Sunday, November 30, 2008

Beyond the Gate: Law school

This is the second in a new guest post series, Beyond the Gate, featuring first-person perspectives from recent alums in a variety of fields. This week, it's Will Scharf '08, who's currently working his way through 1L at Harvard Law School.

Watch Legally Blonde
by Will Scharf '08

Last year, on hearing that I had been admitted to Harvard Law School, a friend presented me with a copy of the movie Legally Blonde. Although I took to calling the movie my law school pre-orientation, there was no doubt in my mind that the events portrayed in Elle Woods’ little cinematic adventure in Cambridge had no bearing on the “real” law school experience. Then I started law school.

Guys, if you are interested in what law school is like, watch Legally Blonde. Don’t go out and rent The Paper Chase, don’t even think about Turow’s 1L — watch Legally Blonde.

Now, I am not suggesting that by the end of your first semester you will be in court defending a client from a murder rap, nor am I suggesting that the actual law discussed in the movie is at all relevant or important (however, mens rea is a really big deal). But, in terms of the broad arc of the law school experience, Legally Blonde is right on.

The movie begins with Elle Woods getting dumped by her boyfriend and deciding to pursue a legal education at Harvard as a part of a vaguely-defined scheme to win him back. I would guess that a majority of people at law school had an even less well-articulated reason for applying than Elle did. That’s not to say that the people I’ve met here are in any way wishy-washy or poorly motivated, but I think it is fair to say that most people who end up at law school really did not understand ahead of time what they were getting themselves into.

Elle next has to score high enough on her LSAT to make her a credible candidate for Harvard. She studies through nights when her friends are out partying and grapples with seemingly absurd logic games. Studying for the LSAT is every bit at horrible as the movie makes it out to be. The logic game sections will steadily drive you insane until they finally, and rather scarily, begin to make sense. Bringing your test scores up is a grueling process of internalizing over the course of as many practice tests as you can possible stomach the timing and tendencies of the test as a whole and its various sections. You will miss nights out, and you will envy your non-legally inclined friends.

After banking her 179, Elle then applies to Harvard with a “video essay” that details her extracurriculars and “relevant” experience. It is supposed to be a comic element of the movie that she is admitted. In reality, a 179/4.0 candidate with leadership experience and assumedly solid recommendations like Elle would be a shoo-in at just about any law school. The ironic thing to me about her admission to Harvard is precisely that it is meant to seem unrealistic, when in reality it is extremely realistic. Law school admissions are determined primarily by numbers. Your numbers get your foot in the door, and then things like your recommendations and resume keep it in. If you have the numbers and you have the recs, it would take a very serious black mark somewhere else in your application to keep you out. As a caveat, some schools including Harvard do conduct interviews, and I’ve definitely heard “landmine” stories about kids destroying their chances with a particularly terrible interview. Generally, though, I think these cases are remarkable precisely because they are rare. There is far less of a secret to law school admissions than there is to undergraduate admissions — get your grades in shape, get your LSAT score banked, and get professors to write good letters of recommendation for you.

On arriving mistakenly in costume at her first Harvard party, Elle finds that law students don’t really know how to have fun. This isn’t an entirely true characterization, and I like to think that I’ve made some pretty good friends up here and had a pretty good time overall, but it is fair to say that law school is a good bit more business-like than college, and that parties tend to look more like something you’d see at Colonial than at TI.

On her first day of class, Elle is unceremoniously booted from a classroom after being unprepared to answer a “cold call”. Personally, I haven’t seen this sort of thing done, but I have heard that some professors – even in this gentler, kinder era of law school – are equally harsh with unprepared students. The expectation of preparedness is much greater in law school classes than in undergrad classes, and a great majority of professors do use the Socratic method – some more brutally than others. While as an undergrad it never bothered me to fall a day or two behind on readings so long as I caught up eventually, so far this year terror of not being able to recite the facts of a case on being cold called has kept me on my toes to say the least.

As the semester goes on, Elle eventually competes with other students to get an internship at a prestigious Boston law firm. Although the fact that she starts work seemingly in the middle of 1L year doesn’t seem plausible, I have found that searching for summer employment has been a topic of conversation amongst 1Ls almost since day 1 – the only restraining factor being NALP rules prohibiting 1L summer job applications before Dec. 1.

Speaking of which, Dec. 1 is tomorrow, and I kind of need to get down to writing some cover letters. I hope this has been at least marginally helpful.

-Will Scharf '08

Previously in this series: PiAf (Nahal
Zebarjadi '07)
Check back next week for another Beyond the Gate.