First Semester

For the month after Thanksgiving, law school (and the life of most first-year law students) becomes about final exams. The National Association of Law Placement also mandates that recruitment for legal employment can’t begin until December 1st, and no students can apply to jobs before then. Naturally, the floodgates open on that day, and emails pour in with calls for applications to public interest positions and invitations to January luncheons with private firms.

I therefore spent most of that month in front of case books I struggled to understand, while surrounded with a growing breadth of opportunities. The relationship of one to the other was curious. The options being placed before me must have some independence from how I perform on the exams—otherwise there would be no point in the outside world contacting me before they know how I’ve done. Yet there’s also clearly some connection, a reminder that the doors in front of me—and the ones beyond them, merely suggested—are also ones I might be in the process of closing.

It makes for an odd month, to the say the least, one in which you haven’t done anything but are treated as if you have. Attending the institution leads to an assumption on the part of others that you will continue to show some promise, when the curve mathematically predetermines that some students, in fact, will not. There’s no way to know in advance whether or not that’s the case for any individual student until the exams are over. And if it turns out that you aren’t in fact any good at them, then the safety net is the institution itself, filled with people who will attempt to bail you out from your failures by the force of their own prior achievement.

I’m under no illusions that this is any kind of hardship, nor do I really think this is such a bad method of operating. The arrangement reflect the realities of a profession that needs some sorting function, and demonstrates that law school really only has one foot inside the “academy” environment. Yet that step outside into the realm of professional concerns has actually given me a far more idealistic conception of learning as an activity than I would have thought possible. In a way that I haven’t felt before in my schooling, I actually believe that it matters what I know, which will, for the most part, determine what I can do with it.

This is a surprising feeling in no small part because I think it’s difficult for most people in law school not to view grades with a certain level of skepticism, based on their prior good fortune. Law school simply and cleverly doubles down on the merit of that skepticism. By making grades openly artificial and arbitrary, they force you to reckon with them in a new way. They’re either an entirely meaningless imposition on what should be “pure” learning, or they have far more meaning to them than they have previously. And because, in light of what you know of your environment, it’s easy to believe that they do matter, then it’s far easier to make yourself think that better understanding will lead to better performance. The only sane way to respond to that, in turn, is to throw yourself into learning the material with the utmost possible effort. As a consequence, any recourse to the shortcuts you’ve learned comes to feel like the wrong way to approach things.

In a sense, then, whether or not the whole setup is bullshit, it’s structured to accommodate a very healthy set of incentives, and to eliminate any strategies that you’ve come to think of as bullshit. I didn’t think that the meritocracy would be able to encourage a measure of self-reform at such a late date, but tricky bastard that it is, it seems to have pulled it off. I suspect this clearer thinking will be worth taking some lumps on the ol’ transcript. And maybe it will pave the way for happier thoughts, as well.

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