Friday, December 09, 2005

The Matrix

After I received a summer job offer only four days after I applied at my office of choice, I was left wondering about the importance of grades.

I didn't think it appropriate to stumble into Career Services and ask them that question. So, I outsourced the inquiry to Jeremy Blachman. For those of you are not in law school and don't have a daily rotation of two dozen blogs on your favorite links toolbar, I imagine that the name strikes no hint of recognition. It didn't with me a year ago, at least. But, Blachman is probably the most prodigious blogger about law school on the internet.

He graduated from Harvard Law two years ago and has maintained two regularly updated blogs for years - one documenting his experience at HLS and the other anonymously written by a partner at a fake law firm. The latter, of which, became so popular that it drew attention from the New York Times. Blachman became so disgusted with law firm life that he has chosen to parlay his success as a well-known blogger into book deals.

With that out of the way, here's the exchange. I think he makes entirely perfect sense.

Hi Jeremy, I'm a long time reader of your blog. But, I'm a first time law student. I'm finishing up 1L fall semester at SLS and I'm hoping you can hope clear up some persisting confusion surrounding this whole experience. It's a simple question, really. Why do people stress over grades at respected law schools? If it has to do with the pooling of America's Top Type A personalities, I can understand that. But, if one is not interested in big time clerking (as I imagine most aren't) why do kids flip out when it seems like if you manage not to drool during interviews, that the education tag on the resume will carry the most comatose among us to employment? Best, 1L Rambler

1L Rambler: In three years at law school I couldn't really figure it out. I don't know. Most people where I was and where you are will do just fine without all the stress. It's not like people are flunking out. No one's flunking out. You've got it right -- the difference is Supreme Court clerkship or, uh, less-prestigious clerkship? Or even -- gasp -- no clerkship at all, and having to settle for a $150K/year job at a law firm. Because you can be at the bottom of the class and still get those, in any city you want, practicing any type of law you like. Putting aside my own feelings about law firms, that's obviously the destination for the vast majority of the class, and, yeah, I don't know why people stress about it.I think maybe there's some plausible explanations.

1. Some of our classmates are paralyzed with fears of inadequacy. More than just being a type-A personality, I think there are people who really are scared they don't belong, and really do think they have to work really, really hard so that their cover isn't blown and they're not exposed for the frauds they fear they might be. It boggles my mind to imagine how anyone can get to this point in their educational life and not have had enough positive reinforcement to be pretty darn sure they're not lacking in the academic abilities department, but, still, I think there are people for whom this is really true. I'm thinking of one of my friends at law school, who went to a not-terribly-prestigious undergrad, and was convinced he barely got into HLS, on the strength of recommendations, or essays, or whatever -- and really did think he had something to prove. He didn't stress out like so many people do, but he did get a lot more worried than I did going into exams, and really felt at risk of not succeeding. It's irrational, but I think it's how some people feel.

2. Similarly, I think there's the flip side -- people who are convinced they're absolutely the smartest person in the universe, and they want to prove it, and so they feel the need to try as hard as they can to be #1 in the class, regardless of what ambitions they have for the future, just to be able to know they're better than everyone else. I think it's probably how some people feel, at least at HLS it was.

3. People who think law school is supposed to be stressful, and so it's a self-fulfilling prophecy and they make it so.I don't know if any of those are real reasons or I'm just trying to make it make sense. But, yeah, you're right, there's no good reason for it. No one's on welfare because they finished in the middle of their class at a top-5 law school and no one will hire them.

Shouldn't you be studying? ;) --jeremy


Now, I don't think there are really all that many people who fall into category 1 or 2 on his list. But, a lot of people suffer from the slings of his third division. Stress is what you make of it. Students of the world, unite. Wake up. You're living in the matrix.

7 Comments:

At 7:57 AM, Blogger CM said...

My theory is that people are stressed not because of their future career prospects, but because law school is so much work and they start to resent it taking over their lives. This goes especially for people who aren't entirely sure they want to be there.

 
At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm of the opinion that the importance of 1L grades is relative and can, in many cases, make a critical impact. So here's a Canadian perspective: I go to University of Toronto Law School, basically considered as Canada's 'premiere', go-to for big firm recruitment law school (there's the Universtiy of Victoria but they're far away and have bunnies on their campus). It's a respectable school, 50% LSAT is 168, etc. Anyway, for us, good corporate jobs are pretty likely in Toronto but jobs in NYC where lots of us would actually like to be? Definitely, definitely a 'grades matter' kind of deal. My sense is that middle-grade students need not apply. But regardless, life's not bad here in the Big...umm...shadow of the CN Tower. Also, our core courses (contracts, constitutional, criminal, torts, property) are year long, so these midterms are like 20% failsafe thingies that don't act matter.

On the other hand, it is a different story indeed at Canada's largest law school, also in Toronto, Osgoode Hall. With 300 1L students, this is Canada's largest law school. Now, many of these students will get regular big firm jobs, etc. The school is located in Toronto, after all, but nothing is assured, and from what I understand, the atmosphere can be downright nasty. So, even at what's considered a 'respectable' law school, people have legitimate reasons for freaking out.

Further down the chain of being is University of British Columbia. Not actually worse than Osgoode Hall, it suffers from being located in picturesque, resort-town Vancouver, population: all the young urban professionals who want to jog and snowboard. So, lots of labour, not much market. As a result, 30-40% of graduating students could NOT find a firm to article with (articling = a year of practice lawyering before you can write your exams and be a lawyer proper. This is basicallemy the only major difference between the US and Cdn systems legal educational systems). You don't get to article, you don't get the chance to practice law period.

Conclusion, in some countries to the North of California, 1L can be legitimately seen as a real source of stress, even for the most succesful students in the country.

 
At 2:57 PM, Blogger Trevor said...

I think the main reason students at elite schools freak out even though already have got their mitts on a golden ticket is that there are few outside checks on their anxieties. All the 1Ls look around at each other to figure out how stressed they should be and how hard they should work, and being overachievers, figure they should fit in above the median of that sample. A vicious cycle ensues. Even with the sage advice of Jeremy or laid-back upperclassmen, it takes conscious effort to break out of that cycle.

In an unrelated note, I love they way you're using images here. Really livens things up.

 
At 6:08 PM, Blogger some guy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Must be nice to be at a top three school. Even at schools in the teens and twenties, I think you have to be in the top 30% to get a job at a big firm.

 
At 3:30 PM, Blogger SLS2L(@YLS) said...

Which is why I find the whole culture of stress even at a "laid back" school mindboggling.

 
At 3:29 PM, Anonymous AK said...

An interesting topic... Here's my 2 cents as a 2L who survived 1L in relatively good form. I think it first merits saying that it's not really that stress and finals are inextricably intertwined- it's just that people find it hard to separate the two for whatever reason. It's definitely possible to do well in law school without the stress, but I think people secretly like the stress because it lights a fire under their butts and gets them into the library to study.
Speaking from my own personal experience, my stress during 1L came mostly from fear of the unknown- what was this final really going to be like and, no matter how hard I studied or how much I knew, would I know more than everyone else so I could beat the curve? Looking at the 1Ls now it's funny to think that that was me only a year ago. But so it goes, you freak out as a 1L and then the following year you chuckle at the 1Ls freaking out. I guess it just wouldn't be law school without it.
Congrats on getting the job of your choice and good luck on finals!

 

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