An Introduction to the Study of Law (Part III): Survival Is Not Enough! Five Tips for Thriving in Law School

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Few university programmes are as demoralising as the study of law. A harsh indictment, I admit, but one that has been repeatedly confirmed by scholarly research in a variety of commonwealth jurisdictions. Students set into their degrees with enthusiasm and fervour only to be slapped down by the realities and logic of the institution. Rare is the student who sails through the programme without feelings of disappointment, disaffection, and, too frequently, dejection taking hold of them at multiple stages or, in the worst instances, throughout the programme. Absenteeism is rife across all years as is an underlying current of generalised frustration.
Institutions point to the results of student surveys as evidence that these claims are hogwash or, at the very least, hyperbolic. The irony of a university using a promotional survey to counter the findings of empirical research is lost only on those who know nothing about research, individuals who, we hope, are not making decisions about the operation of a research institution (at least to the extent that the institution remains research-driven and has not been converted into a commercial enterprise, a debatable assumption today).
Nor is this state of affairs a recent occurrence. I have heard old and young colleagues alike, myself included, describe legal education as soul destroying, something akin to a dreadful rite of passage. Not only is the evidence plentiful – disproportionate rates of mental illness, addiction, and anti-social behaviour among law students and legal professionals – but the source has already been diagnosed. Through a self-determination lens, legal education undermines all key psychological nutriments of human well being: competency, autonomy, and community. By this the researchers mean that the pedagogical processes in place not only fail to nurture the nutriments needed to learn effectively but they actively counter them, producing the demoralisation described above. Grading, large-scale lectures, and narrated powerpoint presentations are just a few examples of standard practices that exacerbate students’s impression that they are out of control, that they are incapable, and that they are alone. Nor is the damage being done limited to the law school experience. As it takes place during formative years, it alters their perception of education more broadly, eroding their future potential.
What can be done? Plenty.

Instead of operating within the parameters of the institution, instead of becoming another statistic, students can be proactive and devise a strategy that will enable them to transform their legal education into a nurturing experience. Below I outline ten tips that will help students unleash their intrinsic motivation and creating a barrier between their ambitions and the deadening effects of the institution. Each characteristic is associated with a memorable individual who epitomises the trait I identify (the association is not necessary but the exercise is a lot more fun like this). I note that the list is not absolute and that students are welcome to modify it as they see fit. In fact, if they take the tips to heart, I expect they will do so without any coaxing from me.

Tip 1: Speak

There is no better ally than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time.
Malcolm X

Malcolm X confessed that when he first entered prison, his vocabulary was scarcely more than two hundred words. Yet, in the short period between his release and his assassination, he was celebrated as one of the most incendiary orators of his generation. He treated adversity in the same way as a duck treats water: a source of nourishment. Immediately upon his release he set out to share what he learned about morality, philosophy, legality, and resistance with anyone who would listen and even with those who would not. Cutting his teeth on street corners and makeshift pulpits, Malcolm X learned to speak his thoughts with clarity and conviction.

Law students would be well served following his example. It is only by articulating your ideas about the law that you will come to know what those ideas happen to be.

Tip 2: Strategise

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
Sun Tsu

Strategy and tactics are frequently used interchangeably. Yet any chess, poker, or monopoly player is aware of the differences. A strategy includes an objective and an overriding plan; a tactic is an instrument used to advance the objective. Law students think little about tactics strategy and tactics being mostly preoccupied with grades, more grades, and jobs.

Recognised as a master strategist and tactician, Sun Tsu impressed upon his disciples the value of reflection on both. Dedicating a little time to reflecting on their purpose in obtaining a law degree will ensure that students hone in on an array of favourable tactics to get them there.

Tip 3: Adapt

Not only does God play dice, but…he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.
Stephen Hawking

It is rare to link scientists with God (save for Richard Dawkins who, curiously, dedicates a comical amount of time hating on what he sees as a fairy tale). Yet, in this quote, Stephen Hawking references God with the nonchalance of the clergy. Recognition of a supreme authority, however, is only the first anomaly – God plays dice – with chance also rearing its contradictory head. To a man diagnosed with a degenerative condition in his early 20s, and given little more than 2 years to live (over 50 years ago), the assertion is not so curious after all.

What Hawking demonstrates – and what I encourage students to consider – is the importance of learning to adapt. Life can hit you like a ten-tonne heavy thing and, without an ability to roll with the punches, you are liable to get flattened. Throughout your degree, you are sure to encounter a lecturer, topic, assessment, classmate, or team partner who you do not vibe with. Rather than fluffing the opportunity, accept that chance happens and you are always better served adapting to the challenge before you.

Tip 4: Practice

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.
Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a scholar-journalist. Consider this a term of endearment for I am frequently flummoxed by the depth of his investigations and reflections, both of which contribute to the force of his findings. For example, he has determined that being an outlier has less to do with personality differences than it does with behavioural ones. Outliers, whether in sport or in technology or even in intellect, simply practice more than others. Talent and chance have a role to play also but consistent effort is the greatest determinant of improvements in human performance.

The lesson is invaluable for law students. Many assume that (occasional) lecture attendance and the review of powerpoint presentations will somehow produce learning about the law. They thus dedicate a sea of hours to reading. While reading is invaluable, reading without a proactive practical application is akin to walking with your eyes closed: there is movement but you could just as easily end up going over a cliff as walking on to football pitch. Meaning what? Meaning you must practice. Hours are needed, yes, but so is effort and the effort must vary. Students should supplement their reading with practice: they must practice writing, speaking, problem-solving, all of which should be done in a legal context.

The logic is simple: since your lecturers will call on you to write or speak about the law, it makes little sense for you not to practice these activities beforehand and consistently. As Gladwell proclaims (and has verified), it is practice that allows us to improve at an activity and strategic practice (see Sun Tsu) that provokes improvements in performance.
The equation is simple: time + practice = learning.

Tip 5: Participate

Harry Potter to me is a bore. His talent arrives as a gift; he’s chosen. Who can identify with that? But Hermione – she’s working harder than anyone; she’s half outsider, right? Half Muggle. She shouldn’t be there at all. It’s so unfair that Harry’s the star of the books, given how hard she worked to get her powers.
Ira Glass on Hermione Granger

Hermione is celebrated in the Harry Potter series though only as second, possibly third fiddle to the protagonist. As has been rightly observed, this is curious treatment since both Harry and Ron would have died early (likely book 1) and gruesome deaths were it not for her keen efforts. Yet, throughout the series, Hermione is mocked, heckled, and shamed for her commitment to learning. On some level, the author should be commended for providing an accurate representation of the perception young people have of studious students. Patterns emerge almost instantly in a new class with some students standing out as go-to participants and others cowering behind books, peers, and devices. It is even common to hear a collective sigh when the studious ones raise their hands.
What I admire most about the Hermiones of the world is their willingness to participate in the activities presented to them. A question is posed; they venture an answer. A team is established; they volunteer to play. An initiative is under consideration; they offer to assist. I admire their enthusiasm not for any sentimental reasons but simply because they have succeeded in melding self and collective interest. It is in their interest to participate – they are consistently honing their skills – just as it is in everyone else’s interest – others observe how to and how not to do it.
I highlight, however, that Hermiones are rarely pretentious types. They participate not to score browning points or to impress their peers; participation is rarely assessed and, as mentioned, peers scoff at rather than celebrate passion. A sincere desire to gain from the opportunity before them is enough to provoke their participation. Like Ira Glass, I much rather dine with Hermione .