Law School Discussion

Setting the Stage: Or, How to Do Law School Wrong (Part 1c)

[This is part three of the posts “Setting the Stage: Or, How to Do Law School Wrong.”  Unfortunately the book excerpt could not fit in one post.]

From Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold):

[Continued from Part 1b.]

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The above, admittedly way-too-long paragraph might seem unbelievable. It is unbelievable. It certainly was to me, and to everyone I knew. Yet this is what happens, year in and year out, at every law school.

You’ve been at the very top of the academic heap. You’ve been praised for sixteen years for your intelligence, qualities, promise. Why should the next three years be any different? Although you read variations of this story in nearly every book about law school--each telling you that it is different--you still don’t believe.

That’s understandable. This is a reality that doesn’t quite hit…until it hits. And, for at least half of every law school class, the “hit” will be very much like a mental version of what we see after a train derailment. Tens of thousands of tons of metal, twisted at places beyond recognition, all because the wheels somehow jumped the track.

If it helps in the important process of understanding-- really understanding--just how true this reality is, I’ll recount my own experience. I attended the University of Texas Law School, which is generally regarded, give or take, as being in the middle of the Top 25. Within Texas it’s pretty much a Texas-sized Number One, and so “UT” strives mightily to compare itself not with any Texas school but rather with the dozen or so schools above it (naturally) in the rankings. In short, UT is the best law school for a thousand miles: you can pretty much drive to the coasts or Chicago before finding its equal. Why so much (more) ink about rank? Because of the experience I had graduating in 1991. The bottom had fallen out of the job market, and we students stood aghast as firm after firm cancelled their on-campus interviews, often just days before they were scheduled. To say that panic set in would be to report a mild version of events.

The national firms--which considered UT as very much a secondary school in their recruitment--required the standard Top 10%/law review standing, which of course few had. As mentioned, in 1989, when I entered, law school applications were at a peak, with intense competition pushing qualifications ever-higher at every school. The bust led to a steep drop-off, which took years to recover. There were a few firms, mostly regional or local, that would consider Top 25%, or perhaps even Top 33%. As the firms interviewing shrank, so too did job prospects. And this at one of the top law schools in the country! I write this not for self-flattery, but to reinforce that, in a bad market, even those in Tier 1 schools suffer. And, in a winner-take-all system, everyone lower down feels the crunch earlier and harder, in a steeply cascading tumble. As I had lined up a position in Honolulu, I was embarrassed even to repeat that among fellow students--half of whom had no job at all. To repeat, this was at a Tier 1 law school; the job market makes a big difference in the level of anxiety and near-psychosis among law students.

The atmosphere in those days was heart-wrenchingly depressing. The scenario above is a reflection not only of what exists now, but of what has existed for many decades, and is true at every law school. The only difference is where the drop-off starts. In a good market, Tier 1 students must still rank in the top 10-25%, usually, for a top job; the exception might be for students at a Top Five law school. But even there, the top jobs still go to the top students. Students at “lesser” schools must rank ever-higher for the same chance. In a poor market, the odds grow progressively (and steeply) worse. So, even if attending a Tier 1 or Tier 2 school, the job market has much to do with the level of success (and failure). At every law school, for a majority of students the scene described above plays out, exactly as above. Year in and year out.

It should not. Break the pattern for your play.

If you follow the above screenplay (and fall into even one of the above trapdoors), chances are high that you will fail. This is not mean that you will literally “fail” (usually), but you will be lucky to earn “B’s,” and will probably see more than you want of “C’s” and even “D’s.” And, believe it or not, you’ll have no idea why you earned each grade…but you will know, deep down, that you didn’t really deserve a better one. I suspect that, if you’re like me, a “C” is worse than failure. Even an “F” can be explained away a little less awkwardly--you were deathly ill, you were prescribed the wrong medication and being wheeled into the emergency room, the exam was held in the wrong city. Just try to explain away a “C.”

This is a crushing experience for a dismaying number of highly talented, intelligent, caring individuals. An “A” might be an expectation, but law schools strictly limit number of “A” grades. That means that just about nine out of ten of those highly talented, intelligent, caring individuals--you and your future colleagues--are about to experience one of the worse experiences in their lives: failure.

Break this pattern. If you sense any of the above happening, stop.

Stop! Something is wrong. This is not the way law school should be. It is especially not the way law school should be for you.

Copyright: Thane Messinger, Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold.  All rights reserved.