A Beginner's Guide to Legal Education

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

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

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.

The most well-known popular narrative of legal education is Scott Turow's One L.
[Scott Turow, One L (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977)]. Turow, after writing One L, went on to become a lawyer and well-known writer of lawyer novels. In One L, Turow used his skills as a journalist to tell a story, an intriguing, dramatic, insider's account of his first year at Harvard Law School. Turow's initiation rite of passage at Harvard turns out to be prototype of the ritual journey undertaken by law students in American law schools. Turow says of the initiation:

In baseball it's the rookie year. In the navy it is boot camp. In many walks of life there is a similar time in trial and initiation, a period when newcomers are forced to be the victims of their own ineptness and when they must somehow master the basic skills of the profession in order to survive. For someone who wants to be a lawyer, that proving time is the first year of law school.

If Turow is right, and legal education is a trial of initiation, then efforts to master basic profession skills may tinker with our souls in ways we do not understand. Yet, some resist the idea that something as banal, repetitive, and lacking in philosophical sophistication as legal education could change anything fundamental about an adults' way of thinking.

Those who take legal education rites of passage most seriously contend that the development of highly refined, structured, stylized, rhetorical, argumentative, performative skills can indeed change not only the way we think but also reconfigure our emotional and moral repertoire. With changes in emotional response, cognitive schema, and moral sensibilities, we indeed reformulate the story we tell about who we are. As one classmate told Turow: "They're turning me into someone else. . . . They're making me different." Turow's experience, confirmed by other student accounts of legal education, suggest a psychological and intellectual roller-coaster, at first exhilarating and then debilitating. "Studying, I often feel," Turow says, "as if I'm borne aloft, high just on the power of enlarging knowledge, making connections, grabbing hold. Then, suddenly, I'm close to dread." The early exhilaration for those who set out to learn law is often accompanied by frustration, anxiety, and dread. Turow, after his first weeks at Harvard, felt "[h]arried, fearful, weary" and sometimes "near to panic." Surrounding the work was "a ferocious, grasping sense of uncertainty. . . ." Law school was, for Turow, an "emotional merry-go-round." Legal education dumps us, psychologically, as it locates us literally, in a world of conflict.

While the psychological upheavals of law school do not overwhelm Turow, they do exactly that to some of his classmates. Turow recognizes that legal education involves more than learning a set of rules and doctrines and the use of analytical skills to solve problems. Learning law is not simply learning to "think like a lawyer" (or for that matter, learning to think like law teachers). Like his colleagues, Turow is uncertain what is actually taking place in law school. He hears fellow students say that they are being "limited, harmed, by the education, forced to substitute dry reason for emotion, to cultivate opinions which were `rational' but which had no roots in experience, [and] the life they'd had before." The uncertainty about what is happening, about what one is becoming, and where it will all lead, lends to law school an air of mystery, a mystery both enticing and frightening.

For some students, the change that takes place in law school is threatening. Colleagues related to Turow feelings that they "were being cut away from themselves." Turow concludes that thinking like a lawyer is "a grimly literal, linear, step-by-step process of thought" and that it makes one "suspicious and distrustful." You learn as a law student, Turow argues, to believe nothing, to take no statement at face value, to question every premise. Law school teaches, if you are an optimist, a kind of functional skepticism (the skill of seeing through), while for others the skills of skepticism are an impenetrable disguise for cynicism that cuts a person off from his ideals and beliefs.

Turow doesn't talk about legal education as mystery but rather gives a rough cost accounting of the psychological drama that evolves as one studies law. The "cost" of legal education is paid, by Turow, in the mismatch of the legal world-view he is acquiring and the "personal way of seeing things" he brought with him to law school. Turow does not make clear how his personal view of the world and the legal perspective conflict, or how his ideals and beliefs may have changed. Perhaps we could not expect him to know. Or if he knows, perhaps we should not expect him to have the words and the sensibility to spell out it for us. (How does one go about celebrating and demystifying legal education?) Consequently, we have no basis for evaluating whether what Turow has been asked to give up warrants lament over its loss. Turow, confronted with an education that can be destructive as well as empowering, concludes he will "learn those [legal] habits of mind without making them" his own "in the deepest sense." Whatever Harvard Law School has offered Turow, he chooses to learn law and develop legal habits of mind encouraged by his teachers, and to resist changes of his person that legal education has demanded of him. The question, of course, is whether Turow can actually do what he sets out to do: Is it possible to take up a profession like law without taking on the character of those who identify themselves as lawyers? What kind of resources, personal and public, would be required to do what Turow tells us he will do?

Turow talks with his wife about what is happening at the law school. "Achieve, succeed, do and be excellent. It was a kind of madness. What was going on? What the hell was I doing to myself?" As the semester progressed, the "emotional merry-go-round" experience gives way to a routine. The early excitement and exhilaration fade, and antics and rhetorical tactics of teachers which at one time had been amusing or frightening begin to wear thin. Turow's mood becomes somber. "The initial strength and enthusiasms I'd brought to law school had been spent, and I had no reserves left. I was exhausted."

