Tuesday, January 26, 2021
There is something about this time of year – perhaps the sweeping winter landscape, perhaps the complex and dramatic tale that is law school – something that makes me think of the golden age of Russian literature. Where would jurisprudence be without The Government Inspector or Crime and Punishment? And of course, the most important line in literature for academic success professionals comes at the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The idea captured in this line has been recognized as a generalizable “Anna Karenina Principle”: In many systems, enterprises, or entities, a significant flaw in one or any combination of factors can lead to failure, while success depends on a certain similarity of strength in each of those factors. There is a satisfying monotony to success. But there are thousands of ways to fall short.
Tolstoy was not the first to think of this, or even to articulate it. Aristotle says, in his unputdownable classic Nicomachean Ethics, put it this way:
It is possible to fail in many ways . . . while to succeed is possible only in one way.
It’s not clear how much credence we should give to this work – no one even knows for sure which Nicomachus the book was dedicated to, since both Aristotle’s father and his son had that name – and we surely can’t take literally the intimation that everyone with a 3.5 GPA or above is exactly alike. But just as surely, each unhappy law student is unhappy in their own way.
Drawing a parallel between struggling law students and Anna Karenina might seem thoughtless or even risky, given Anna’s unhappy ending in the second-to-last part of the book. But there’s a reason the book does not end there. In the final part of the book, Levin, friend of Anna’s brother, comes to realize that, despite his past familial unhappiness, he has the capacity to build a happy family, despite the ways in which he knows he may continue to fall short, because he has the power to continue to keep working at it.
Besides evoking the Russian steppes (well, at least here in Buffalo), this time of year also delivers fall semester grades, and, thus, some unhappy law students. It is one of the privileges and challenges of this job that I get to know students well enough to learn their own ways of being unhappy. There is a kind of shivery tension in the air as students work with me, often for the first time since arriving at law school, to face their unhappy grades, with hope or shame or defiance or resignation. No one wants to remain unhappy, but not everyone wants to hear that their way of being unhappy is unique. To be sure, some students do want to hear that; individuality can be inspiring. But other students are hoping for the magic bullet, the one tool or book or trick or advice that will fix every problem. Still other students are discouraged by the idea that their issue, or combination of issues, makes them unique, as if that is proof of their fear that they alone among their classmates were not really meant for law school. The most important thing to remind all these students is that uncovering how each of them is unique is the first step towards helping them to discover how to be happy law students.
And, after all, as Tolstoy also said in Anna Karenina:
Spring is the time of plans and projects.