Cambridge2Cambridge: Beyond the boredom of the law


At Cambridge, the law faculty does not stand alone. Here it sits next to the history building.

Once again the Record joins Jessica Corsi on her study abroad journey to England to obtain a Cambridge LL.M. This week, Jessica discusses how the Cambridge system privileges humanity and interdisciplinarity over HLS’ singular (and obsessive) approach to law.

Before law school, many of us had hobbies. We had friends who did things other than law, and who didn’t want to talk about the law. We washed our hair regularly. That type of thing. I knew I had drifted from this path of normalcy while at HLS, when one day the feeling went from nebulous to crystallized and jabbing me between the eyes all in a rush.

I was a just-returned-from-a-summer-of-freedom 2L, sitting in the Hark Box, minding my own business on one of the couches, when I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of two 1Ls. They had either just come from their Crim class or might as well have just come from their Crim class, because they couldn’t stop talking about Crim. This could be a study group, I thought; I should cut them some slack. But it obviously was nothing more than two first-semester 1Ls, obsessing over some minutia of criminal law – ad nauseam. I waited for them to stop, but they never did.

With the detachment from HLS that I had cultivated by spending the summer in Cambodia, I dredged up a tiny bit of pity for them, and went on my way. However, I was fully aware that I was not immune to being as insanely obsessive about the law and as insanely boring as these two. What can I do, I wondered. I longed for conversation that didn’t revolve around HLS. I cultivated friends at the Fletcher School and KSG. I pined for my old self again.

This year, the person I was before HLS has decided to join me again, and I’m very happy to see her. She was forced to make an appearance almost immediately, as she discovered she would not in fact be interacting with as many fellow law students as she had thought. Instead, she would be spending her time with Physics Ph.D.s, English Lit B.A.s, aspiring land economists, post docs studying hearing loss, and so on. In short, I’ve been saved by the interdisciplinary and quite un-legal nature of Cambridge.

I promised in an earlier column to explain the “college” system of Oxbridge, and I’ll do so briefly and likely inaccurately now. Every member of the University is assigned a college, where she likely lives, socializes, uses the library; she may receive funding from her college; and so on. The college is a “social home” and for undergraduates it also has academic significance. Some colleges are 800 years old; some are fabled to own more land than the Crown of England; some throw the best “May Ball” (a ball, in May, of course), and so on.

Among the great things about the college I live in is this: it’s a “mature” college (21 and up), a graduate college (although we do have a few “mature” bachelors students), and it’s the most international college at Cambridge. Among the great things about the college system in general: you are constantly interacting with people in your cafeteria, at your pub, in your common rooms, in the kitchens, and so on, that have no idea what you’re studying, nor do they probably care. They might ask you politely. They never in a million years know what “LL.M.” stands for, forcing you to follow up with “Master in Law.” They have no idea that in the U.S. a law is a graduate degree, or that a bachelor’s degree takes 4 years, or that you’ve worked before, or any of that, so they are not likely to be impressed. However, they will without fail politely respond: “Law! That’s hard.” You laugh and mutter something humble (in contrast to Harvard Law students, the English prize humility), and then you quickly change the subject. Voila, a non-legal conversation.

Combined with the relatively extensive amounts of free time we have here, the interdisciplinary nature of the college system both forces and allows one to attempt to be interesting again. Even better, it puts pressure on the law students to talk about something other than the law so that we’re not the most boring people at the dinner table. The atmosphere is such that it feels almost like being an undergraduate again. You can pick up a bit of random knowledge (which one hopes is either accurate or at least forgotten before you repeated) from your Art History friend or that person down the hall who works in the Toshiba lab on some high tech form of coding. You can play the “where are you from game,” only it’s more fun at my college because there are people from 150 different countries. You can…act like a normal person who has a life and an interest in something other than the law. Law jokes? Not so funny in mixed company. Arguments you take seriously and debate rigorously? Not going to go over so well; best to skip it.

In fact, best not to get into too many debates at all. When I first joined the Cambridge Union, the historic debating society that brings in outside speakers to hold a raucous debate on a controversial topic, I was expecting a rigorous academic engagement. The men were in tuxedos for goodness sake. This was going to be epic. After an initial disappointment at how much it was about showmanship and moving the crowd as opposed to substance (I believe this is a training ground for politics), and some huffing and puffing in the Union bar afterwards, I realized – wait – I don’t care. If they want to turn arguments into fluff, by all means, let them do so. This isn’t a brief. This isn’t a court. This isn’t a classroom at HLS.

And then she emerged; the pre-HLS person I had been; she had been waiting, cowed, for a turning point such as this one. I had declined to prize logic and argumentation skills over humor and a good time. She saw her chance-she rushed out of hiding and burst onto the scene.Please be nice to her next year if you see her in the Hark Box. She’s afraid of your kind.