Turow tries to make sense of what he is being asked to learn and more importantly, how he is being asked to change. Like every student of law, he must in some way begin to connect what is happening in law school with what happens in everyday life. Legal problems, Turow argues, involve "the most fundamental assumptions regarding the way we live each day — the manner in which we treat each other. . . ." The law taught at Harvard is simply not true to the reality of the world that Turow knows. Law, taught the way Turow is asked to learn it, ignores the way people live. The world of law and the world of people are incongruent. (Law may be attractive to some students because of the way law divorces us from a reality of everyday life we want to escape; law creates a complete world, with people, and with its own everyday life.)

This incongruence between people and law is a social analog to the personal incongruence experienced by Turow and his colleagues when they try to graft a legal mind onto the minds (and qualities of mind) they already have.

Turow hints at some deep, complex reason for the lack of open rebellion against an education to which they had become insider critics. Turow's hint, and it is no more than a hint, is that Harvard Law School satisfies a shadow side, what he calls his "greedy little monster." Turow, driven to succeed, finds a fit at Harvard for this drive.

It is those of us compulsively pursuing some vague idea of distinction who are most likely to aspire to the Harvard Law School. . . . We are men and women drawn to the study of rules, people with a native taste for order. A driven quest for prominence . . . brings us there, leads us, once we arrive, to an almost inescapable temptation to scramble, despite obstacles and ugliness and bruises, for what sometimes looks to all of us to be the very top of the tallest heap.

Turow, seeking success and accomplishment, recognizes that the psychological underpinning of his quest creates a problem in his becoming the kind of lawyer he wants to be.

Too much of what goes on around the law school and in the law school classroom seeks to tutor students in strategies for avoiding, for ignoring, for somehow subverting the unquantifiable, the inexact, the emotionally charged, those things which still pass in my mind under the label "human."

Turow's One L is not only an insider's account of a rite of passage but a cultural narrative of a more basic, archetypal experience: movement from one world to another. The story of how a legal mind can developed at the expense of other worthwhile human qualities is a thoroughly American story that explores how education makes possible the splitting of public role and private conscience, persona and shadow, success and denial. Turow's narrative hints at how legal education promotes recognizable personal pathologies during the prescribed legal rite of passage to become a lawyer. The transformation of student into lawyer comes at the cost of a valued sense of self — a Faustian bargain. If students like Scott Turow have ideals and beliefs worth holding and promoting in society, and law school threatens these values as the cost of opportunity to join the legal profession, the legal mind will be a study of denial.

Scott Turow's One L is a workable narrative of legal education and the difficulties, doubts, and promise of professional life that carries one through legal education rites of passage. Some students of law sense that something is lost along the way when they become lawyers. But this shadow side of legal education is not thoroughly explored in Turow's narrative. Yes, law school may be a long ordeal, some law teachers may be crazy and confused in their efforts to teach, and there may be some personal suffering along the way, but Turow, as do most students, accepts the inevitable and lives through the ordeal. Donald Light, writing about the socialization of young psychiatrists, suggests some of the reasons why law students stay on, live through the difficulties, and become professions:

While the person actively participates in the process and to some degree negotiates the terms of his or her new identity, this activity serves more to coopt the person into using the concepts, values, and language of those in power. Conversion occurs through the stages of moral transformation which intensify trainees' commitment to the professional community. . . . [T]he greater the difficulties encountered, the greater the trials undergone, and the more active the commitment required, the more likely the new identity will be sustained. [Donald Light, Becoming Psychiatrists 327 (1980)]

Being ordained a lawyer seems to be worth the effort, but it is not clear in Turow's narrative why.

Scott Turow's Novels

Reversible Errors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Personal Injuries (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999); The Laws of Our Fathers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996); Pleading Guilty (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993); Presumed Innocent (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1987)

Scott Turow's Non-Fiction

Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)


Legal Education as Rite of Passage. If legal education is an authentic rite of passage it may reflect an underlying archetypal transformation. On the transformative changes that take place during the legal education rites of passage of one's school, see James R. Elkins, Coping Strategies in Legal Education, 16(3) The Law Teacher 195 (1982); Moral Discourse and Legalism in Legal Education, 32 J. Legal Educ. 11 (1982); Becoming a Lawyer: The Transformations of Self During Legal Education, 66 Soundings 450 (Winter, 1983); Worlds of Silence: Women in Law School, 8 Am. Legal Studies Forum 1-159 (1984); Rites de Passage: Law Students "Telling Their Lives," 35 J. Lega; Educ. 27 (1985); The Quest for Meaning: Narrative Accounts of Legal Education, 38 J. Legal Educ. 577 (1988).

Law teachers, Turow observes, have little concern for this transformative experience, indeed, they seem not to understand it. Law teachers do not know (or care) who the student is or what knowledge or skills a student might bring with her to the classroom. Law teachers care less about what you have been, who you are now, and more about what you are going to be. There is a strong sense that whatever qualities of mind a student may bring with him, they must be set aside, given up, in order to become a lawyer.

When We Learn: We assume that we learn most, and learn best, when we are ready, fresh, eager, taking it all in. Yet, it is possible that we learn the most significant lessons when we are tired, bored, confused, beaten back.