Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One L - Scott Turow

I've been thinking about law school for about three years now. This is finally the time that I'll apply to it. Each year has brought increasing seriousness to the pursuit. It hit its full realization when I applied for a $7.75/hour job at Barnes & Noble and saw an interesting book in the legal section called Lawyer Boy. I read some of that on Google Books and it is about going to DePaul in the early to mid 2000's. I would say it is pretty up-to-date and accurate, and probably a lot more applicable to the majority of applicants than One L. That said, anyone who is considering law school should read One L because apparently all of the pain the book describes is going to happen no matter where you end up.

One L takes place at Harvard Law School (HLS) in 1975 and 1976. It is a memoir by Scott Turow, who now lives in Wilmette, I believe, and works for a loop law firm. He is just about the greatest role model someone from the North Shore who wanted to be a writer and decided that it was too hard without a good back-up option so he decided to be a lawyer instead could have. He writes novels and he practices law, and he seems pretty successful at what he does. If I end up like him in thirty five years, I won't be upset with my accomplishments. However, he is not the greatest role model for two reasons:

1) He was teaching Creative Writing at Stanford before he started law school. If I were doing this, despite its undoubtedly lower pay, I would have stuck with it. Plus I'm assuming he got his MFA from Stanford. Something I tried to do but yeah I wouldn't even have bothered with Stanford and it didn't work out anyways.

2) He went to fucking Harvard.

So, one opens up One L and automatically takes a negative attitude towards its author. He is obviously one of the smartest people in the world, or at least one of the luckiest, but one could hardly claim that he didn't put in hard work to get there. Still, he does well on the LSAT (then scored on a scale of 800) and figures he could go to Harvard, so why not? (For someone that didn't score, oh, 175, it's automatically frustrating too).

Once he is into law school and done with all of the magnanimous introductions, however, the story becomes much more human and relatable. Oh wait, he is also already married and "old" at 26 (if I go, I will be starting at 27, and relentlessly single). He begins by describing his courses, professors, and classmates, and this is the majority of the "action" of the book. This is not a novel--this is a memoir--but the names have been changed. He kept what I have to say is a very detailed and impressive journal during the first year that is the basis of the book. His first classes are in Contracts (a year-long course), Civil Procedure (also year-long), Criminal Law (one term) and Torts (one term). Each of the professors--Perini, Morris, Mann (!), and Zechman--become major characters. So do his wife, Annette, his friends Stephen, Terry, and Aubrey, and Karen Sondergard who is always mentioned in conjunction with crying.

There is a fair amount of suicidal depression that occurs in the context of stress associated with first term exams and judging from what I have heard about present-day practices, it hasn't changed. It makes law school seem downright masochistic. And it may in fact be masochistic. But that doesn't change the fact that Turow is excited by the law and enamored with it. So basically, what this book accomplishes is a fair warning to anyone thinking about the major commitment that is three years of intense scrutiny, endless studying, and what basically amounts to public humiliation. If you still think you want to go after reading it, you have been warned. I personally still want to go. I'm not afraid of it. Especially since certain things seem to have changed in the last 33 years, and certain things would be unique to HLS and not other law schools.

I know that the admission process is insane enough as it is, and the first year is the most "intellectually traumatizing" experience one can have (as one friend described it to me). But One L does take a bit of the mystery out of the law school experience and gives one a better idea of what to expect. However, it is dated. Harvard costs $3,000 a year in 1975. Who knows what that equates to, inflation-wise, but still, thirteen times the price? Law school is one of the most ridiculously expensive things there is in this world (perhaps it is not as bad as a $10,000 bottle of wine). But salaries are also higher, thankfully:

"I was accustomed to teachers' salaries. At Stanford, in the English department, a full professor, well respected, after a lifetime of successful teaching and scholarship might have been earning $22,000. That is the starting salary for Harvard graduates at many firms in New York. (101)

"A poll taken during interview season and published in the law school newspaper showed that the 1Ls responding hoped for an average income of $28,000 in their twentieth year out of law school and a starting salary of $13,000." (102)

Turow does have some intriguing suggestions for law school reform, and the book mainly serves as a soapbox for exploring those incidents that merit consideration in changing certain policies or traditions. One of them that I found intriguing was the practice of grading exams blindly--that is, the student's name is replaced by an ID number while the professor grades them. First of all, I would say that basing a student's entire grade for a year-long course on a single exam is messed up as it is, but that is something that seems fairly established no matter where you look. But doing it blindly, without any consideration to a student's in-class accomplishments seems even more unfair:

"And there were also a number of people who'd demonstrated real insight into legal problems in class but who somehow had not done well on the exams. Ned Cauley was one. In a case like his, I was left wondering if the law school's system of blind grading--with a student's entire mark based on a test identified by a number and not by name--was worth it, or if it forced professors to ignore knowledge obviously relevant to their evaluations." (239)

Turow's most compelling single statement, however, concerns the practice of number-crunching law school applicants and law school students to the degree that the cycle becomes truly vicious, and one might say, unjust:

"But one thing nags which does not bear directly on me anymore, but is worth mention. Right now admissions at most American law schools are based on predictions of how well applicants will do in school, which is to say how high they will rank on exams. Those forecasts, based on statistical formulae that combine LSAT scores and college grades, are often quite accurate. But that amounts only to saying that American law schools admit people who will be good test-takers rather than good attorneys. Correlations between exam success and worthwhile achievements in the practice of law are speculative at best. Until that connection is better established, the narrow and arbitrary nature of exams will continue to dictate a narrow and arbitrary means of selection for training for the bar. And that is a peculiar state of affairs for a profession and an education which claim to concern themselves with rationality, with fairness." (199)

For moments like these, where Turow's rhetoric rises above to the level of a nearly profound articulateness, those in the field of legal education will benefit from a perusal of this text. But this post is probably an unnecessary prescription--it seems as if One L has attained pre-eminent status amongst law school hopefuls and pre-1Lers. But the depictions of classroom conduct by professors, as well as the competitive nature of the classmates (a necessary evil of the system, it seems) will remind the reader what it means to be a decent person in a sea of indecency. Even when Turow himself cracks and claims he doesn't give a damn about anybody else, he wants the advantage on the last exam, the reader may be inclined to agree with him. But not before he comes to his senses and realizes that he may be taking everything just a little too seriously (emphasis on little).

Maybe there are attendant memoirs about going to med school and going to business school and going to a PHD program and an MFA program, but if they are lacking, Turow's accomplishment can point the way for others. This book is occasionally dry, but so is the law, and anyone interested in reading it should be expecting that and so it is obviously forgivable. It's not the greatest book I've ever read, but I haven't read many suspense stories about going to school, and it is probably the best in that genre that I have noticed. But maybe I am just biased and self-serving.

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