“In my most desperate moments, I have never conceived of anything more horrible than a law office.”
Marcel Proust, quoted by Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life at 12.
One look at Proust’s deep-set, moody eyes and it is apparent that this is a man with the soul of a poet—a man exquisitely sensitive to the human condition and devoted to describing said condition with nuance and detail. I venture to guess that, had he ever tried, Proust would not have thrived in law school. (An unlikely occurrence in light of the sentiment expressed above and the fact that, according to de Botton, Proust could not even hold down an unpaid internship at a library.)
I will go so far as to say that none of us who venture into the hallowed halls of law school and emerge on the other side are as sensitive as Proust. Still, I would think that all of us have some Proust in us—some aspect of a poetic soul that desires nothing more than to lay back on a settee and observe life swirling around us. Much like this:
(One begins to wonder if Proust always wore this expression.)
Taking into account that Proust was prone to hyperbole, it still seems important to ask: What was it about the law office that filled Proust with horror?
And, to the extent we all have a bit of Proust’s sensitivity within us, do we experience a similar reaction on some level?
The organizing questions of this blog are: (1) Are law students and lawyers thriving on a personal and professional level, and (2) if not, why not, and what can be done about?
At this stage I am gathering anecdotal evidence and other, more systematic support for the conclusion that law students and lawyers are not thriving. This is an issue that has been well-documented elsewhere and I am particularly interested in examining the same phenomena as they are evidenced here at DU Law.
Then, following in the footsteps of Prof. Larry Krieger and others involved in the movement to humanize legal education, I aim to examine ways in which we can improve the experience of law school—in that sense, bringing the practical recommendations of the movement to our community here at DU Law.
The first part of this effort is a review of Elizabeth Mertz’s important book, The Language of Law School.
To review and simplify the material covered in the last two posts:
Elizabeth Mertz’s observation of legal education in first-year classrooms led her to the following conclusions:
First, regardless of where you attend law school, you will be expected to learn to read, think and speak “like a lawyer.”
In so doing, you will adopt a world view where form matters more than substance, external authority matters more than an internal sense of morality, and statements in legal texts matter more than the social consensuus of your particular community. (Mertz’s Proposition 1.)
The main vehicle for teaching you to “think like a lawyer” is the case method. Under the case method, you are assigned a series of cases to read for each class in your first semester of law school. You stumble through the cases, trying to understand their meaning. When you offer up your understanding in class, your professor corrects you and tries to guide you instead to his or her interpretation of the case—a practice sometimes known as the Socratic method and at other times referred to as “hiding the ball.” (Mertz’s Proposition 2.)
Mertz’s third proposition strikes more at the heart of the ideology of legal education:
Although apparently neutral in form, in fact the filtering mechanism of legal language taught to students is not neutral. Legal training focuses students’ attention away from a systematic or comprehensive consideration of social context and specificity. Instead, students are urged to pay attention to more abstract categories and legal (rather than social) contexts, reflecting a quite particular, culturally driven model of justice.
Mertz at 5.
In exposing the agenda of legal language and thought, Mertz gives us some insight into the source of Proust’s horror. From a poetic standpoint, to be human is to be unique, complex, and specific—worthy of individual attention. Stated somewhat extremely, from the standpoint of law, humans are interchangable “reasonable persons” much as treasured objects are interchangable “widgets.”
Such militantly abstract thinking is, quite bluntly, utterly destructive of poetic sensitivity, sensitive individuality, and difference. It is no wonder the Proust inside of us shrinks in horror in the face of it.