Some Things Learned in a Week or so of Law School

From Tie Guy:

We (the whole culture, not just lawyers) badly need to figure out a laptop etiquette. One of my professors is strongly anti-laptop, but won’t quite ban them, and another outright bans them. The inconsistency is irritating, and I think it is regressive and damaging, but you know what? It is hard to blame them. Laptops are useful tools that we’ll be using for the rest of our lives, and there are times (like when your prof uses ‘Procrustean’ multiple times) where wireless is a very useful classroom tool. But the downside is pretty big: students IM each other answers to questions (something basically impossible to prevent, short of turning off the network) and they surf the web (even during interactive discussions with really quite excellent lecturers who you’re paying ~$125/hour to hear), both of which are pretty destructive to ‘actual learning’. And it is difficult to hold a conversation with someone when a monitor is between you and them- it is pretty demoralizing as a speaker, in any context, to sit and look at an audience of laptop monitors instead of faces. I think tablets will eventually solve that last problem, but the others will still be there, and we haven’t figured out what the etiquette about them is.

Fear is a wonderful motivator. I thought tests were bad as an undergrad, but in law school in the US (for those who don’t know) the instruction is ‘Socratic’, which is to say that the professor can ask anyone any question about prior reading at any time, and they expect an answer. So maybe less ’socratic’ and more ‘interrogation’. It does make just about everyone do the reading every night, which I guess is good, but it also crushes the life out of anyone who learns for the sake of learning. There just isn’t time for that wishy-washy stuff. (In my section, where you’re expected to volunteer to answer questions, no one does- everyone just sits and waits to be called on.)

It turns out that just like there are beautiful or elegant hacks, so there are also beautiful and elegant rulings. I just got the privilege of reading my first one (MacPherson v. Buick) and the feeling was distinctly similar to the feeling of hearing about a great hack- if you understand the context, you can appreciate all the work and twists and turns that go into each of them, and just sit in awe at the beauty of it for a little while. Then you try to figure out how to do it yourself 🙂 Pirsig’s Quality is everywhere, if you know how to look for it, it turns out.

Lawyers proudly have their own language- a lot like English, but not quite. (Geeks are no better, of course, but our language can be safely ignored by most people.) Of course, every profession does, because you have to balance the tension between higher efficiency in information transmission and incomprehensibility to the rest of the world. My sense so far is that the legal language is tradition-bound and crufty, and kept with unreasonably tenacity. But I’m not sure how one really changes such things- any linguists care to point me at good resources on the evolution of professional language, and how to kick-start fixing it? 🙂

If you’ve met bitter lawyers, bitterness is to be expected 🙂 The entire legal educational process is designed to break you. This course is pass-fail, it is with a very nice prof, and it is still one of the most brutal educational experiences I’ve ever had. I am terrified of A-F grading in a class with a non-forgiving prof.

On the first day of orientation, they tell you all about how the legal profession is very, very team-oriented and sociable, and that you’ll have to learn how to work with others. After orientation, they grade you on nothing but individual achievements under incredibly bizarre circumstances, with all preparation under strict instructions not to copy even case outlines from each other, and then they hire you based on nothing but those grades. So no surprise that despite all the talk about it being a sociable field, it is full of psychopaths 🙂 Not that I see an easy way to grade group work in this context- but it seems like something every law school should be pushing for and experimenting with. I wonder if change-tracking in collaboratively written documents could be one way to tackle that.