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).