Originally published on National Law Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Students cram for finals in a dusty library. Without warning, one of them cracks under the pressure. He stands, begins screaming, and runs from the room.
His classmates are impassive. They barely look up from their books. One slides into his newly vacated chair, grateful for an open space at the study table.
That’s a scene from the 1980s cult film “Real Genius.” I love that scene in particular, but the whole movie is a gem. Come for the swagger of a young, prebloat Val Kilmer; stay for the Chaz Jankel soundtrack.
The plot follows a group of students as they come of age in the pressure cooker of an elite engineering school meant to evoke California Polytechnic. Nervous breakdowns abound, but the kids persevere through a mixture of madcap hijinks and study montages.
With finals underway at my law school, the library scene keeps popping up in my mind. Pressure is in the air, and hijinks are in short supply.
I haven’t seen anyone run screaming from the library yet, but finals aren’t over. There’s still time.
My school is hardly elite, but the structure of law school, and that structure’s role in professional development, seems intentionally designed to ratchet up the pressure as much as possible, particularly on first-year students.
From 1L grades to your first job, reaching each developmental milestone is strictly predicated upon having successfully accessed the one below it. It’s like climbing a ladder, or it would be if 100 other people were grasping for the same rungs, the rungs were made of razor blades, and you’ve actually never climbed anything before, because you majored in French.
Les regrets, I’ve had a few.
At some point in the first semester, all students realize that they have signed on to participate in a three-year version of “Lord of the Flies.” Some are surprised to find out just how much of that game is decided in the first semester.
The conversation typically goes like this.
Fresh-faced 1L: “How do I land a great job after law school?”
Grizzled 3L, “You need a good 2L summer associateship, but to get one of those, you need a good 1L internship.”
Fresh-faced 1L: “Great. When are applications due?”
Grizzled 3L: “January.”
Fresh-faced 1L: “So, you’re saying my life depends on one semester’s grades, and those grades are based entirely on a single exam for each class?”
Grizzled 3L swallows hard, stares into the middle distance.
To a certain degree, this paradigm is true of any educational system and life in general. Achievement tends to build on itself. Hard work opens doors; indolence closes them.
Law school, however, is unlike other professions in that the fundamental format of the class is completely different from anything the students have experienced in the past. Not only do they have to learn new material, they have to learn a new way of learning in general.
For a new law student, everything seems backwards. The text doesn’t explain the rules; you have to find them and explain them yourself. You don’t ask the questions; the professor does. It’s like a Yakov Smirnoff bit. “In Soviet Russia, question answers you!”
The end result is a system in which students struggle to adapt to a completely foreign way of learning information while competing against their friends for a limited number of jobs. Unsurprisingly, this environment can break people.
The sense of general optimism and enthusiasm I found in most of my classmates has eroded considerably. Would-be gunners, previously seen only in suits, can now be found disheveled, lurking in the library basement. Zombies in sweatpants stare vacantly at dog-eared hornbooks.
I’ve seen people in tears more than once.
One young woman, after tanking a practice midterm, questioned whether she had made the right decision in coming to law school. I have a feeling she is not alone.
A friend of mine seemed to see this duress coming. He quit the first week. When I asked him why he was withdrawing, he told me he had better things to do than go into debt subjecting himself to something akin to an experiment in social Darwinism.
Hand-wringing members of the commentariat might call this a lack of grit, a product of the millennial generation growing up playing in soccer leagues where everyone gets a trophy.
That’s nonsense. He recognized that he didn’t want to be a lawyer badly enough to put up with a system he saw as unnecessarily cruel, attracting and rewarding a kind of personality he found off-putting.
I’m sure he would have found, as I have, that most of his former classmates are actually kind and well meaning. But he was not fundamentally wrong when he weighed the debt and the stress and decided that the numbers didn’t add up, at least not for him.
That kind of self-awareness is rare.
As humans, it is in our nature to believe that we are exceptional. We are all above-average drivers. That’s why when we watch a movie like “Real Genius,” we don’t imagine ourselves as the guy who cracks and runs screaming from the library. We imagine ourselves as the guy who calmly slides into his seat and presses on.
As something of a graybeard, I have the advantage of being well acquainted with failure. We are old buddies at this point. For some of my classmates, though, I fear this may be their first encounter. And it is a terrible feeling to realize for the first time that your best may not be good enough, that life is indifferent to your effort.
The bitter aftertaste of failure doesn’t stem from a notion that everyone in life gets a trophy. It stems from the false certainty that we will be among those who do.
Robert McClendon, a former reporter with The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, is a first-year student at the University of Tulsa College of Law.