Thursday, February 09, 2006

Law Student Alienation

Was Sartre right? Is Hell other people? Or is it just law school? We had an interesting colloquium speaker today, Prof. Kate Day, here at Suffolk University Law School. She was speaking specifically on the topic of the alienating experience of law school for women law students. She had a stack of studies about the lack of change in that basic fact despite the change in numbers of female law students (now hovering around 50% at most law schools) from decades past. In the 1940s, and 50's you could count the women law students on the fingers of one hand at most schools. Some of those, under the intense pressure of a highly patriarchal system where they were barely tolerated, if at all, dropped out before graduation. The few who finished had few job choices. The story is well-known that Sandra Day O'Connor was told that she could be a secretary at a law firm.

During the 1960's the numbers of women law students rose slightly, and by the late 1970's when I began law school, we had one-third women in my class at University of Kentucky. We still felt quite the minority, but not nearly so embattled as earlier generations. We were living during the rise of feminist theory, and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution (it failed for lack of the requisite number of states to endorse it). But much of what Prof. Day spoke about resonated with me. Perhaps the feelings of isolation and alienation are not really limited to women law students, but just perceived differently and dealt with differently.

I have often compared the first year of law school to a boot camp. In many ways the two enterprises aim at the same outcome. They both aim to strip the incoming draftees of their original affiliations and ways of thinking. They do it through challenging and in some ways, even law school, humiliating, them for their "naive" or "wrong-headed" ways of thinking and doing things. Breaking down their old ways of thinking, and inducting them into a pre-existing brotherhood with its own code of behavior and belonging is the final goal of both. Individuals who refuse to buy it are deeply alienated and isolated, even if, on the surface, they "go along, to get along." Perhaps that actually increases the alienation and isolation.

In law school, the tools, the sticks to force compliance, are grades, peer pressure and professorial pressure -- humiliation in front of an entire class during the socratic method interrogation. These make the resistance a pretty high stakes matter. Very few students hold out openly in law school. There tend to be sub rosa groups that chat secretly, and support each other, or lone wolves who simply pass through the system, trying to maintain their integrity. A few of these alienated individuals find faculty members or librarians who are sympathetic or supportive, but many are too gun shy to even share that much, I suspect. No wonder law school reunions are sparsely attended! Do we know how to create a Hell on earth or what?!

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