Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Now that my law school’s most recent graduates are well into their preparations for the bar examination, I have noticed some of them exhibiting a kind of exasperated relief when they come to talk with me about how their studies are going. They are still feeling a good deal of anxiety about the test, and they are starting to show signs of that deep weariness that comes from focusing intently on a huge task during most of their waking hours. But they are in good spirits, because at long last they are starting to make sense of the Contracts, Property, and Torts classes they took more than two years ago.
“You know,” one of them told me recently, “they are finally just telling me, ‘This is the rule, this is when you use it, this is how you use it.’ All the rules, so I don’t have to extract them or look them up anywhere! I wish that my professor had just done this in my 1L year. That class would have made so much more sense.”
It is a curious system that has evolved in this country: We spend 140-odd weeks getting our students to think creatively, abstractly, and expansively about the practice of law, then push them to spend 10 weeks efficiently and mechanically cramming the specific material required to test into that practice. Imagine if we prepared for other tests in the same way:
Driver’s License Road Test: Students spend three months watching The Road Warrior, Cannonball Run I & II, Smokey and the Bandit I, II, & III, and the entire The Fast and the Furious series. Along the way, they discuss questions like, “Should speed limits always be obeyed, even in a post-apocalyptic world?”, “How is it possible that Burt Reynolds’s license has never been revoked?”, and “Suppose Blackchassis, who is too fast, arrives at an intersection at exactly the same time as Whitechassis, who is too furious. Who has the right of way?” Three days before the scheduled road test, students are permitted for the first time to sit in the driver’s seat, where they discover the existence of turn signals. (Former professors explain that they had not had time to discuss turn signals in class, and in any case, students could look them up in the owner's manual if they ever needed to know about them.)
Test of English as a Foreign Language: Assigned reading includes Infinite Jest, Ulysses, House of Leaves, and Code of Federal Regulations, Title 26. Students are required to write a brief summary of each chapter read; it must be written in iambic pentameter. One week before the TOEFL, the class begins watching “Schoolhouse Rock” and somebody finally explains that a noun is a person, place, or thing.
Presidential Fitness Test: Middle-school students spend the first half of the semester exploring ways to build bulk, stamina, and flexibility in their left gastrocnemius. They learn that the gastrocnemius wasn’t even considered a muscle in early 17th-century England, but had achieved muscular status in both the U.K. and the U.S. by the mid-19th century. There is also extensive discussion about the current treatment of the gastrocnemius as a flexor in most states, but as an extensor in a substantial minority, mostly in the South and New England. In the second half of the semester, the teacher races through the superficial conditioning of most of the major muscle groups of the body, frequently referring back to the gastrocnemius as a model. In the last week before Christmas break, a new gym teacher takes the class outside to run wind sprints in the snow while carrying barbells. She never once mentions the word “gastrocnemius”.
Rorschach Inkblot Test: For ten weeks, the professor requires the students each night to spend three or four hours examining a seemingly random formation of ink on paper. Each day, students come to class asking the professor to explain what they had tried to understand the night before, but the professor only responds with, “Well, what do *you* think it means?” [Wait a minute . . .]
Okay, it's easy to tease our academy for its idiosyncratic way of inculcating an understanding of the law in its students. But most of those students who seem gratified to finally receive concrete and particularized lists of rules to memorize and apply are not wholly frustrated that they had not received them in the first place. They recognize that they would not have known what to do with such a bare-bones framework of legal rules if they had never gone through the mental boot camp of their 1L year, or if they had never explored as much of the range and depth of our jurisprudence as they did in their 2L and 3L years. There are a few students who get hung up on the rote memorization and mechanical application that can, honestly, appear to take up most of the work done in bar preparation. It is always helpful to remind those students that the bar examination is not merely a test of technical ability, like a driver's license test or the TOEFL. It is also a test of judgment, and that, hopefully, is what they have developed, and can tap into, from those three sometimes dizzying years of law school.