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
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
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
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
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.
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.