Issues,  Law School

What Law School is Not

Recently someone interested in pursuing a more academic career asked me about the nature of law school and the ability to discuss ideas and social issues along with cases. It reminded me of my own experience when I first started law school and how incorrect I was when it came to the purpose and focus of law school.

The summer before my 1L year I was really lucky to participate in a program for low income students to prep them for law school; like a mini-boot camp. I was stationed at Notre Dame and was bright eyed and ready to go on my first day. The program had three courses, taught by real ND professors so as to give us a feel of what school would be like. Thank god for this program because without it I would have been even more lost once I really started school.

I remember sitting in criminal law, extra excited because I had just earned a degree in Sociology/Criminology and I just knew SO MUCH (l o l). We start discussing the first case that involved a drug possession sentence. In my attempt to explain why the ruling was incorrect, I mentioned how during that time (90s) the war on drugs emphasized severe punishment for drug offenses that weren’t necessarily warranted and were created to further marginalize communities of color.

Y’all this professor, who made a career out of enforcing RICO violations, looked at me like I had two heads.

The TA for that class mercifully took me aside a few days later to tell me that actually social issues don’t come into play at all in law school and it would be better if I just focused on the cases without thinking about what social/policy issues lead to the result–at least in class.

It was an odd experience because as someone who had come fresh out of undergrad I was used to an academic environment. A classroom setting where we discuss ideas, critique theories, identify influences and patterns. Isn’t that what you do in school? You mean we’re really supposed to act like judges live in a vacuum and cases aren’t impacted by experience and society? Actually kind of, yeah.

For a long time, there were various philosophical positions that man didn’t create law and that the judges making determinations were doing so based only on previous rulings that came out “naturally” (perhaps through divinity) and that those decision makers weren’t letting anything influence them. Eventually, people acknowledged that this wasn’t correct, but by then we had entered a social contract-style agreement that we would continue to pretend that the system is logical, impartial, and rational and that all decisions resulting from this system are also logical, impartial, and rational. That’s a bunch of garbage–we can look at studies and behaviors and other empirical evidence that shows just how bias and illogical this system is, but for the most part, most traditional school programs continue to trudge along by focusing primarily on precedent and little else.  

Of course, you may get lucky and have a few professors that acknowledge outside factors, but the majority of the time, those social influences are viewed as irrelevant because the purpose of law school is to teach you how to read, analyze, and interpret case law applied to specific sets of facts.

For those that are used to more academic settings–or you know, like to acknowledge unfairness, this can be super frustrating. Especially for those of us that not only recognize the inequality that stems from certain case laws, but have experienced the inequality first-hand.  And yet, to succeed in law school (at least during your first year), you have to kind of ignore this. Certainly you can bring it up, but the reality is that people’s focus will be on learning how to analyze, read, and interpret, which will leave little room for other issues. Let me be clear that I don’t agree that it’s wise for instructors to ignore those outside factors as leaving those influences unnamed allows those classmates steeped in privilege to continue to live in a bubble that keeps them detached from reality. But I also know it’s an uphill battle to change a rigid system. Instead, after your 1L basics, you have options to take electives (“X and the law” courses) or a professor may be particularly committed to discussing racial and social equity in class. Likely, however, you’ll have to come to terms with the structure of a traditional law school program. It can feel disheartening–I know I was, but in practice, learning the rules and expectations gave me the tools to effectively fight for my clients within this biased system.

Finally, not to leave you too disappointed, there is an emerging trend for people to add racial justice impact statements in their arguments and I add social studies/issues to my case work all the day (big ups to Immigration law for having the lowest standard of evidence everrrr lol)–so there are ways to push the envelope and attempt to hold outside factors accountable, but it’s a slow process and when you’re new your energy will be just as well spent by mastering the procedure and laws so that you can eventually use them to your client’s advantage.