During your first month of law school, most of you will hear some variation of “law school is like training for a long distance race”: you have to start slow, find your rhythm, overcome hurdles, and, eventually (hopefully), make it to the finish line. Upon reflection, I think this analogy is spot-on (at least, in terms of surviving 1L).
When starting law school, all of us were required to take a two-week course called Legal Elements. This class introduced us to the dreaded “Socratic Method” and trained us on how to brief a case. One of the first cases I read was Garratt v. Dailey. I remember how challenging it was to decipher the procedural posture from the facts, find the issues, and understand the reasoning. In those two weeks, I remember spending hours on homework, looking up definitions of new words, and trying to comprehend every sentence to prepare myself for the possibility of being called on in class. I thought it was tough. Now, I can’t help but smile when I think back to those first two weeks. Eventually, things that seem so arduous and demanding will become second nature. I promise that you will find your rhythm.
Sure, law school isn’t easy. I still fear being called on in class when I don’t know the answer to a question. I still feel anxious near finals when I realize that my grade depends on one three-hour exam. But, law school is definitely not as terrifying as people make it seem. It’s all about developing an appropriate school-life balance and having a (healthy) stress relief option. Running was my way of dealing with stress. My weekly mileage averaged somewhere between thirty and fifty miles. And, after coming home from a run and taking a shower, I felt refreshed, energized and ready to hit the books (perhaps it was my shampoo…just kidding). That said, I did have a month period during my first semester where I stopped running and ate much more Nutella (Have you heard about the class action settlement with Nutella?) than necessary. And, you know what? That month was unkind. Find something that you enjoy and allocate time in your schedule for it.
There were two major hurdles for me during 1L. The first was having a computer meltdown only a few weeks before finals. Thank goodness for dropbox! The best thing you can do for yourself is to back up your files. Trust me. My second major hurdle related to first semester grades. I won’t lie. Grades mean a lot and, unfortunately, in law school, only the top 10% can be in the top 10%. If you are among the 90%, you will feel as though your options are limited and you will undeniably question why you decided to attend law school. Thankfully, this questioning period doesn’t last long because school doesn’t wait for you. You then have two options: 1. Give up or 2. Bite the bullet and continue trying your best. You should already know what option I chose. (As I have emphasized in previous posts, the community at Lewis & Clark is one-of-a-kind. Don’t fret. Speaking with upper division students, alumni, staff and faculty will almost certainly make your choice an easy one).
Sure, I struggled at points. But, I worked hard. More importantly, I tried my best. And, today, I made it to the finish line.
There are two things that are hard to comprehend for someone coming from undergraduate and even graduate level education: 1) why do we not do postmortems on examinations, and 2) why do we find grade discussions largely unhelpful?
Legal education is just different. Performance in other arenas is measured mostly by regurgitation, and that’s incredibly easy to do in hindsight. Gone are the days of parroting and thinking that knowing the structure and function of areas of knowledge was somehow meaningful on its own.
Speaking as a former professional chemist, I can tell you that really smart people who know a lot of things still need to be trained to use that knowledge and to apply it, and the best of the undergraduates I hired had a long learning curve to get good at performing chemistry. Yes, their talents helped them get there, and they did get there, but to get really good, you had to apply your knowledge, and those skills are fundamentally different from simply knowing chemistry on a theoretical basis. We scientists may have had some advantage going between the theoretical and the practical because we had to calculate things and do laboratory practicals while many other majors contain no practical component at all. Those are the students that may have a longer learning curve, and unfortunately those students represent a large portion of students coming to law school. But whatever slight advantage such creates is likely erased after the first set of exams.
To take an examination is a performance, a practical application of the law to a fact pattern. It’s an analysis, as practical as one can get with words. It’s to imagine these things are happening, and you are the lawyer advising a person in that situation what to do. You assume a role, you consider all dimensions, and you are equipped with knowledge, but like chess, there’s a lot of different moves you make. You can’t talk about all the things you know, you have to play the game, and do it strategically so you win. If you make an error, you can lose. Later, that can mean your case.
Getting to answer the two questions goes something like this. Postmortems on examinations are useless, because there’s no such thing as challenging a grade, and moreover, the grading criteria are so subjective as to render your guesses at how well you did useless. We all know the law, the difference is how we applied it in those facts and circumstances, and what tools in our box we applied. The result of a grade may reflect your knowledge to a point, but your strategy matters. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, it matters that you applied the law correctly, showed your knowledge was correct, but also that it was appropriately applied. You need to be correct, and you need to be creative, and your exam will necessarily be unique. It’s hard to relate it to another in many respects. There are many ways to skin the cat, so to speak. So, what racked up points for you, even an equal number, means a whole different strategy and analysis for another. How can you validly compare?
