January 21, 2011
Law School as a Hazing Ritual
By now, most ASP professionals have read the New York Times article on law school as a losing game. The article was the subject of much discussion in my department. The timing of the article coincided with the AALS annual meeting, where ASP, Student Services, and Balance in Legal Education focused on the question of whether we should be graduating happier law students. The contrast between the article and the AALS section program was stark; as we are looking to graduate happier students, more and more of them are unhappy because of the lack of job prospects, which is one thing that is out of our control in Academic Success.
A colleague on mine with a background in psychology noted the similarity between the student profiled in the NYT's article and the mentality of hazing victims. Victims of hazing often demonstrate undue veneration for the organization, because they have to justify their suffering. Hazing victims have to believe that their suffering was justified by the value and prestige of the organization. Students aren't just suffering because of a lack of jobs; students suffer throughout law school by the system of grading and sorting that prevents them from fixing their errors in thinking before final exams. When law schools operated as a sorting mechanism, where the best suffered in order to be chosen by Big Law and rewarded for their suffering with a high six-figure salary, the hazing of law students was justified by "winners" of the race. However, with BigLaw jobs disappearing, and six-figure starting salaries becoming more and more rare, the concept of law school as a sorting mechanism breaks down. If law school no longer acts as sorting mechanism, is there a reason to continue with a system that causes students to behave like victims of hazing?
The breakdown of law schools as a sorting mechanism makes the focus of this year's AALS program even more timely. While some students will continue to value a law degree despite the low salaries, disappearing job prospects, and rising debt, many more students will reject the notion that a law degree must come with three years of suffering. Breaking law school of the elements of hazing will mean graduating happier law students, and the possibility that they will venerate their law school experience for the value of the education, not as a defense mechanism. A legal education is still incredibly valuable, but it doesn't need to come with undue suffering.
ASP has a critical role in helping graduate happier law students. We can't force professors to give formative assessments, or goose the legal market so graduates have jobs, but we can help students learn the coping skills that make law school easier to digest. We can teach the academic skills earlier in the year and help students design their own formative assessments so that grades are not complete shock in January. ASP can direct students towards the skills classes and clinics that will make them more appealing to employers, despite less-than-stellar first semester or first year grades. (RCF)
(Thank you to Lucy Sweetman of UConn, who made the comparison between victims of hazing and the student profiled in the article.)
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