July 18, 2004

Law school competition

On the eve of my school's law review announcements, and the emotional reactions that will probably follow, let me tell you what I don't want to talk about.

I don't want to talk about whether we should eliminate competition in law school. This just isn't possible. As long as there are more law students than there are desired post-law school positions, there will be competition in law school. Eliminating grades won't get rid of competition; neither will eliminating the competitive law review selection process. Students would find other ways to compete, like kissing up to professors, judges, and firms, or competing to market themselves most effectively: the best resume, the best summer jobs... The best blogs... Please God, no!

I also don't want to talk about the benefits of competition. I'll be the first one to acknowledge that competition often pushes people to do great things that they wouldn't do otherwise. I enthusiastically agree that competition can be exhilarating. Especially if you win. (I feel superbly qualified to speak on this topic, having both won and lost competitions that mattered to me. Of course, virtually every law student is superbly qualified by these criteria.) Competition is usually the best way to select a limited number of students for highly-desired positions. The students who want it the most have a higher chance of getting it, and the position is usually filled with a highly competent, enthusiastic person.

Here's what I do want to talk about: the costs of competition, and the ways competition harms us individually, and harms the law school community. These costs don't make competition any less unavoidable or any less beneficial, but this is no reason to ignore them. Making them explicit helps us to understand what actually happens in law school, and allows us to put competitive successes and failures in the proper context.

1. Competition can interfere with teaching and learning. One phenomenon here at my law school that I've seen with my own eyes (but which still amazes me) is the drop-off in student enthusiasm for class participation after the first semester of 1L year. By class participation, I mean both in-class participation (talking in class, bothering to show up to class) and out-of-class preparation (bothering to do the reading). I've seen it, and faculty routinely acknowledge this to be true. Why does it happen?

There's only one thing that can possibly account for students going from relatively enthusiastic during first semester to relatively apathetic after, and that's grades. Grades, in most cases, are poison. During the first semester, everyone is in the same boat. There haven't been any winners or losers yet. After everyone gets grades following first semester, there are winners and losers; competition has taken its toll. While there are many students who pursue their learning of the law after they've been graded in the same way that they did before they had grades (of whatever sort), there are many others who become more apathetic and more bitter about law school after they've received their first grades.

The reasons for this are many and worthy of a discussion elsewhere, but the bottom line is that grades, which are so necessary for sorting students for the benefit of employers, also interfere with teaching and learning in law school. The apathy and bitterness of second semester made in-class discussions less lively. Out-of-class discussions were less likely to focus on class material than they were first semester. Students were much less likely to respond favorably to a presentation by a professor that they thought was "off-topic" or "irrelevant" to the exam.

I suspect that grades have such a large influence because many students come to law school without a passion for law as such, but more from a lack of any passionate desire to do anything else. I'll compare this with medical school, where (although it has plenty of its own unique problems) the students are almost always passionate about medicine. They really want to be physicians (for various reasons). Few people really want to be lawyers. In this environment, it's not hard to see why law students can get distracted from learning law by every competition that comes along. "Grades are curved? Then grades matter, and if mine aren't great, then what's the point?" What's the point, indeed, if you're not passionate about law. In medical school, bad grades are a disappointment, but for most students, the disappointment isn't so great that it distracts from the desire to learn medicine.

Keep in mind that I'm sympathetic to students who aren't passionate about law school: (a) it's hard to know what to expect before you come to law school; (b) so many run-of-mill jobs out there, even those you can only get with a college degree, are BORING! It makes sense to come to law school, even if law is only slightly less boring; (c) much of law is dull -- admit it; (d) even when you might be passionate about the practice of law, it's absurd to expect that you'll be passionate about law school.

2. Competition breeds bitterness when it's a zero-sum game. There's another way that competition costs us in law school, and that's when it's perceived as a zero-sum game: if you win, then I lose. In law school, and perhaps in the legal profession generally, this perception is enhanced by an obsession with rankings and prestige. Again, a comparison with medical school helps to make the point.

In medical school there is a lot of competition. There are high-prestige and low-prestige doctor jobs; there are more competitive residencies and less competitive residencies. But there's also a sense that the prestigious residencies and jobs don't differ that much from the less prestigious ones. If you're a gastroenterologist, you're going to be doing more or less the same old crap whether you're at Massachusetts General or at some lesser-known hospital. And you'll be doing it for more or less the same amount of money. Therefore, the medical students who don't "win" the competition for MGH residencies haven't really "lost" much either. (Readers may object that the competition for certain specialties like dermatology (dermatology! Yep, strange world...) is zero-sum, and they'd be right, but only a small subset of medical students desperately want to be dermatologists. For most students, the competition is for certain residencies and not for specialties.)

Many law students perceive the competition they face differently from medical students. As far as I can tell, law students believe that there's a huge difference between the plum jobs awarded to the winners, and the leftovers that everybody else gets. Regardless of whether the perception is accurate, law students often feel that their lives will be profoundly different if they "win" instead of "lose." For them, the competition for high grades, law review, clerkships, and legal jobs is zero-sum.

