One L – Scott Turow

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“One L” is the story of Scott Turow’s first year as a law student, at the prestigious Harvard Law School (HLS). When I first picked up this book, with its contemporary looking cover, I was excited to finally find a book about a young person’s experience in law school. It took quite a while (and several references to the Korean war) for me to realize that the book had actually first been published in 1977. I was very surprised; other than outdated cultural references, the content relating to life in law school seemed very relatable. It was at that moment that I realized that the institution of law schools everywhere has remained more or less the same for many, many years.

Turow begins his story by explaining how difficult it is to get into HLS (which, presumably, most law students are already aware of); they take only the best and brightest graduates. On the first day, with so many exceptional people in one room, you may expect personalities to clash. Instead, from Turow’s accounts, most of them seemed to bond in mutual terror of what law school might hold.

At first, I thought that the description of the fear must have been greatly exaggerated. Granted, I spent about a year getting used to ‘how uni worked’ (a luxury afforded to us in our five year degree), but my terror as a first year was never truly warranted. However, at HLS, things seemed to be quite different.

Scott Turow - One LExcerpts from Turow’s journal show that their classes, including contracts, procedure, torts and ethics, covered content that was largely similar to what we have learned. The main difference lay in the method of teaching. Enter the ‘Socratic Method’ (the likes of which you will have seen in informative movies, such as ‘Legally Blonde’). Basically, this is when a teacher stands in front of the class and, instead of lecturing for an hour, raises issues and then fires questions at students. Failure to prepare adequately could mean humiliation at the hands of a teacher. It was this desire never to look stupid that fueled the fear in first year HLS students (‘One L’s).

Failure is repulsive to law students everywhere. The thought of it makes us sick. What would our days in law school be like if there was no choice but to over prepare for every class? Do every page of reading, BEFORE the lecture, and have enough coherent understanding of the material to be able to answer in depth questions about it? Personally, I believe that this method of teaching would encourage us to be better students, and help provide us with the critical and quick thinking skills that lawyers need. That said, there is no doubt that our stress levels would be even higher than they are now.

Other than talking about ‘the fear’, the continuous theme for the book is Turow’s awareness of what law school is making him become; the lack of opportunity to think freely (rather than interpreting and recognizing the thoughts of someone else), the harsh treatment of other students standing in your way, and a general loss of compassion. In Turow’s case, this is illustrated by his barring someone from his study group for not providing their share of the notes. At Flinders, a conversation in the courtyard last week about a law student’s general intolerance for ‘stupid people’ in law school, and ‘even more stupid’ people outside of the law school reflects a similar lack of compassion.

In many respects, HLS in 1977 is no different to Flinders Uni in 2012. There is an immense pressure to do well, which is perpetuated by the students around you. Grades seem paramount, in the desire to graduate with honours. Some students will drive you crazy with their inability to know when to stop asking questions, or when to shut up. Exams drive fear into the calmest of men.

Personally, I don’t know if it’s a good thing that law school has resisted a change in fundamental ideas over the last 35 plus years. Turow agrees, and the afterword added to the most recent publications of this book explains a little more about how law schools have begun to change for the better, and eliminate a fraction of the pressure on students. However, the overarching message of the book seems to be that it is imperative to hold onto your sense of right and wrong. It’s very easy to condemn someone for not ‘meeting the standard’ in law school, just as it is easy to let the fear cripple your passion. Maintaining a sense of balance is what will get you through law school; it is easy to forget that, though the admission process is far less harsh here than at HLS, your peers still needed to meet certain admission requirements that ensure we are reasonably evenly ranked in ability.

I found this book very interesting; previously an English teacher before going to HLS, Turow expresses his emotions clearly throughout the book; his anxiety, frustration, and eventual exasperation about the system show a clear progression of his state of mind during that first year. It may scare potential law students away, but offers a new level of insight, perhaps better suited to those already over the hurdle of admission. Give it a read! You can purchase it here.

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