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Law school more of a survival contest than education


By Larry Johnston
July 13, 2004

Many readers have asked me to write about law school. How can I resist? Of the many stories from that time, I will tell you about my first day.

I have to set the scene first. The law school building is not pretty. The architect designed the inside and outside to be bare, unpainted concrete. Students call it the warehouse and it is a masterpiece of economy. I once built a tool shed with more charm.

My first day in law school found me in a large auditorium with about 800 students.

We each had endured 12 years of public school, four years of undergraduate work, and now had to look ahead to three years of legal training. That adds up to 19 years of education in all. Most of us would be at least 25 before we earned our first career dime.

The dean of the college welcomed us and various professors tried to lighten the mood. Their lack of success is explained in part by the fact that law professors are not hired for their sense of humor.

One of them was the professor who taught constitutional law. His idea of teaching was to turn pages of a 1,393-page textbook and ask us if we had any questions. After only a week, he was up to page 500.

It finally dawned on us to ask questions just to slow him down, because we had to read what he covered. During the subsequent 12 weeks, he never made it past page 519. Incidentally, you should know that constitutional law books are apparently printed with ink made of ether. It is impossible to read one without falling asleep.

Another professor taught evidence law. I admit he really knew his stuff. Just ask him. He epitomizes what all law professors have to varying degrees: a booming voice that penetrates walls, if not skulls.

Each word came out of his mouth as if it was his personal creation. He hung onto these words long enough for stone carvers to chisel them into marble. Kneeling was optional but preferred when you went to his lectures.

However, it is another professor's words on orientation day that still ring in my ears. He said we should look to the person on our left and to the person on our right. Neither of those would likely graduate. The prediction turned out to be true. We lost two-thirds of our classmates along the way.

Unfortunately, the prediction also reflected the philosophy of some professors there. They presumed most of us would leave and took no interest in us. They answered our questions flippantly and designed exams to get rid of us. We only had one exam per class. A four-hour affair. It was sudden death. No mid-terms. No progress tests. Nothing.

Contrast my first day in law school with my roommate's first day of medical school. He sat down in a classroom with about 65 other students. A professor came in and welcomed them. He told them they were accepted to medical school because they all had what it takes. If they studied hard and kept their lives straight, they would all one day be doctors.

If a medical student asked a professor a question, it was likely they would both work together to find the best answer. Would a law professor do the same? Unlikely. Also, when a medical professor tested students, it would be not to weed out students, but to make sure they all comprehended the subject. It was as much a check of teaching skills as of student intelligence.

From the first day, law school was more of a survival contest than an education. I once went back to my law school to give a speech. I told the students the same story you just read. When I was finished, many professors were squirming in their chairs.

I wonder why they never invited me back.

Johnston is a retired juvenile court judge.