Ivey Files

March 21, 2009

Where's Dr. Gregory House When You Need Him?

I thought I'd share (with permission) some feedback from a law school applicant who recently visited one of the top US law schools, where he is waitlisted. I've anonymized him (obviously), but I've also anonymized the law school, because the point here is not to single out that school. Rather, what stood out for me in his feedback was the gap between applicants' expectations vs. the reality they encounter (sometimes about law school, other times about the legal profession). I'm sure he's not alone, so he has kindly agreed to let me share.

He has pointed out to me that these were his initial reactions - and therefore somewhat emotive and a touch hyperbolic, in my opinion understandably and forgivably so - and I think they are very interesting because of that immediacy.

His impressions also remind me of the importance of visiting some real, live law school classes before you invest in law school, just as it's important to observe real, live lawyers in action before you invest in a legal career. Can you see yourself enjoying that? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it's probably not like what you see on TV, for better or worse. And law school is very much not like college, although law schools engage in some mismarketing in that regard (see my posts here and here).

I'll also reiterate his own caveat that law school classes/professors/students can have off days. Maybe the students had just spent an all-nighter to turn in their legal writing briefs. Maybe that was the 20th day of crummy weather in some ghastly, cold part of the world. And professors can have off days, too. Who knows. That's also something to keep in mind when you're visiting schools: a single class might not be representative (although certainly better than not observing any at all).

I'm curious to hear from applicants, students, and professors on the subject. Any thoughts or reactions? Please comment!

The law classes I audited were not at all what I expected. I imagined the law class dynamic as similar to that between the doctors on "House." Here the head doctor poses an unexplained phenomenon. Subordinates then offer explanations and poke holes in the responses of their colleagues, and defend or reshape their arguments as the head doctor challenges them. This all happens at a brisk pace with each insight accompanied by a sharp witticism.

Not so. In fact, far from the hyper-engaged doctors on "House," the students in the first class I attended looked like they were doped up on Thorazine. The professor, kind and extremely knowledgeable, probably called on eight students during the hour and twenty-minute session. Not a SINGLE ONE could answer his questions. I don't mean they offered something and were deemed incorrect. I mean they freely admitted "I don't know" or, more commonly, just shrugged.

At first, I was impressed by the civility of the students. No one snickered or rolled their eyes. Presumably, they themselves had been the victims of unexpected questions and understood the embarrassment.

That wasn't it. They just didn't care.

Sitting in the very back row I had a panoramic view of everyone's laptop. The man in front of me was comparing airline fees, the woman to my side googling dance lessons. Several screens devoted to movies. Nearly everyone had chat windows in the foreground. One guy was watching porn.

I kid you not.

(Well, he was flipping through images of large-breasted women in bathing suits.)

Criminal law wasn't much better, though at least in that class one woman was very prepared. Still, even with a good professor, there was just no energy in the room. Ron Suskind once quoted an administration official who described President Bush at his cabinet meetings as a blind man in a room full of deaf people. No communication. That's what it felt like.

A part of me became embittered. "The front row is watching the f#$@%ing Matrix and I'm on the waitlist?!!?"

"OMFG! WTF," I wanted to text the girl next to me whose face was buried in her iPhone.

Now, maybe I chose some bad classes, or came on a bad day. I hope that's the case because [city] wasn't nearly as bad as I remembered it. People were unexpectedly friendly and the campus was gorgeous. Their [deleted] law center is probably the best in the country and the school has a tremendous reputation in [country]. Plus, many of my friends live in the area. Of course I will stay on the waitlist and of course I will submit a statement reaffirming my enthusiasm for the school. But if I were admitted I would want to sit in on more courses before committing.

I will be interested to see how this compares with [competitor school] when I visit it for an admitted students weekend.


Having now had a good night's sleep, perhaps I shouldn't have been so quick to judge. For all I know the professors assign 1,000 pages of reading a week and, on the day I observed, asked questions about a footnote on page 882. Or perhaps although the professors seemed very good to me, they might pale in comparison to professors the students have in their other classes, classes to which the students rightly devote the bulk of their attention. Maybe law lectures are just not valuable sources of information and don't improve final exam grades.

