A Beginner's Guide to Legal Education

Professor James R. Elkins
College of Law, West Virginia University

Law School What Kind of Story Is It?

There is some story or other that brings each of us to study law and it is these stories that give meaning to our education as lawyers. Law school sets one upon a path, a journey, and for many, a new identity, social and political, personal and psychological. When we take the path, talk about the journey, and discover the identity we take on as lawyers, we become lawyers and tell a new story.

The law school story identifies us as a particular kind of public actor and connects disparate elements and fragments of a life into a meaningful, but incomplete and inadequately scripted plot. The story of legal education is a story of extremes, yoking antinomies like love/hate, security/risk, self/other, into a workable life and coherent story.

We tell and listen to stories because there is a need to pull together and make coherent the events and decisions, scenes and images, thoughts and feelings, actions and proposals in which we put together a life. One of the ways we pull things together in a story is in the use of metaphors. When I say, "My life is a mess" — "I'm in a jam" — "I'm sick of the way I am living" — "I fought and won the biggest battles in life — I'm groping for a metaphor, trying (whether aware of it or not) to grab the tail of the ever-elusive meaning that I know to be shaping me and the world around me.

How did I get in the jam? (And when will I get out of it?) Who is in it with me? (Who are these people and what do they mean to me?) Where will I end up when this jam gets sorted out? (Will things ever be the same again?) When I put these questions to the metaphor — my situation, jam, mess, gamble, journey — I am trying to figure out what is going on by finding words to describe it. When I have some words and images, I then try to see how they tell a story. By seeing a story in what is happening, I begin to see what words mean, and what my self-composed life is all about.

A life story can, even if it sometimes does not, embrace an identifiable theme. More often life is a tapestry of interwoven themes and motifs. The stories law students (and their teachers) live are usually not straight-forward plots with clear beginnings and endings but lives of entangled and entangling stories, stories nestled within stories. Our stories are as complex, puzzling, contrary, and banal as our lives.

Law school is sometimes a new beginning, almost always a period of transition, a studied movement from one life to another, past to future, old to new. A study of law evokes phantasies of a new self, or an old self re-minted. By becoming a lawyer, we hope to preserve past achievements while healingthe old wounds incurred along the way. Becoming lawyers (and in the use of legal knowledge and skills), we seek to make ourselves who we want and imagine ourselves to be. From these desires, and the process of professional socialization which makes desire a reality, flawed and impoverished as the process may be, a quest for a worthwhile life takes place. The story we tell of the decision to become a lawyer is often a story of faith, faith premised on the belief that being a lawyer and putting legal skills and knowledge to work will make one's life productive, socially meaningful, and personally rewarding. The hope of a professional life lies in crossing the threshold between a past (and an existing image of self) and a new future (and a self constituted by skilled performance, recognition, and reward).

It is when I start telling the story (of how I learn, or teach, or practice law) that I discover the metaphors that have gotten attached to my life: "Life is a game" — "Life is an education from beginning to end" — "Life is a journey" — "It's all a throw of the dice" — "Life is a gamble" — "It's a challenge" — "It's really nothing but the slow, inevitable, inching toward death." Some of these metaphors are more appealing than others. I understand some of them better than I do others. Some of them seem to "fit" me and my story better than others, that is, some of them have the ring of truth. I can tell a story about my life using some of these metaphors, whereas some of them do not work. If I can get at the metaphors I use to say, in capsule form, what life is all about, then I am on the way to telling a story.

When we talk about the stories an education in law and the practice of law make possible, and the images that legal discourse promotes, we become archaeologists of our own lives. If we are going to find new ways to talk about our lives as lawyers, we will need new images, metaphors, stories, and myths. We must retell the old stories that grip us and look for new ones that might liberate us, as we set out to imagine law and practice it as a profession.

When the world becomes complex, conventional explanation fails, confusion clouds the intellect, and there is too much or too little meaning, we turn to stories.

It is in our stories that we engage in myth-making. (And I should make clear that I use myth here in an older, non-pejorative sense.) W.B. Yeats, the poet, is reputed to have said: "I have often had the fancy that there is some one Myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought." As students of law, we are schizoid about myth because the myth-making we do with the right hand is denied by the left. The left hand of legal education would have us become realists who solve the problems others present to us. The danger with realism is that we become narrowly focused pragmatists who forget those elements of the story we set out to tell by becoming lawyers. In mastering the "game" (of law, of life), we forget our story. The forgetting of one's own story, paradoxically, takes place in the context of endless talk about who we are and what is happening, what we are doing, and where we are going.

Becoming a lawyer involves coming to grips with a set of stories (imagined and lived) and seeing how these stories are going to hold up out in the world (with its stories).

Legal education is an arena of conflict and struggle, a place where success and failure, winning and losing are made real, a place where hope and disappointment become constant companions, a place where stories are told and retold endlessly. The problem is that legal education is held out to us as a training program, a schooling in argumentative skills, rarely as a story with its shadow and dark secrets. Where in the story of legal education do you find accounts of what it means to use an analytical knife with great power, a skilled use that is so powerful it can completely dominate your life? What kind of story do we begin to live when we learn to think like lawyers think and use the skills we are offered? Legal education, at once the most simple and banal of activities, prizes a prosaic and instrumental outlook as if it were a featured prize. Yet, there is both mystery and loathing, and enough emotional ups and downs to make legal education an interesting story as well as a training school for lawyers. The paradox of legal education is that everyone has a story to tell and we offer so little opportunity or audience for telling and hearing this story.

| Scott Turow's One L: First Year at Harvard Law School |