Is this perception true? In my not-fully-informed opinion, yes and no. It's definitely not true in the context of students at "prestigious" law schools competing for jobs with "prestigious" Biglaw firms. Everything that I've learned about those jobs suggests that they're like the gastroenterology case: some are more prestigious, but everyone's doing the same old crap. Ditto for most judicial clerkships (the Supreme Court excepted, of course). Nevertheless, the legal profession, infected as it is with an overweening obsession with prestige, engenders a sense among law students that the competition for jobs in particular Biglaw firms is zero-sum.

But it may be different when you're competing for scarce jobs as a law professor, or if you're at a school that gives you no assurances that Biglaw is in your future. These situations are more like the competition for dermatology slots; whether you win or lose could have a large impact on how you'll actually be spending your time after graduation.

3. Competition can make law students treat one another like shit. This isn't exactly what I want to say. People will treat one another like shit with or without competition; there's always another excuse available when you want one. In the context of a competition that's often perceived as zero-sum, though, the emotions that sometimes follow from "success" or "failure" can make us forget what's important about the people around us. What's important about them isn't that they're on law review, or not on law review. It's whether or not they vote Republican.

Posted by Carey at July 18, 2004 09:56 PM

Excellent, but note that "calling students the week of the 18th" and "calling people on July 19th" need not be synonymous.

Posted by: Heidi at July 18, 2004 10:02 PM

Also, please note that "eve of" and "the day before" need not be synonymous.

Posted by: Carey at July 18, 2004 10:05 PM

Hrm, I suppose technically you are correct.

Damn you. I'll get you next time, Gadget.

Posted by: Heidi at July 18, 2004 10:09 PM

Good post, and I agree with the various costs. I'm just glad that there is only one more uber-competitive period for the majority of students after the LR announcements, and it'll be done by November (I hope). Oh what joy OCI shall be.

Posted by: Adam at July 19, 2004 11:07 AM

grades, which are so necessary for sorting students for the benefit of employers, also interfere with teaching and learning in law school

More than grades, I think, the problem is grading. It's ludicrous and a disgrace that for the most part law school attempts to teach critical reading and writing skills in large lectures and then grades one's mastery based on a single all-or-nothing time-limited exam. There is no other field of graduate study in the humanities or the social sciences where this wouldn't be laughed at as not even suitable for college freshmen.

When the law schools make it so painfully obvious that their one great aim is to put forth the minimum work required to achieve basic plausibility as credentialers for the big firms, little wonder there's so little investment in the process of learning in itself and a commensurate overinvestment in the results. Nothing would completely eliminate competition, of course, especially not as law school seems to feature so many people who were dorks in college now seizing their first real chance to be jerks, but most of that fog of poisonous apathy surrounding the law schools is self-generated.

Posted by: Sarah at July 19, 2004 11:24 AM

In some ways, Carey, the jobs genrally obtained by the "losers" of the "grading wars" can actually be better than those generally obtained by the "winners". I was at a recruiting Christmas party for 1Ls at Paul Hastings in NY last December. One of the young associates there pointed out that those of us in the top 1/4 of our classes at schools like Michigan would go to elite law firms like Paul Hastings and spend our days and nights going through documents, while those further down in the class would go to firms a little lower on the food chain, like plaintiffs firms (with a big sneer on his face) and actually get some real responsibility early on. However, he told me, you want to go to Paul Hastings, cause you want that prestige, right? I thought, if I leave now I can catch the 7:38 train, why don't I do that.
That having been said, having good grades certainly does increase your options, no matter what kind of job you want.

Posted by: Larry at July 19, 2004 12:20 PM

"I suspect that grades have such a large influence because many students come to law school without a passion for law as such, but more from a lack of any passionate desire to do anything else. I'll compare this with medical school, where (although it has plenty of its own unique problems) the students are almost always passionate about medicine. They really want to be physicians (for various reasons). Few people really want to be lawyers."

Bingeaux! You have just summarized what may be the biggest problem in the profession (or at least was when I was in it).

One other observation; one of the saddest sights in my career was to see the psychological devastation that the intense competition wrought on those students who really want to be lawyers, but who (for whatever reason) don't get the exemplary grades. Fortunately, most of them seem to soldier on and get decent, non-prestige jobs (like at the plaintiff's PI firms), but I saw one of my classmates at Northwestern leave in disgust, seriously questioning his self worth...

Posted by: Len Cleavelin at July 19, 2004 01:00 PM

i completely agree. there should not be money, either. we should all just share.

Posted by: at July 19, 2004 02:54 PM

Lesson #1 from blogging: no matter how much you hedge what you say with disclaimers, somebody won't read them.

Posted by: Heidi at July 19, 2004 05:31 PM