I also could have pointed to welcome surprises, like the fact that [school] was the most racially diverse school that I've ever seen. I didn't mention that before because I wasn't in the mood at the time to think positively about the institution.

In any case, if you just focus on the gaping divide between reality and expectations then everything I've written so far is reliable. I really DID imagine law school classes like the differential analysis in "House" and the X law school classes I witnessed really WERE nothing like that. I was GENUINELY disappointed by what appeared to me to be the lack of engagement on the part of the students and perhaps even more disappointed by the resignation of the professors to their lethargy. Also, I finally got what you were saying about law school being a trade school. There was little that was "intellectual" about the discussion in those classes. To be quite honest, it reminded me a lot of the logical reasoning and, especially, logic games sections of the LSAT.

I am sure after these next visits many more of my assumptions will be up-ended.


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).

This is sadly not at all extraordinary. I am a 2L at a top law school and often feel as if I am having a private conversation with the professor in a class with one hundred other students because everyone else is chatting or playing games on their computers. It is really a shame because classes would be much better with more involvement. Most students are only there for the name brand and they will continue that way through the journal competition, the job search, the clerkship applications, etc. It never stops. But there are those select few students who really want to be there and who are interested. Good luck finding them! Despite watching people do their grocery shopping and check sport statistics online when I sat in on some classes as an applicant, I really enjoyed them. If you don't like what is being taught then I would suggest not going to law school at all; it would be a better place with fewer, more invested people--invested in learning the law and preparing for the profession, not just in gaining prestige. And if you do come, be forewarned that this person's observations could not be more accurate.

Although this poster's experience was unfortunate, I have not found it to be the case in my school. I go to a top school's evening program in NY where one may expect that most people are exhausted after a long day's work and not at all engaged in class. In my experience, the opposite is true. Maybe it's because some of the students have worked in the real world for a while and so they came into law school with their eyes wide open, knowing what they want. Maybe it's because they have had a break between college and law school so are less burned out. Maybe. But the fact is that since my evening program is well populated with people who simply did not get into the day program and are straight out of school, and we still have lively class discussions every day, I think maybe the class the poster experienced is a fluke. I can't be sure, of course, but it seems to me that in the 1L year, people are excited enough to be in law school that they care. My classes are always a back and forth between the professor (minimum lecturing) and the students. Even on the days when people have pulled all-nighters for legal writing assignments (I can't say I miss my memos or my brief) we have a difficult time getting through all our material because people are curious and keep asking questions and pushing their understanding of the material. I know I sound too positive about an experience which most people compare to the fiery depths of hell but, in my case, it's the truth. Who knows, maybe next year people will stop caring and stop reading. This year, however, an answer of "I don't know" doesn't get you very far. The professor will push you to get to an answer, and continue on your line of reasoning until it's time to pick on the next guy. The laptop thing is distracting as people do chat, shop, pick out their fantasy sports drafts, etc. That's why I go old school and break out my spiral notebook for class notes. I know, I know, it's soooo annoying to write, and how will you ever outline?? But trust me, it's easier to outline things you actually remember learning versus a concept you IM'd your way through. Some professors even ban laptops from their classes, which seemed to be a positive rule. Even with all of the internet browsing though, I still have a class that manages to stay on top of the discussion so we rarely run out of people who have something to say. The trade school comment is also interesting because when you are in school you have to remember that you are there to join a profession. Law school is, of course, an intellectual exercise, but you will only get so far throwing ideas in the air and seeing what happens. We are learning how to be lawyers (sometimes) so if there is an element of practicality in some classes, maybe you should use that to your advantage. I know that people graduate without really knowing how to be lawyers but if you can get even a glimpse of the trade now, isn't that for the better? This comment is longer than I intended but I just want people to know that classes aren't always the mind-numbing exercise described in this post, at least not at my school. Of course there are days when I would rather not care about the rules and tests but then I realize that I am in law school BY CHOICE. If the days when you don't care tip the scale, then maybe you shouldn't be there. If you have had some experience with the legal profession and still want to take the plunge, my advice is to try it. Even if the poster's experience is the general consensus, if you care and you are interested, then forget your zoned-out classmates and dig in.