Saturday, November 04, 2006

Law school culture

I have typed out a lot of different blogs on how law school kids are freaks. The problem is that it is hard to write that in such a way that conveys what I am trying to convey without cutting into people that can easily access my non-private site through a very direct link. As employers drift over to this site (as I hear that is what they do now, and thanks to, I have to stand by what I say), I am going to have to nuance up this comment, so lets go!

So here is the deal, if you are in NYU law school, you are probably a freak. Really, if you went to any intense law school, the odds are probably pretty good; there is just only one group where I am willing to testify to the freakiness. This is why, you didn't get in here by being normal. You didn't get in here by being passive. Diversity directly counts in admission, and that is not just the color of the student, it's their approach to life. In nicer words, you have to be special to go to this school.

The difference between a nerd, a gunner, a "slacker" (my favorite law school misnomer) and an average student? Paper thin. it's this little red line that dances through linguistics. it's a hand raised. it's an hour extra studied. Even the ones that study all the time and the ones that skim (they are out there, and I love you if you are reading this)? They are just in different directions. Because the same intensity that drives one to books, and the intensity that drives one away from books is what got most of the people here.

I don't want to go into "problems," because that is unfair. I am not accusing anyone of a problem. But the school has this weird element to it adopted from being created by this very specific cross section (highly motivated, individualistic, smart kids) of an entire country.

First weird thing: conversations just get weird. I have never noticed how many social layers American society supports within every conversation. People who say it's all about culture always sounded ones for hyperbola to me, now I take it back. A comment left hanging for just slightly too long, a catty comment that had no reason to be said, an awkward turn from someone, all of these are more pronounced by the fact that such different and specific individuals are doing them.

In most situations, these kids dominate. They dominate by being aggressive. They dominate by being smart. They dominate by being funny. They dominate by being just so themselves, and so put together, that people want to listen. Here, that option is a dangerous one, as you audience is just like you. I have seen two people talking at each other, with no real sense a conversation was occurring. Rather, words were being sent at each other to convey the ideas that they wanted to convey. However, there was surely no give and take. Just two people talking.

Second weird thing: drama, so much drama. I think it gets at the extreme social sensitivity of the people around here. For the legal reader and anyone who has access to Wikipedia, there are a lot of emotional "eggshell skulls" walking around the school.

However, it's worth emphasizing, this is not a bad thing. I am not making a value judgement, but stating this, kids take all of this very seriously. It reminds me of middle school, not in it's immaturity, but it's contrived nature. You have 1,500 ambitious kids or so, you put them in the highest stress environment of their lives, and then you have them indirectly compete twice a year for the one standard of achievement that most of them have excelled at for 16 years of their lives. So what is going to happen? Drama.

So what is drama? it's hard to define, I have tried to do it before on this blog. The safest best for me is added social pretense. As I admitted earlier, culture is thick. I think "drama," as used in this context, is just adding a few layers. it's taking things personally that were meant casually. it's fighting without fists or arguments but in nuanced lobs of catty comments. it's people looking down on others that are only nominally dissimilar to themselves (supra above).

Last one, but definitely not the only way law school is freaky: Reflecting on oneself is constant and harsh. I originally had the word ugly in there but took it out because that is not what I am trying to convey, rather, it's just a reflection in a positivist manner, it's neither good nor bad inherently (the reflection that is, the actual process is probably unquestionably good for reasons of self discovery).

I consider myself highly motivated and fairly individualistic. Where do those things come from? I am still not sure, but I have seen a mighty lot of my peers recently. A lot of it seems to be created by the individual - cut themselves out of whole cloth.

I think it is ultimately an imbalance. An imbalance simply being "lack of proportion between corresponding things" not a statement on whether that is good or not. However, these people are just different. And although the response is cultural, I think the source might be biological. This is spoken from the advantage of having virtually no biological background. As such, I can speak to biology as I imagine philosophers doing in the 16th century. Speaking to the entire body of science as a concept that supports whatever postulate they might hope that it does. However, summarized - I think something is different in the head of these kids.

And now you look at them and wonder, is that the same reason I am the way I am?

I am not trying to escape any of these things in saying that their application does not apply to me. I recognize I am a part of this game too. I just hope that I am more aware of it. However, not in an overblown pretentious way, but rather, a recognition of some of the consequences of what seems to be one clear fact: If you have a bunch of people selected for their excellence in similar societal games played over the course of at least 22 years, and you put them together constantly in a high-stress environment - a whole different culture will pour out.


Smiranda said...

Awesome. More postings. I like it!

Nick gets by being laid back socially and seems to do pretty well at it (a-duh ^^). I have heard and do know of those people who are catty and pretty pretentious within the law school gossip mill. They don't seem to get very far with the group...

Anonymous said...

Law school culture is crazy. I'm a 1L and the one thing I've noticed is how people have changed since the beginning of the semester. Everyone started out all buddy buddy, but now people are moving into compete mode. The law school has become an island on Survivor. You can tell people are scheming and forming alliances of study groups. I get sucked, but I'm trying really hard to fight it.

Sumit Phadnis said...

The school from which I passed out law was amazing...ppl just trying to be a smart & behaving as if they are lawyers...

Anonymous said...

I know you wrote this a few years ago, but I'm commenting anyway. I stumbled upon this post after doing a Google search for "law school culture." I wanted to thank you for writing this. It's remarkable how well you've described the positively weird culture at "good" law schools. For me, law school culture at the U. of Mich. was so disorienting that it made me question whether there was something wrong with me. I didn't know why my experience of the world, and my interactions with others, were suddenly so weird. You've helped me confirm that the environment around me is responsible for the weirdness, and you've gone further and tried to explain the reasons why law school is this way.

Matthew K Warner said...

Thanks for the response Anonymous. Law school is a weird time, often with a lot of very smart people acting badly.