Great drama: excitement and aftermath

BY ROGER PAO

Once upon a time, there was something dangerously forbidding about law school. Stories of abusive Socratic professors, cutthroat students and impenetrable readings gave law school an almost mythic quality. We, the simple 1Ls, were the warriors who would venture from the familiar wombs of our colleges and jobs to confront these demons. It would be apocalyptic.

But this imagined apocalypse has largely turned out to be a figment of its terrible majesty, sadly unreal, though I must not have considered it sad at first. During the first few weeks of law school, I must have been glad to find that professorial sadism was almost nonexistent, most of the readings were comprehensible and virtually everyone seemed good-natured. It should have made me happy that my crazy fears were mostly merely crazy fears. And it hasn’t exactly made me unhappy that the levels of unkindness are tolerably low around here.

Yet it hasn’t exactly made me deliriously happy either. It can be hard to explain. When there was the prospect of something dangerously forbidding about law school, there was equally the sense of possibility, and that indefinable quality of hope shimmered. In the short term, at least for me, it was the hope that 1L life would not be as grotesque as often imagined and portrayed by pop culture. But when things turned out relatively fine, I found that much of the drama dissipated into the bland permanence of a sort of happily-ever-after, one infused with the normalcy of the everyday.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve sensed that many 1Ls have been experiencing similar feelings. For example, I’ve noticed that class attendance has been slumping a bit, there has been less intense interest in the readings and people seem less enthused about the prospect of learning in general. The reality of the everyday can feel almost oppressive at times. With the drama of 1L expectations and adjustment periods now behind us, it appears to have become increasingly difficult to stay as motivated as we were at the beginning of law school.

I think that these occasional feelings of mild to moderate apathy, though probably natural and expected, are hard to define and rationalize, because the narrative is so hard to explicate. In fairy tales, nothing comes after the happily-ever-after. It’s the end of the story. Only for 1Ls, it’s not the end of the story: the narrative does not conclude with the law student entering law school and getting accustomed to law school life. For better or worse, there is more narrative to live.

This narrative is the one suppressed in virtually every story that we have been told about the first year of law school. It is the narrative of the ordinary. I imagine that authors and directors of books and movies that purport to be revelations of the first year of law school have typically suppressed this narrative in their stories, because they perceive it as too mundane for widespread consumption. It’s difficult to blame them. A three hundred page novel about the girl who mastered the concept of buyer’s and seller’s damages will most likely not make the New York Times best seller list. A two-hour film about the boy who spent two hours in the library trying to do his Rule Against Perpetuities exercises won’t rake in the dough at the box office.

But the mundane plays a rather large role in the daily life of the 1L. There may be nothing magnificently exciting about trudging to class in the morning or taking a nap in the afternoon or reading cases in the evening, but such events are part of the 1L life, and though sometimes difficult to concede, part of what infuses it with meaning.

Everyday 1L life is not as thrilling as capturing the law school castle and rescuing the innocent villager-defendants from injustice. Still, minor wonders do emerge every once in a while, such as finally grasping a complex facet of personal jurisdiction in civil procedure or having a nice conversation with a new friend on a cool autumn evening outside the Hark. Living with the hope that something amazing looms just beyond the horizon, we can fail to appreciate the amazement of the present. It is often better than any fiction.

Roger Pao’s commentary on the 1L experience will appear throughout the year.

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