Law school seems as if it is designed by a sadistic genius, someone who had made a deal with the devil in order to achieve breath-taking depths of inspired, curriculum-based malevolence. My first year in law school was probably the most intense year of my life. How else to explain the fact that each element of the program worked in concert to maximize anxiety and sleeplessness? How else to explain the fact that law school is a perfect storm of academic insanity?
OK, I am exaggerating. I both like and respect the administration, and it is unfair to suggest that they are unhinged sadists. Law school is actually a great business, well worth the time and tuition dollars. But I want to first talk about the baptism by fire – the part of the law school experience that seems designed to leave you punch-drunk and disemboweled.
What were the major elements of this perfect storm that ravaged us during the first year? First, there was the zero-sum grading policy. For example, there was, and is, a forced curve. This means only 10% of students in each class can get A's, and an equal number had to get low passing or failing grades (F's and D's). In addition there is a 2.25 minimum GPA requirement (with the curve set at a median of 2.55) which, if not met for two semesters, results in expulsion, and a rule that ties scholarship funding to academic performance. As a result, students are extremely grade-conscious, driven partly by the desire for scholarship money, but largely by the very real fear of flunking out. This carrot and stick incentive system means we worked very hard. And the harder everyone worked, the more difficult it became to ensure a decent GPA under the forced curve (because the curve is a measure of performance relative to your classmates). So everyone worked even harder. It was a vicious cycle, capped in the end only by your desire for sleep.
And this brings me to the second element of the perfect storm: the workload. Classes generally meet three hours a day and the rest of our time is taken up by unnecessary work you do to prepare for class. Because each class hour theoretically requires two hours of outside preparation, we are expected to study six hours a day, in addition to our classes. This, obviously, is impossible, but I suspect that a few of my classmates come close.
Third, there are the students. They are some of China's best: the students will not rest until they master the material. I've never seen anything like it. Finally, there are the constant exams. Take-home exams are discouraged by the administration. Why? To prevent cheating. The school is almost monomaniacal about preventing cheating. Each exam is elaborately organized – seating is assigned, proctors are vigilant, and no one can even leave to go to the bathroom. People felt it is possible to study hard and still fail a course Because exams make up a large part of our final grades, and because they require speed to finish, it is quite possible to start making a few mistakes and, before you know it, end up with a C for the course, a failing grade. There have already been several times when I've looked up at the exam-room clock, my heart pounding, and thought, "I just can't finish this thing in time."