Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Most stories about law school put a lot of emphasis on that frightening first day of class. Some unsuspecting, and often unprepared soul is called on by a professor. He starts to respond, but before he can get two words out, he is cut off and told to stand when he speaks in class.
The student slowly rises and tries to get his answer completed before his knees give out and he falls back into his seat.
“You can remain standing,” the professor says. “I’m not done with you.”
And then the grilling begins. The professor bombards the student with questions about issues even the most prepared in the class didn’t know to pay attention to.
“This case is at the highest court now, who won at trial level?”
“This is a state issue, why are we in federal court?”
“Was Hamer the nephew, or was Sidway?”
The entire class watches in horror, wondering if the student will be so unnerved he has to excuse himself to the bathroom and vacate his breakfast into a toilet, or will simply lose control of his bodily functions right there in the classroom.
But, my first day of class didn’t live up to the hype. I can’t remember it, or even the first time I was called on, though I’m certain I was sober on both occasions.
No, the first day of law school that really stands out in my memory was one of our first Lawyering classes. Lawyering is what NYU called their legal research and writing class. By deviating from the “research and writing” title they are able to justify squeezing in other important lessons lawyers need to learn.
For instance, at the end of August, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, devastating New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile. In Lawyering, we were shown clips from main stream media coverage of the devastation. White people wading through the water carrying food were described as “scavenging.” Black people in the water were described as “looting.”
We spent the majority of one of our class sessions discussing prejudice and bias in the news, as well as all the privileges that come from being white (I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race).
Is prejudice a topic that needs discussing? Absolutely! But, debating social issues is probably not the best use of time in what may be the only skills training class a student has their whole three years of law school.
The first actual legal classroom discussion that stands out for me is a hypothetical posed to new law students across the country. A town passes an ordinance: No Vehicles in the Park.
The hypothetical was first posed by H.L.A. Hart in a philosophical debate with Lon Fuller over legal positivism and issues of interpretation, published in a 1958 edition of the Harvard Law Review. The debate among first year law students is typically a bit more shallow.
A hotdog stand would be allowed, but what about a hotdog cart? It has wheels, it carries things, is it a vehicle? What if it’s a hotdog stand moved around by a detachable bicycle? The issue actually makes the Star’s Hollow “Cart, Kiosk, Cart-Kiosk” ordinance appear quite prudent. Or perhaps just shows how absurd law school hypotheticals are.
Then a twist is presented in the hypothetical, a group wants to erect a war memorial in the park, placing a military truck atop a pedestal. Does the ban on vehicles apply only to vehicles qua vehicles?
Actually, going to a hippy liberal school like NYU, our hypothetical was a tank being used in an anti-war demonstration. No reason to waste a chance to subtly push your social agenda. Other Lawyering exercises would include loans for low income housing, an AIDS medication, a dispute between a gay, black tenant and his landlord, and the Indian Child Welfare Act. It was widely known that the Lawyering program was used by NYU to inflate the diversity stats of their professors. My class was taught by a Native American lesbian who was previously a public defender.
The debate over what was meant by “vehicle” was intended to get us to stretch our analytical muscles and practice advocating for our position. This exercise only really works in 1L classes. After students have gotten a little older, and wiser, and the mystique of the law has worn off a little bit, they will have learned to go straight to the heart of the matter:
There’s probably a Definitions section of the city’s ordinances somewhere. What does it say a vehicle is?
Of course, in the law school hypothetical, the city's laws don't define what a vehicle is. Nor do the state's laws. Because, as we all know, the best way to learn how to think like a lawyer is to spend time thinking about laws that in no way resemble the way laws work in the real world.
Why does this particular discussion stand out so vividly in my memory? No one was singled out and eviscerated. No one was given a dime, told to call their mother, and inform her there was serious doubt of their ever becoming a lawyer. Certainly no one soiled themselves.
I remember this particular day because of one single idiotic thing a classmate said:
"A bicycle isn’t a vehicle, it doesn’t have an engine! Vehicles have engines!"
Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs.
- Helen Burns to Jane, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte