What would Scott Turow's One L look like if he attended law school this year, rather than in the seventies?
Before succeeding in the world of writing profitable legal thrillers like Presumed Innocent, which became a film starring Harrison Ford, author Scott Turow earned a law degree from Harvard Law School. He wrote a book called One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School, published in 1977, about the terrors and triumphs of his first year of law school. In describing his legal education, he stated, “It was something like stirring concrete with my eyelashes.”
Turow provocatively described how law students endure the Socratic method, wherein professors call on a student and unforgivingly grill the aspiring lawyer on complex legal theories in front of their peers. These sessions could last minutes—or the entire class—with the student on the hot seat the entire time, forced to weave through the labyrinth of the issue at hand while being constantly challenged by the professor.
At the beginning of his book, Turow describes his first-year Contracts professor whose voice “became shrill with a note of open mockery” as he stood five feet from a student, rapidly firing questions at him while the other students “burst out laughing.” Anyone who attended law school, at least those of us of a certain age, can recall similar experiences. We were taught to think on our feet, analyze critically, withstand discomfort, and shut out distractions in order to evaluate a question. As lawyers enter the practice of law, which sometimes involves rude clients, grouchy judges, unpleasant opposing counsel, and partners who lack social skills, we realize that turning law classes into a combat zone had a purpose.
When an associate turns in a draft brief to a partner, only to have it returned so covered in red lines that it looks like a scene from the Game of Thrones, the next step is to re-write it—not stew in hurt feelings. Faced with rigorous billable hour requirements, receiving an assignment on a new client matter means more work, not the opportunity to evaluate if the case aligns with your own political or social ideology. If a particularly angry judge addresses you by the wrong name or an aggressive opposing counsel belittles you in the name of advocacy, you brush it off and keep going. If a lawyer has not developed a thick skin out of the gate, their career will likely be short-lived.
Last week, students at Stanford law school shouted down Judge Kyle Duncan and ambushed him with profane signs and humiliating taunts such that he was unable to deliver his remarks on COVID mandates, guns, and Twitter as part of a Federalist Society event. Apparently, Stanford Law does not include teaching the skill of making a cogent argument in its curriculum because the students' protests included clicking their fingers, holding up signs proclaiming “Trans Lives Matter,” and shouting “scumbag.” An associate dean served as the conductor of the bedlam by trotting out the usual tropes of disenfranchisement, “tearing the fabric of this community,” and complaints of division that threatened safe spaces. Judge Duncan never got to his remarks and had to be escorted out by U.S. Marshals.
While it is difficult to sift through the name-calling to determine exactly what Judge Duncan did or said to stir such ire, apparently his January 15, 2020, opinion in the case of U.S. v. Norman Varner did not endear him to the Stanford law students. Perhaps, though, if any of them plan to actually practice law, they should read it, as it addresses one of the most fundamental issues faced in federal court: jurisdiction. Judge Duncan spent eighteen pages explaining why the district court lacked jurisdiction to entertain a motion, painstakingly reviewing each potentially applicable statute and rule. He also addressed the litigant’s request to compel the court to use preferred pronouns and concluded that Congress had never passed a law that would mandate this result, despite having opportunity to do so. Accordingly, Judge Duncan declined to step into the role of the legislature. Turns out, federal courts do not consider feelings in assessing which cases should be dismissed.
While commentators continue to openly wonder about the suppression of free speech on our campuses, and what this means for the future of our liberty, my concern is somewhat more basic. If students suffer such catastrophic meltdowns at the mere thought of hearing something they deem unpleasant, how will they have the strength to last even one day when they are on a law firm's payroll? The professors and administrators, who coddle students and offer constant references to safe spaces, comfort, and feelings of belonging, will be busy pampering the next generation of students and likely unavailable to provide refuge. Judge Duncan said in an interview that these students do not have the “foggiest grasp of the basic concept of legal discourse: you have to meet reason with reason.” I agree with him. They also do not have the foggiest grasp of the reality of adult life: you have to meet discomfort and disappointment with resilience. Retreating to a safe space in order to nurse hurt feelings will not be an option. Evidently, Stanford students will not be graduating with that valuable realization. Other than learning the fine art of temper tantrums, what exactly are Stanford students getting in exchange for their tuition?
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