What happens to us in law school.

My psychic map of Yale Law School.

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.

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5 responses to “What happens to us in law school.

  1. I think you’re right that prior to law school, a lot of our worth has somehow become affiliated with academic (or professional) success. But there might be more to it.

    Aside from no longer being “the smartest” (whatever that means) I think what has been more detrimental to me has been that the value system in law school seemed vastly different from my own value system or the value system at my undergrad and previous places of employment.

    Prior to law school, I felt like my voice was valued and reflected in the culture of the institution. So while my self worth may not have come from being a successful student, being a student was where I was most encouraged to be successful. In my first year of law school I definitely didn’t feel that way. My analysis of the ideas discussed didn’t seem to be encouraged.

    In undergrad, it was easy to find a niche where I was encouraged to dream and grow. In law school, I felt like I was told to subscribe to a specific growth pattern or just shut down. The idea of academia no longer providing a safe space to flourish and explore was devastating.

    • susannahpollvogt

      Hi Amanda – these are all really important points. If anything, while our undergraduate education might have emphasized that there is a broad range of intelligences and interests, law-school is much more about direct competition and competition that is quite one-dimensional.

      Also, your point about the marginalization—or outright dismissal—of personal and community values is well-taken, and an issue I hope to explore at greater length.

      Thanks very much for your insightful comment.

  2. It seems as though the overall experience in law school (at least for myself) is one of growth, that is nevertheless self inflicted. Growth is, hopefully, something that is part of life. I encountered the same self identity questions before law school. The “who am I” when everything that has defined you to a point is stripped away. I am not one to agree with traditional law school teaching techniques but I have to wonder if the change after attending law school may have been inevitable? But maybe without having to be hundred of thousands of dollars in debt in so finding oneself 😉

  3. Professor Pollvogt,

    I really enjoyed this post. I actually sobbed after my Basic Tax final (like I did after yours) but trust me, I wasnt this dramatic in college where I if put in the hard work, I excelled. Sobbing thus far has happened after most law school exams… could this be healthy in any way? I even talked to my mother today and said… if I struggle this much in law school how can I be a competent lawyer for my clients… could it be a red light before I waste somebody’s money paying for my service? Either way sad thoughts. I havent found my new source of confidence yet… and I am wrapping up my 2L year.

    Keep posting! I love your insights.

    Sincerely your former student,
    ac

    • susannahpollvogt

      Thanks for writing—I would love to have you stop by and visit soon! Everyone’s path to success is different, and it sounds like you are still working on finding yours. I will just say that practicing law is very different from—and, in my experience, vastly superior to—being in law school.

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