This month, I had the privilege of attending an orientation seminar on legal writing for the first-year students at my law school, the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.
The scene was almost identical to my own orientation. Arriving at Founders Hall with military-like punctuality, an eager crop of new law students sat at green tables neatly arranged around a lectern where professor Suzanne FitzGerald would deliver her remarks. Although the attire was casual, all students dressed to impress: pressed garments, shined shoes and pristine grooming filled the room with an aura of pride.
After welcoming remarks from school administrators, the lecture commenced. The topic was how to properly brief a case, and before the professor could finish her first sentence, the sound of ball-point pens clicking into action cascaded across the hall. Orientation transformed into an assembly of stenographers, with each student frantically scribbling away on crisp notebooks, pausing only occasionally to pay the speaker an obligatory glance of courtesy.
Although orientation had yet to conclude, the tenor of the room made it clear: the fervor of law school had begun. In the next few months, these same students would find themselves yearning for the approval of their professors and peers, agonizing over finals, hunting for summer internships, and clamoring over spots on the law review.
Law students, particularly law students fresh out of their undergraduate years, are frequently self-centered, often to the point of absurdity (I was). This is not to suggest they lack a moral compass or are spitefully selfish, but rather that life has, generally speaking, not required they place another’s concerns over their own.
When such self-centeredness is coupled with law school’s bizarre way of making the unimportant seem harshly important, the result can be amusing. Indeed, the image of a grown adult wallowing in ceaseless self-pity after receiving a “B” on a final or — heaven forbid — bombing a cold call is just ridiculous enough to invite laughter.
Unfortunately, however, the result can also be tragic — like when a student becomes so obsessed with proving his or her worth, the very core of their happiness is consumed by withered relationships, depression, substance abuse and in extreme cases, self-harm. When that happens, students often try to replace what they have lost with largely meaningless such as like grades, jobs, prestige, and salaries.
As I near the end of my own law school experience, one thing has grown obvious: Law school really is not that important. Although competency is necessary, achieving it is relatively easy and straightforward. A far more difficult (and infinitely more valuable) lesson is one which, ironically, cannot be found in any law school curriculum.
Law, in its entirety, is only a lithograph of humanity — an imprint of the world as it stands at a single fleeting moment in time. It is not the world itself. It is not what endows us with purpose, or steers us towards virtuousness. It is not what makes memories, builds trust, or allows us to feel love, anger, joy, sadness, ambition, or curiosity.
For that reason, learning the law for the sake of doing well in law school and landing a “good job” afterward is miserably short-sighted. A lawyer is in a uniquely powerful position to affect the lives of many on a daily basis. Behind every docket number are people with a story, often hinging their livelihoods on the ability of an attorney to not just know the law, but also appreciate the gravity of what is at stake. When a lawyer lacks this crucial insight and understands his or her legal acumen only as a tool to augment personal stature, a terrible waste has occurred.
When students come to Antonin Scalia Law School, I urge them to go see the Nationals. Volunteer. Be interested in the people around you. Learn about something unrelated to the law. Exercise regularly.
Thomas Wheatley is a third-year law student at the Antonin Scalia Law School. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.