I recently re-connected with an old friend from law school. I mentioned to him my current work (trying to gain an understanding of the movement to humanize legal education), and how it was in large part inspired as an effort to heal my own experience of the disappointment and alienation I experienced in law school.
My friend said he was surprised to hear I felt that way; it seemed to him that law school “worked well” for me. I was on the one hand glad that I had given some impression of coping, but I was also confused. How could I have been feeling as desperate as I did on the inside and still come across as competent and well?
For his part, my friend—who is now occupying himself with a worthwhile pursuit entirely apart from our training—shared with me that his primary goal in attending law school was to figure out his path, and he was simply grateful that the process of attending and graduating from law school did not get in the way of that.
It struck me how dramatically different our hopes and expectations in attending law school were. And frankly, I envied his relative indifference to whether law school affirmed or challenged his existence. He had, it seemed, his own path to follow and was not waiting for the school to bestow it upon him. A measure of indifference may be key to a certain sort of success in law school. Namely: the success of not being tossed about in the turbulent seas of unstable self-esteem and self-conception.
Acknowledging that I am likely projecting my own thoughts and feelings to a certain extent, it seems to me that at least some of the students I work with—and in particular women, and women of color—are experiencing something similar to what I did as a law student. Which is this: Maybe we had a tough home life, or just a crappy one, or for some reason or another did not like the menu of possible identities that life was offering us. And so we turned to school. We did well. And succeeding academically was everything. Being smart, being seen as smart, and receiving positive attention from our primary school teachers and college professors was critical to our sense of self. Our identities were wrapped up not only in academic success, but in the social and psychic affirmation that comes along with it.
And then we came to law school. And I would offer that the interpersonal dimension of our education in law school was entirely different from what we had experienced before. For starters, no matter how smart you are, your chances of being the smartest in your class in law school are simply lower than they were before. This can be tough on anyone. But if you have—to a point of excess, perhaps—staked your sense of personal value not only on being smart, but on performing “smart” and being recognized as smart, the lack of externally recognized achievement will really get to your insides. You would question what had brought you to that point, your identity, your worth.
Add to this the fact that, we all know that law school is, in large part, a confidence game. So what is the source of your confidence? If the source of your confidence is too-much rooted in your academic success, and that source is threatened, the threat keeps doubling back on itself, and you not only lose your confidence, you lose your orientation in the world.
On top of all of this, I doubt that even the students at the top of the class are getting the social and psychic rewards that we had come to expect from impressing our teachers. The ethos of law school education is more of a school of hard knocks; a place where you come to perform and be judged, rather than nurtured and praised. (And I offer this apart from the debates about millennials, the practice of giving everyone a gold star, etc. I’m talking about how we reward the students who achieve on an objective scale.) And I think this can be a devastating deprivation to students who have come to rely on school as place where—right or wrong—many of their emotional needs were previously fulfilled.
This is not everyone’s story, but I suspect it is the story for many of us.
And of course the point is not that those of us with this particular configuration are doomed to misery in law school. The point is to recognize that the source of our confidence was perhaps not firmly grounded in the first place, and we need to develop new sources, largely ones that grow within ourselves.