such a culture of “outlining” exist. Is this because the law can never be simple enough for us to be able to deal with coherently? Or is the law itself simple enough (use time to your advantage, know the psychology and relationships of those in power, a la Robinson) and law school is just trying to mask this fact?

And why do we ignore the products of our reductionism in law school? We throw away outlines, regardless of the grade. After an interview we forget about our listed reasons for wanting a job, regardless of whether we get it. Why work so hard to condense and reduce and understand, only to toss the finished product at the end, with no deeper level of understanding? Is it because law school itself is a worthless, pointless exercise, but after three years of learning, cramming, and reducing only to immediately forget the material, we learn not to care about conducting pointless exercises? Or perhaps it's not a pointless exercise. It's an exercise in learning how to enter an institution/profession where we are not supposed to care that cases will be decided by means outside our intellectual achievements, and the power of our arguments.

-- SkylarPolansky - 22 Feb 2012


I totally agree about Con Law. I actually wrote a little bit about exactly the point you make here.


Your point about CLS' creed being "Think Like a Lawyer" is spot on. One place I see this manifest in particular is during interviews for jobs. The goal of a 1L interviewee is to convey to the interviewer that she can "Think Like a Lawyer," either through her grades, her writing sample, or the way she talks about her ideas and experiences during the interview itself.

I take your point about the law being a service industry, but I'm not sure that I buy into your connotation. First of all I'm not sure what's so bad about being in the service industry as you seem to suggest. Defending an innocent on death row is is pretty straightforwardly "service," but I'm not sure I see why one would shy away from the term in that context. But I get that that is not really where you're going with your point. In certain fields there is a sense in which the lawyers are on the sidelines, e.g. a real estate lawyer submitting the documentation for the building and getting the permits and facilitating the transactions between the owner and the contractors but not actually participating in the design or the construction of the building, but my experience in talking to some lawyers is that as you become a more senior member of your organization and you develop relationships with clients you cease to just be the "lawyer" and start to be viewed as just "another person in the room" making the deal. Perhaps there is a bit of rationalization of one's own import involved in that claim, but I don't think it's too far fetched. Additionally I think that in any deal the bankers talk down to the lawyers and the lawyers talk down to the bankers and everyone talks down to the accountants (only joking), but this is more just a symptom of a healthy rivalry more than it is objective fact.


I think one implication of the competitive aspect of law school is that law students more readily swallow whatever slant on ideas is given to them because there is a competitive incentive to do so. It's almost as if people don't criticize ideas put in front of them as much when they know that the short term value of the idea steams from one's ability to use the idea to one's advantage come exam time rather then from engaging the idea on its merits. It makes me wonder whether the competitive aspect of law school is set up for this exact purpose - that is, to put a carrot on a stick to make it easier to lead us in a particular direction. I think both my point about the school rewarding volume over depth and your point about the school emphasizing competition both are reasons why the way law school is set up might actually be counterproductive to it's creed of "Thinking Like a Lawyer." That is of course, if thinking like a lawyer means thinking critically, though maybe I'm misguided and "Thinking Like a Lawyer" really means "believing in what we want you to believe in."


I see reductionism everywhere in law school. I remember when my study group prepared for our Property exam in the fall, we knew there was going to be a policy question. So what we did was create a list of short paragraph summaries of arguments made in the policy papers we read throughout the semester that we could regurgitate on the exam. To think, a professor spends who knows how many hours thinking about the nuanced contours of his argument prior to publishing the paper only to see her argument reduced to three sentences for use in conjunction with ten other similar reduced paragraphs to score an A on an exam.

Overall, I think we should all be very cautious (as Lizzie says) about all of these trends. The risk we run I think is best articulated by Arnold himself,

"Organizations which are personified in the mind of the public have the effect of making their members unconsciously submerge their own personalities and adopt the personality of the organization while they are acting as a part of it."

-- PrashantRai - 23 Feb 2012

This is a really interesting thread. As a 3L in my final spring here, I have found myself reflecting on how this place has affected me, and what this place "is" culturally or institutionally. I'm not sure. There seem to me to be a lot of little clusters within CLS, such as the environmentally-minded cluster I have participated in. What all these clusters add up to together, I'm not sure. An image that comes to mind is the "scramble suit" from the film "A Scanner Darkly," a suit which displays a constantly changing mix of images of different people. But I also have the intuition that there are deep structural traits at CLS that do mark most students at least to some degree. I think competitiveness is part of it, also positive dispositions towards authority figures and hierarchical social relations, suspicion of the possibilities of cooperation, and probably more stuff too. I think maybe one way to put it is that one basic, underlying 'creed' at CLS is the valorization of centralized authority.

