By Journal Student Writer Elizabeth Weyer
“Law school is just like high school. Just wait until you’re a few months in, then you’ll see.” As incoming 1Ls, we shifted awkwardly at the prospect in the narrow corridors of the locker room, laughing uncomfortably and avoiding direct eye contact as a 2L led us through a quick tour of the school basement, throwing out snippets of advice along the way.
Describing the life of law students routinely relies on a stream of familiar terms: the Socratic Method, class rank, job applications, reading, Journal, moot court, briefs, more reading. Depending on the parties to the conversation, the words might even be more frank: competition, self-interest, alcoholism, elitism, arrogance. But frequently these more candid words are laughed off, used to break the ice in social situations, and never amounting to the level of consideration than, say, discussions about a professor’s past exam.
Currently, the legal market is in a state of flux. Law schools are reforming their curriculums to adapt to the needs of this changing market, but a necessary component of this reform should address the all-too-often unstated reality of what life can be like for law students immersed in a “culture of competition and conformity.” Law schools, academics say, foster an environment rife with clashing personalities and cutthroat social scenes:
“Law school culture emerges from the adversarial idea of law that is inscribed in the dominant pedagogy. It is reinforced by the prevailing metrics of success, which rank students through relentless public competitions (for grades, jobs, law journals, moot court, and clerkships) . . . . It is locked in by its resonance with the currency of success in the private bar–money. It is preserved by the detachment of faculty from students’ professional self-definition and reinforced by the primary way students learn–in class through questioning by professors in the presence of peers, when students perceive they have either won or lost the interaction. The culture of competition and conformity becomes an invisible but ubiquitous gravitational force affecting how students perceive the law and their place in it.”
But the adversarial framework is also embedded more deeply than just within the confines of the law school building. As law students naturally develop relationships with their peers and future colleagues, the impact of the adversarial system reveals itself in the form of tense inter-student relationships in the struggle to establish “their status among their peers.” In particular, some academics have identified law school as fostering a culture of non-physical “bullying”: “[I]ntense competition among students for scarce jobs, and the relationship between class rank and employment, result in bullying behaviors as both a cause and a response to student depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.”
In her article, “Lucifer Goes to Law School,” Rebecca Flannagan identifies bullying as “the unnamed missing link in the causal chain between the law school curriculum and the prevalence of depression and substance abuse in law schools” and compares the institutional elements of law school curriculums that mirror those of “junior high schools” to total institutional environments like prison and the Stanford Prison Experiment. Thus, when considering law school curriculum reform, more explicit steps should be taken to address the bullying culture of law schools. Otherwise, the cost of ignoring this element of law student life is too high: “When law schools fail to identify bullies or bullying behaviors, the results can be measured by the high rates of depression and substance abuse that begin in law school and extend into many lawyers’ careers.”
Quotes taken from Susan Sturm & Lani Guinier, The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in A Culture of Competition and Conformity, 60 Vand. L. Rev. 515, 542-50 (2007), and Rebecca Flanagan, Lucifer Goes to Law School: Towards Explaining and Minimizing Law Student Peer-to-Peer Harassment and Intimidation, 47 Washburn L.J. 453, 453 (2008).