« The "experiment" CBS's "Survivor" should have set up(?) | Main | Research Canons: Administrative Law »

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Other Law School (Part 2 of 5)

(This is a continuation of the review essay begun here.) The back cover of Alfredo’s book describes his law school experience as full of travails and battles with hierarchies and a hostile environment. While Alfredo’s tone is a critical one, I have to point out the many positive experiences that are documented in the book. Friendships, clinical work, relationships with key faculty mentors, and the professional responsibility course mentioned in the first post are some of his joys from three years of Stanford. Alfredo’s adventures contrasts with those of Robert Byrnes, Stanford Law School Class of 1998, who presents his Stanford experiences through the lens of a gonzo journalist in Brush With the Law, co-written with a Harvard Law School grad who provides the same take on his Cambridge days in alternating chapters of the book. My reaction to reading Byrnes’ chapters on Stanford was “Halloween Orgy? How come no one told me?” But juxtaposing Alfredo’s and Byrnes’ accounts reveals a lot about law schools and universities.

Byrnes is one lucky dude. As he tells it, he barely made it into an elite college and then bummed around a bit, working for Governor Weld in Massachusetts, before deciding one day, after considering the benefits of living off of student loans in California, to go to Stanford. Getting into Stanford was like winning a lottery, a guaranty to a good job and security with the low admission price of very little, if no, hard work during the three years in paradise. His Harvard alum co-author describes a similar experience in the East Coast, but without all the sunshine. The message is that elite law school education is a breeze with little real training or learning, and plenty of time to explore the finer things that privilege can offer: sex, alcohol, and drugs. To underscore the point that this is true not only for Stanford and Harvard, the authors open their book with an email from an anonymous, but self-identified, Yale Law student who warns that once the word gets out, the value of every law degree will plummet. What the authors describe has close variants in non-elite schools as well.

Alfredo, by contrast, went to school to be engaged.

The death of a brother was the emotional impetus to go to law school, and he used the three years to create a bridge between a previous academic career in sociology and a career in which he merges his sociological and clinical legal interests. The contrast with an experience like Byrnes’ is apparent in Alfredo’s description of his third year. As Alfredo puts it, he was a terrible third year student because he still did the reading, attended class, and remained diligent.

So are there two law schools, much like Michael Harrington uncovered two Americas over forty years ago? A law school where the well-healed (and, I hate to mention, but would be dishonest not to, largely white) are able to spend three hedonistic years as an interregnum, and then another law school where the engaged, and non-career obsessed, use the years to delve into whatever scholastic mysteries law school has to offer?

The same question could be posed for the university. Within its hallowed walls, there seem to be two universities, one where individuals engage in learning through teaching and scholarship and another where individuals live fairly privileged and sequestered lives that permit them to pursue lucrative consulting gigs, political causes (nowadays mostly on the right side of the spectrum), media opportunities, or, as is more often the case, just plain sloth. Byrnes and Alfredo can be understood not just as two contrasting law students, but two different vision of life in the university, each sanctioned under the rubric of academic freedom. The amazing conclusion is that these two warring and radically opposite styles can co-exist within one institution.

Alfredo misses an opportunity in his book by not comparing his experiences as a sociology graduate student in The University of Nebraska with his law school experiences. I can only extrapolate from my experiences as a successful graduate student. There is obvious hierarchy in graduate schools as well, not only in the rankings of schools but also in the relationship between the learned professors and the anxious tyro. But one difference from law school is that of scale. The smallest law school is still bigger than the largest graduate program. (I am excluding any of the funky on-line and unaccredited schools from this comparison.) The other is the power, real or imagined, that comes with a law degree that is lacking in the pursuit of sociology or other discipline. The exception to this difference is an economics or political science degree, where the right specialty can land the PhD in reaches of commercial or political power that rival and perhaps exceed where even the best first year associate might land. Put simply, there is more at stake, again to emphasize either real or imagined, in the pursuit of a law degree than in the pursuit of a PhD. There is nothing surprising there, but that difference alone does not distinguish the law school from other parts of the university. As any law professor that has any degree of introspection knows, the battle between the scholarly types and the privileged, the Alfredo’s and the Byrnes’, exists within law schools. What the argument shows is that it is the pursuit of prestige and power within the academy that makes for the difference. Some are comfortable with forms of internal validation, like Alfredo; other, pursue external validation, like the socialite Byrnes.

Most people, of course, are in the middle, even Alfredo and Byrnes, who are used here only as archetypes. The institution of the university serves to mediate these competing forces so as to keep all of its members from either solely pursuing external ventures or solely engaging in introspection. I am not quite sure how successful it is in doing this. For both students and faculty, university life is something to get through, a means to ends that are defined elsewhere, if at all. Alfredo’s frustrations arose because current institutions (by which I do not mean only Stanford) are designed for the Byrnes of the world to get by to pursue their mindless pleasures in liquid form or through some other form of external validation, leaving the faculty to their own imitation of lofty, but ultimately similar, pursuits. Don’t worry: As long as the Alfredo’s of the world can be contained, the status quo can go on forever.

Posted by Shubha Ghosh on September 19, 2006 at 12:06 AM in Books | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Other Law School (Part 2 of 5):


Sorry to cause offense. I did make it clear in my post that these were just types that were meant to capture tendencies within law schools/universities. The divisions fall along racial, class, gender and other lines, as you gave me credit in understanding. I was struck though by how Byrnes, whatever he represents, captured a similar experience (law school) in such a different way from Mirande, whatever he represents. That contrast is what I wanted to convey in my post. Furthermore, the "learning through teaching and scholarship crowd" that you lump me in with, does not include only the Ovid-reading, Proust-quoting clique. This "crowd" also consists of those who wonder what purpose the university serves and should serve, including better aiding the hardworking folks who view education as a means of advancement, rather than as a means of replicating the status quo.

Posted by: Shubha Ghosh | Sep 19, 2006 11:41:14 AM

There are more than two law schools, and I take exception to the idea that the dichotomy is rich, white, lazy, and career-obsessed vs. poor, minority, diligent, and pursuing knowledge for its own sake. It's a lot more complicated than that, as I'm sure you know, and in my experience "lazy" and "career-obsessed" rarely go hand in hand.

I also think that the idea that "privileged and sequestered lives" lead to lucrative jobs, while the underprivileged focus on "learning through teaching and scholarship," is a little silly. The stereotype at my fancy college was that only the rich and privileged could afford to sit around thinking about art history or Ovid, while those with lots of loans tended to major in economics and end up at McKinsey. Your sympathies are clearly with the "learning through teaching and scholarship" crowd, but you should recognize the elitism -- economic as well as intellectual -- in that sympathy.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 19, 2006 11:14:26 AM

One of the biggest differences between law school and most PhD programs is that the overwhelming majority of PhD students really do care about what they are studying. Few folks enter, say, a history PhD program unless they really are very interested in history (and the few that don't almost certainly won't make it through). In contrast, the vast majority of law students don't really care much about "law" as an academic subject. One hopes that during law school, they will find some areas that interest them, at least from a practical standpoint. In some law school classes in some schools, a very small minority will care about law as an academic subject, but there is no comparison to grad school. Both law and grad schools have their own pathologies, but this difference, I think, makes the experiences pretty distinct.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 19, 2006 9:55:26 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.