Tuesday, December 6, 2005

The Closest Thing to Junior High Since Junior High

The day after I attended orientation for my first year of law school, my son attended orientation for his first year of middle school.  I came down to breakfast to find him sitting at the table, holding a spoonful of cereal suspended motionless in front of his face, and staring into space.

"Are you nervous?" I asked.  He nodded with an expression of profound anxiety. 

"I'll tell you how you feel," I said.  "You are afraid that the work will be too hard, that the other kids won't like you, that the teachers won't like you, that you'll say something stupid, and that you won't be able to get your locker open."

He nodded again with his eyes wide and asked me in an astonished tone, "How did you know?"

I said, "Because I felt that way yesterday.  But I got through it okay," I added, "and you'll be all right, too." 

I think of that day fairly regularly as I work with law students, because I have always thought law school is the closest thing to junior high since junior high. 

In my first semester of law school, I somehow went from a confident and successful professional to a trembling mass of insecurity and self-doubt in a matter of weeks.  All of the old insecurities that I had thought were long vanquished were suddenly in front of me again as if I had never left the eighth grade.  I was suddenly an overly introspective, self-critical, anxious junior high kid again.

The reason is fairly simple.  For the first time since junior high, I was about to be placed in a pecking order and did not know how I would rank.  In junior high, being accepted and approved by my peers seemed life-and-death important:  if a girl rolled her eyes when I tried to talk to her, I was a failure as a human being; if I said something "dumb" and everyone around me laughed at me, my life was over.  The pecking order was constantly in front of me, and like every other junior high kid, my place on it was a roll of the dice every day.

In law school, the pecking order was all about class rank, but it had that same life-and-death feel to it.  Somehow all the things that had defined me were swept aside in favor of class rank.  My whole world suddenly seemed to depend upon how my grades came out and whether some law firm I had never heard of until law school would offer me a summer clerkship.

I remember stepping back and asking myself how they did it to me.  How could law school culture so redefine my priorities that my sense of self-worth could be determined by success or failure in that one endeavor?  How could a grown man be so easily turned into that insecure, bumbling junior high kid again? 

The answer, I decided, was that law school tends to be an all-consuming, closed world that ignores most of what has defined us up to then and challenges the validity of what it doesn't ignore.  Worse, we are placed in an explicit comparison with everyone else in this new little universe and guaranteed that half of us will be in the bottom half of the class.  If that isn't bad enough, we get the sense that anyone not in the top ten percent of the class is destined to be a mediocre lawyer in a mediocre law firm doing mediocre work.  If you can't make the top ten percent, you sure aren't going to be one of the cool kids.  And you'll get to tell your loved ones and friends that you aren't all you were cracked up to be.

So our students enter December like junior high kids going to their first junior high dance.  They face a clear-cut redefining of their place in the world as they begin final exams, and they have had a fairly regular series of reminders that they may not be as bright as they think.  Because most law students have been academically successful whenever they put their minds to it, the prospect of failing or of even being "mediocre" is daunting indeed. 

Law school strikes at a part of them that has been central to their sense of who they are, and it has made that part of them a central focus of the past four months.  Under the daily pressure of law school's first semester, it is tough to keep any kind of perspective because the outside world is so consistently relegated to second place in the fight to keep up.

Somehow we have to help them stop taking themselves so seriously while taking seriously the work they are doing.  Somehow we have to help them remember who they are, and somehow we have to help them regain their perspectives.

Like junior high kids, our students have to figure out what really matters and what really doesn't; but for the moment, they are pretty much at sea.  It's a whole new world for them, and the rules are unclear and the outcomes painfully uncertain.

They'll figure it out, of course, the same way they figured it out in junior high:  they'll find out that most of their perceptions of the world have become distorted by the claustrophobically small world of law school and that much of what makes them most anxious today is not going to seem nearly so important a few years from now. 

Not scoring as well on exams as one would like, not ranking as highly as one would like, does not really define what kind of lawyer one will become.  We all know that, but we have the benefit of hindsight and of having re-entered the larger world.  For the moment, however, our students are back in junior high, questioning all that they are and worrying that they are about to find out they aren't much after all.

In January, we'll need to help them come to grips with the aftermath of the equivalent of their first junior high dance.  They'll survive it; we did.  But we can make life a little easier for them if we can figure out how to convince them that junior high really doesn't define the rest of their lives. (dbw)

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