-- DevinMcDougall - 23 Feb 2012

I believe Wylie's (Wylie is the corporate lawyer from today's piece from Lawyerland - "Something Split") description of working on a case is an apt description of this process of pointless reductionism - "That painful kind of fastidiousness, attentiveness. Details. How many details? 27 years - trillions of details! You ask me a month from now what the deal I've just done was about - I won't be able to tell you." Wylie can spout off the title or potential income of fellow lawyers, but confesses that he would not be able to remember the details of a deal he dedicated a ton of brain power and time to. He has been trained to care about the end, and not the means. As Professor Moglen said in class today "He uses his brain as a tool and gets little satisfaction out of it." Is this practice in reductionism to the point of destruction a method of training us to use our brains as tools and ignore what that does to our brains in the meantime; to care about the ends instead of the means?

-- SkylarPolansky - 23 Feb 2012

I think this comparison is useful because it encompasses many of the themes of this class and gives us a single framework under which to analyze them. To start with, one of the first things Arnold says is that a principle of human organization is "that when new types of social organization are required, respectable, well-thought-of, and conservative people are unable to take part of them." For me, this pretty much sums up the subconscious assimilation encouraged by attending Columbia. I once told someone I thought in all honesty that it would easier to succeed in pursuing a career in public interest at Columbia because there would be less competition, and a public-service minded student would thus stand out more. Little did I understand the strength of the "moral and economic prejudices," the "desire for the approval of other members of the group." And indeed, while I would love to claim that I do not need nor wish to have the approval of others, I can't say that I don't derive any satisfaction from feeling that I have succeeded according to an unsubstantiated rubric prescribed by our administration and subscribed to by myself and my fellow students. I am not introducing a novel concept here, but perhaps drawing this parallel can at least provide an additional perspective from which to consider the conformity our school promotes.

The parallel for me, however, was weakened upon reading Arnold's second element shared by all social organizations: "A set of attitudes which makes the creed effective by giving the individual prestige, or at least security, when he subordinates what are ordinarily called 'selfish interests' to those of the group." While the first half of this statement probably rings true for most of us in that assimilation in this environment begets prestige, I think it is interesting that what we are asked to subordinate is not our 'selfish interests;' if anything, we are encouraged to seek prestige and fortune, two inherently ungenerous goals. I suppose that this is, if anything, a glimmer of hope in that a revolution in this sphere would therefore be able to rely on moral, selfless rhetoric and therefore attain a noble quality...

So about that revolution. Arnold speaks in Chapter III of "paralyzed organizations," referring to the inertia preventing any such movement. The anecdotes regarding the bankruptcy of the railroads or the (dis)utility of new medicines points to "mystic idealism" as a primary factory, but it sounds a lot like fear. Regarding the introduction of quinine, Arnold says it could not be adopted without also adopting non-conforming Jesuit principles any more than the US could "develop national power without becoming like the Germans under Hitler." Which raises the question: what are the parallel threats to a law school considering abandoning the current pervasive creeds? There are certainly many, but Arnold points to one in his observation that NY firms grew "to supply the infinitely complicated logic needed to keep the separate individuality of parent and subsidiary or affiliate corporations apart" and that the 'real nature' of a corporation "was assiduously studied in law school." Are so many seemingly useless/ignoble/injurious creeds and ceremonies perpetuated in law school (one example of many being that my Torts professor began our first class by asserting that no one in the room would ever practice the law he was to spend--waste?--the next four months teaching and we learning) simply for the existence and survival of the corporation as a "person?" Is it a reduction (pardon my word choice) to say that corporate America is dependent on loopholes and legal fictions generated by attorneys in biglaw, and that biglaw is dependent on law schools continuing to churn out unquestioning junior associates, and that any threat to this current system in the form of changing the way law schools operate is thus essentially a threat to corporate America?

-- CamilaTapernoux - 23 Feb 2012


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r12 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:17:12 - IanSullivan
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