Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Train Ride

Every August, I watch a new crop of first-year students milling around, waiting for orientation activities to begin.  Some look confident, others a little anxious; some talk, and some sit quietly, avoiding conversations; some seem nonchalant, others cautiously excited.  As a group, they seem ready for what's coming as their first year begins.

And I always think to myself, "They're about to get hit by a train, and they don't even know they're on the tracks."

It is true, of course.  They are about to be hit by a train they have not anticipated, even if someone has warned them ahead of time.  Until you have been to law school, you just can't get it.  You can know it will be challenging; you can know that it will take hard work and long hours.  But you can't really know what is about to hit you until it hits you.

Some might say that law school itself is the train, driven by professors who delight in driving it over unsuspecting students who cannot possibly hope to compete with scholars that have devoted much of their adult lives to mastering their particular areas of law.  Students understandably believe that to be so, and many lawyers believe it was true of their own law school experiences.

I do not think the train is law school itself, however.  I cannot deny, of course, that some law professors have a sadistic streak or a simply arrogant streak that leads them to belittle those who cannot play at the same level as they.  Those professors, in my experience at least, are a small minority.  Most law professors genuinely want their students to learn; and while they may be demanding teachers, they are not deliberately cruel.

So what is the train that runs over first-year law students?  It is the law itself.  The law demands students to develop new thinking skills, new learning strategies, new attitudes about the complexities of life, and a new respect for the pitfalls of shallow reasoning. The law requires an intellectual humility at the outset because it constantly engages perplexing but important questions of justice.  The law requires precision and care in the balancing of rights and duties, responsibilities and harms. It grants no room for sloppy or cavalier thinking.

It may seem that law school is the culprit, but it seems so only because law school provides for most students their first encounter with the demands of the legal profession.  The train that hits them is an unavoidable and exceptionally challenging learning process qualitatively different from much of what they have encountered in their schooling to that point.

The good news, however, is that they will master the law, insofar as one may do so in three years.  By the end of their law school careers, they will have caught the train that hit them, and they will have learned not only how to ride it; they will have learned how to drive it.  In a short three years, they will have gone from generally dumbfounded and often shell shocked to generally competent and appropriately confident in the very endeavors that seemed so daunting in the first months of law school.

As a result, at commencement I am able to sit back and think, "Ladies and gentlemen, the train is yours."  (Daniel Weddle)

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