The Law School Study and the Exam Pressure

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I was pleased to be one of the first people in my law school class to discover that there are companies that publish outlines that cover most of the important issues in your law courses. These outlines won't put you at the head of die class, but they'll preserve your sanity. Ultimately, you just want to know what's going on.

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Students respond in different ways to these problems with the law school teaching method. Some, who are doing poorly for perhaps the first time in their lives, will rebel at that and either drop out or pretend to understand. Meanwhile, in a true indication of how nasty the situation can get some of those who think they are not doing well, really are.

The more you learn about legal education, the less surprised you'll be to hear that The Official Guide to Law Schools responds to this situation by implying that there's something wrong with those students who wish the whole teaching process made more sense.

Here's what it says: People who especially value structure, authority, and order are often attracted to law school. But the study of law does not involve the kind of certainty such students are seeking.

Obviously, law schools prefer students who dislike order and structure. This explains why the anarchists among us were overjoyed when they got to law school.

After reading that quote from The Official Guide I found it interesting to review Scott Turow's view that students at Harvard Law "are men and women drawn to the study of rules, people with a native taste for order." I also looked again at the words of a shrink who has spent more than 20 years with law students and who finds, in them, a "greater than average concern for orderliness." According to the ABA itself, a lawyer's job includes "putting entangled affairs in order."

The fact is, law students seek to understand. The Official Guide may make snide remarks about their love of order, as though they were closet fascists, but the point remains: The legal educational process really is goofy.

Well, if I liked the casebooks and the classroom method, I knew I would just love the exams. And I was right. They were off the wall.

In one of my first-semester classes, the professor hinted that parts of this year's exam would be similar to exams from previous years. We thought this meant that he'd be asking questions on the same topics. Those old exams, and their model answers, were on reserve in the library. Some of us reviewed them there in the library, and others spent the money and time to make photocopies of all those exams, which we added to the stack of outlines and notes and books we were studying.

On the morning of the open-book exam, some of us didn't take along those photocopies, even if we had them. Maybe we believed that it would be more confusing than helpful to have too many materials available during the exam, or maybe we had opted to type the exam and had to lug our typewriters. It seemed sufficient, or necessary, to restrict ourselves to only those few books and outlines that pulled it all together.

Bad mistake! One major question on our exam was practically identical to a question from a preceding year, and others were very similar. Those who brought along the old exams more or less copied the old answers directly into their test books, even if they didn't understand what they were writing. Many students had brought along those old materials, so the competition was really intense. Under the professor's grading curve, a loss of only a few points meant a drop from an A to a C for the semester.

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To me, this stunk. Call me sour grapes, if you wish, because I didn't take along those model answers. But I really didn't mind getting a C, under the circumstances. As far as I'm concerned, if the exam is intended to test your knowledge, rather than your ability to carry paper around, then that's what it should do. That exam affected the careers of law students who had worked their tails off and had performed brilliantly all semester long. I considered that obscene.
At Columbia, and no doubt at many other schools, they throw in an added twist. Your first-semester exams don't start until after New Year's Day. This means that you can go home to your family and friends in Pittsburgh or Omaha, study constantly through the holidays, and then return to your slum like dorm room on the edge of Harlem just in time for a blizzard and the commencement of exam season.

By the time it's all over, you can feel like a ghost. I drank far too much coffee, and it caught up with me on the night before my last exam. I couldn't get to sleep until 2 a.m., and then awoke at 6. I was extremely tired, so I started in on the coffee again. That made me shake so badly that I feared I wouldn't be able to write, so I drank a half-pint of peppermint schnapps to calm me down. Just to be safe, I packed a flask of bourbon and a quart of coffee to the exam, in case I went off the deep end in either direction. A note to our viewers: We are trained professionals. Do not attempt this at home.
I was not the only one who freaked out at exams. One classmate stayed awake almost continuously for several days, in a desperate bid to catch up. Another one, a bright Texan who had been engaging the professors in debate all semester, got as far as the middle of his first law school exam during mat New York City winter, and then got up, went out to the restroom, kept right on going to the airport, and never came back. At the end of the exam, his books were still sitting there where he'd left them. We never saw him again.

What the Pressure Does to You
Perhaps you've had the experience of dealing with people who've been working 80 or 100 hours a week for months on end. At times, they're irrational. Their moods swing with the wind. They have no patience. This experience is not limited to law students.

But there's something special about law school. It goes beyond the quantity of work and the pressure to get it done. Law school is the door into a hard new world. It brings you face-to-face with a different, less friendly kind of person, and eventually that's what you become too.

I sometimes wonder whether it's anything like what people feel in the moments before their first act of cannibalism. In law school, people seem to hope that you'll fail, and you find yourself thinking the same way in return. Some classmates may share your unhappiness with this, but others seem eager to say, "Hey, if you don't like it, go somewhere else. It'll be one less body for me to climb over." This is how it works at the law school.

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