Moreover, these exams are curved, and you’re compared to the number of points racked up overall, normalized and then distributed across a Gaussian plane. I’ve even borne audience to the professor who’s fed me an anecdote about how consistent they are year to year in how the distribution goes. If this was science [it is emphatically NOT], such would be met with a glare and a small quip: “calibrate your instrument; precision does NOT denote accuracy.” Another anecdote from another professor: “I sometimes can’t believe the exams I give an A”–meaning, their grading rubric allowed for a paper devoid of eloquence or advocacy but technically correct and mentioning a list of items for which points are allocated to receive a better grade than someone who demonstrated lawyer-like skills. Thus, are these metrics meaningful in absolute terms? Absolutely not. It’s about as useful as comparing people to one another for their intrinsic value. It’s grotesque when attempted.
Where grades are concerned, I can tell you that this school admits amazing people. And they come. Having been elected by my peers in the SBA to represent them on that committee gives me perspective that indeed the people at whom I smile on campus every day are unique, smart, accomplished, and they are each infinitely valuable in ways that cannot be measured.
When it comes to performance, after that “normalization” I mentioned is done with the points, sometimes that spread can be thin. You simply cannot plausibly argue to me that when there is a 20-point spread from an A to a D grade when points earned are already subjective and artificial, that the five point difference between the A and the B student in that class is so different as to say one better understood the class or represents something beyond the fact they are both competent. You can’t do that undergraduate form of “calculus” in your head about the meaning of grades measuring amounts of knowledge or ability when they confound and contort the already subjective measurements they make–the metric loses its meaning.
In fact, it reinforces the idea to me that perhaps law school grades at our school should be as other top-ranked schools who have abandoned them for Honors Pass, Pass, Marginal Pass and Not Pass. I of course am naive to the politics of such a policy change at our school, but as someone who used to interview people, there are so many reasons to hire someone that has more to do about character than grades even when they are more straightforward.
I write this as I took a final and feel great about it, but truly I’m just pleased I knew as much as I did and argued as I did, because in a class as hard as it was from a world-class authority on the subject who talked a gazillion miles an hour, it built my confidence because I performed competently when push came to shove. I was ready because I pushed myself hard–and I have no idea what my grade will be. But truly, as I’ve said before, to be counted an equal to any one of my peers here, I’m much esteemed.
When you push yourself, sometimes you discover new limits. I’m happy the longer I’m here, the better I get. I think despite the stress of the performances we’re doing of late that many of my fellows will agree the truly hard work one does in this path is valuable in itself. The evaluations thereof are merely a facet, perhaps unnecessary.
So if you join us, do focus on who you are and what you want to do–the things that made you want to go to law school in the first place. Don’t focus on how you compare based on some artificial evaluation you get when you perform your legal analyses. Don’t ever lose track of the fact people matter first, always, and that includes yourself. To know that is to recognize what still is the most important part of what this profession is all about.
Photo: Historic Pioneer Courthouse in downtown PDX
In the last two weeks, I have had the chance to participate in some interesting extra-curricular activities. Most of my days are focused on school, studying, and making sure the five of us are fed, clean and clothed, so I’ve enjoyed the change of pace in mingling with my soon-to-be peers in the legal world. Since I plan to practice here in Oregon, it is exciting to start making those connections in the community.
First was the inaugural reception for the newly created Lewis & Clark Family Law Society, hosted by local firm Gevurtz Menashe. Since this is an area of the law that I’m very interested in, I appreciated having the chance to learn what the day-to-day of a family law practice is really like. It’s especially good to know that a family law practice will definitely intersect with property law, business, etc., so you aren’t only focused on divorces or custody issues. I really hope that in my professional life I can work in all of these areas, so this was really good to hear.
The next day, I met with my mentor, Ken Mitchell-Phillips. If you have the chance to participate in this program, I highly recommend it. We try to meet about once a month, and discuss whatever comes up: school, grades, life/work balance.
I really appreciate the practical advice and perspective I’m getting from him.
Ken reinforced two big ideas: 1) I have time to decide where I ultimately want to focus on, and I should explore all my options, and 2) even when I do make that decision, I will still need to have solid knowledge of other areas of the law in order to be really useful to my clients — especially in knowing enough to know when I need to refer them to someone else!
Career Services has set up a series of receptions at various legal employers in the city. This week, I attended a talk by the staff of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. There were about 20 DDAs present, and each of them gave a quick talk about their backgrounds and what brought them to the district attorney’s office. It was quite interesting to learn what brought each of them to the office, and more than one person had no interest in working there before they started. But everyone talked about how much they love what they do, despite always having to do “more with less,” and the difference that they make in the community, and the depth of experience and the independence they’ve had from day one. It was great to see such passion and commitment from people who play a huge part in keeping Portland and its environs safe.
Finally, I volunteered to be a witness in the regional rounds for the National Trial Competition. It was an absolute blast. (I don’t think I mentioned this before, but I have a minor in theater.) Mock trial was a great opportunity to dust off those skills, put on a Southern accent and have some fun. It was also nice to get to watch the competition with no pressure. Our contracts professor has strongly encouraged us to do mock trial, and getting to participate a little bit has me seriously considering it.
Photo: Multnomah County Courthouse, SW 4th & Main
PS I did get my grades, and true to my expectations (95% of them, anyway), I did not flunk. Whee!