Monday, February 28, 2005

Utopia Law School

A few months ago, I thought I would write a story using the genre of utopian literature to poke fun at everything that is wrong with law schools. I thought I might even send it in to the law school newspaper. But after seeing how it turned out, I decided to forget it. The story had somehow managed to be both too giddy and heavy handed at the same time. (Just having looked at it again for the first time since I wrote it, I see now all too clearly that the two creative writing courses I took in college were for naught. ) But I don't have a blog for nothing. Without further ado, here it is!

Utopia Law School

I had only heard the vaguest of rumors that Utopia Law School existed when I applying to law school two years ago, so naturally it came as a great shock to me when I was sitting in tax class playing solitaire and I saw I got an e-mail from the school saying that I had been accepted into their program as a transfer student. I quickly agreed to visit the school; despite some serious googling had never been able to confirm whether in fact there was such a place. After class, I met my tour guide, who made me promise to never reveal where Utopia is located. (I can only say that despite the rumors that Utopia is at Princeton, which supposedly does not have a law school, the school’s balmy weather in the middle of the winter suggests that it is located somewhere in the South.)

While we were traveling, I asked my guide why the school is not listed in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. He explained to me that Utopia is literally off the charts because the school wants to attract only students who care more about attending a school that is right for them because it is not for everyone. “We want to create a positive environment where everyone feeds off each other. We don’t want students who only come here because it’s the best school they got into and we screen out people who believe they have a God-given right to clerk on the Supreme Court.” The guide said. “Utopia is much more work than at other schools and we only want people who we know will do the work because they love the law and want to use it to help people. That’s not everyone.”

My guide then explained that the program is only two years long, with the first year closely tracking that of conventional schools. The second year is focused on preparing students for practice: although there is some room for electives, trial advocacy and clinical classes are mandatory for all students. The school used to have a third year that was all electives, but had decided to cut back after a study showed that students were not attending classes and reported feeling bored and anxious to get out into the “real world.” But apparently even then, the move had been controversial within the administration. What had finally convinced the school to make the move was another study showing that the school was doing so well financially that it could do without third-year tuition.

After my guide explained all this to me, I was anxious to sit in on a class, so he took me to observe a first year class in contracts, which had just 30 students. The professor began class by returning the “homework” which had been to write a judicial opinion resolving a fact pattern the professor had given the previous week. My guide explained in a whisper that this is the standard procedure in all the classes: students read cases and then after discussing them in class, try their hands at writing an opinion applying the legal tools they have learned and incorporating as precedent the cases they have just read. In this way, he explained, students learn not only how to pick apart cases but how to engage in sound legal reasoning: the payoff is that at the end of the term, students are completely prepared for finals. My guide expressed wonderment at how conventional schools do not have regular writing exercises. “Why,” he exclaimed, “it’s like taking a class on Shakespeare and reading all the plays he wrote, and then having to write a two-act play on the final without having had any practice!”

When I expressed my own wonder in that the professors actually have the time to read all the practice exercises, my guide laughed and explained that not only is there a 6:1 student-faculty ratio, the professors don’t waste their time writing law review articles that no one will read anyway; they only publish when they really have something to say. Besides, he explained, how often one publishes is only one factor in the tenure process. The quality of teaching and the contributions to the work of other faculty members are also taken into consideration. “The faculty members actually fight amongst themselves to get people who are least like themselves ideologically so they can have more people they can bounce their ideas off,” my guide remarked, before turning to me with a quizzical expression. “If there’s one thing I never understood, it’s the obsession of professors at other schools with getting people who think like themselves. Really what’s up with that?” I could only shrug my shoulders.

When I asked about grades, the guide let out a loud guffaw and said, “Grades! You have got to be kidding me!” With a more serious tone, my guide explained, “We feel that there could not be a worse way to evaluate students. Grading causes too much stress and students learn nothing from seeing what grade they got.” I pressed him for details on what they do instead, and he explained that they do student evaluations instead, where the professor sits down with each student and makes very frank appraisals of each student’s performance in class, noting what the student did well and did not do so well in class, on the practice exercises and on the final. After the student has had the chance to ask questions and provide his own thoughts about what he learned during the semester, the professor writes up a short evaluation for insertion into the student’s records. But what about the employers? I asked. The guide laughed again and said that although employers initially grumbled when Utopia implemented its current system, it hasn’t stopped them from scrambling over themselves to land a Utopia grad; the school’s unique curriculum renders them all that much the more valuable than graduates from anywhere else. When I asked where students tend to end up, my guide said they literally end up everywhere: while many go to firms because making money is the right thing for them to do, many also go into the government or public interest work because they want more rewarding work.

My guide then took me around campus, showing me the activities that students participate in when not in class. He explained that membership in the law review is open to all who want to join, but only those with an interest in cutting-edge legal scholarship do so; students are smart enough to recognize that they will be in demand when they graduate no matter what they do and choose to spend their time doing what they find most rewarding. Most students prefer to take on pro bono cases to help people while gaining practice trying their hand at applying what they have learned in the classroom. I got the chance to talk to a second-year student taking a break in between clients and she told me, “First year was fantastic, but I never thought law school could be this wonderful. Everyone I know really loves second year because first year we didn’t really know anything and now all of a sudden we can really do stuff with the law!” She then apologized for not being able to talk with me any longer, but told me that she hopes that students where I come from can relate to her enthusiasm. “How can it not be anything like this anywhere else? What you can do through the law is so fulfilling no matter where you are!”

Then I felt something hit me. I woke up baffled to see everyone in tax class looking at me and laughing. The professor had thrown chalk at me. “You shouldn't fall asleep in class,” he said, laughing.

4 Comments:

Blogger The Critics said...

This is believable, up until the last two sentences. First of all, professors dont use chalk anymore. Chalk is not environmentally friendly anymore, whereas marker-boards are. Secondly, professors dont laugh, at least not externally. They file the incident away in memory. Then, at the end of the day, they gather in the Professor's lounge and enjoy a good laugh over some toasted whiskey. But they never laugh in front of the student. So much for your utopian ideals.

2/28/2005 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger putonyourspecs said...

Harvard still uses chalk. But you're right that ULS shouldn't use chalk. Dry-erase markers, it is!

2/28/2005 08:15:00 PM  
Blogger bum said...

Hmm...is the point that no such school exist because if so, I respectfully disagree. While I am just a bum, I believe most people go to law school because they think it is fulfilling. While most of the people who go don't go for altruistic reasons, whatever reason they go for they feel it will bring them some kind of fullfillment.

3/03/2005 06:44:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Austin said...

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10/02/2005 02:05:00 PM  

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