Cambridge, USA: Are J.D. students antisocial?


JD student on a typical Saturday night?

Recently returned from a year abroad in the other Cambridge the limey one Record editrix JESSICA CORSI brings anthropological insight to bear on the perplexing question of just why J.D. students seem so unfun and why, despite studying in the same environment, LL.Ms. have them beat.

Allow me generalize and stereotype for a minute: Harvard Law School is not the friendliest place in the world. I’m not saying it’s a hostile environment, where people rip the pages out of books.  And I’m sure many people meet their lifelong best friends here, as well as happily marry their classmates (happy anniversary, Barack and Michelle). But if you’re coming from somewhere else, you can’t help but notice that, while civil, its neither a particularly warm nor a particularly social environment.

Lately I have gotten into the habit of saying hi to everyone, including random people that I don’t really know.  And my new building is chock-full of law students, who are pretty easy to spot.  So I felt even more comfortable smiling and introducing myself to these classmates when I met them in the elevator or on the stairwell.  Apparently this is not the right approach, because the conversations immediately stalled.  “Hi, I’m Jess, I just moved in.  I’m at the Law School, how ’bout you?” If I was lucky I received a tight smile in response.  Sometimes, people responded with, “Hello.”  Getting basic information from them—like, oh, their names—was like pulling teeth. 

After a few days, I stopped smiling at the people in my building.  It brought me back to 1L year, when, just as in Legally Blonde, people would create closed study groups and actually tell people “No you can’t join” to their face in front of other members of the “group.”  Other classmates would declare (in private of course) that they had already chosen their friends and that they didn’t want any more.  So then, if both your study group and your social circle are full, why bother smiling at someone in your elevator? 

This might be called Theory #1 of why Harvard J.D. students seem so antisocial: the “my dance card is full” theory.  But for schmoozy future lawyers, you’d think they could at least view these as networking opportunities.  We’ll have to pursue other theories.

Theory #2: HLS students are inherently socially inept.  I have never had so many awkward conversations in my life as at HLS.  I have also had the pleasure of overhearing many a ridiculous one.  Favorite encounters of mine from the past: “You know what seersucker is; you must have a house in Nantucket.” My response: “No, I’m just into fabrics”.  Section mate overhearing a friend who had visited my apartment and who had liked it: “Oh? Do you have a big apartment?” Me: “Well no not really but—” Cutting me off: “Yeah, so do I. I have a really big apartment, too.”  Well—thanks. Awesome.  Happy to hear that. Amazing conversation we’re having here.  Next you can ask me how big my bank account is.  My first day sitting in the Hark café, I was lucky enough to listen in on, “And then her parents gave a menorah. A menorah! Can you believe it? I mean, other people gave like, $1000.”  Not much to say in response to that.

But it has been my LL.M. friends that have really summed it up the best.  My favorite LL.M. story went like this:  an LL.M. student walks into class on the first day, sits down, and turns to the person next to him. He smiles, sticks out his hand, and introduces himself with his name and where he’s from. The J.D.’s response: blank stare, followed by, “Hi.”  LL.M. waits.  Maybe she’s going to offer some similar information, like, oh I don’t know, her first name, something really deep like that.  No; it doesn’t come.

Not wanting to fall into the “What’s your name?” conversation reserved for small children (to be followed with “And how many years are you?” and a few fingers held in the air), he asks her what class she’s in. “2L.”  Blank stare; you can practically hear the “plink plink” of their eyelids as they awkwardly look at each other.  And that, my friends, was the close of their conversation.  LL.M. friend: “The thing is, it’s not like she didn’t want to talk to me.  She didn’t turn away; she stayed engaged.  It was just that she couldn’t manage to say anything.”

But not everyone is so tongue tied, nor is every conversation boring or pompous.  Our school is heavily diverse, and we do have a fascinating student body.  So where then are all of these charmers, these socially skilled extroverts who don’t feel like they can have, max, five friends?

Theory #3: they’re either too busy,  they think that they’re too busy, or are convinced that they have to pretend that they’re too busy.  In my opinion, HLS was a lot worse in this respect when there were still real grades; it put more pressure on us to work harder.  But even without numerical GPAs, HLS is still a pressure cooker of expectations and demands.  And since the economy has tanked and firm jobs are no longer handed out on a silver platter, all sorts of new and quite serious pressures have reared their ugly heads.  Even if you have a job, there’s still the pressure to be up at 6AM jogging, working on a journal, doing something else impressive, finding your future husband/wife (if you’re one of the ten people who arrived unmarried), and so on. To hedge your bets, you’d better apply to 40 jobs, ten clerkships, 15 fellowships, and attend all sorts of lunch time lectures, weekend trainings, research for your favorite professor, and so on.  If you have free time, you’ve screwed up.

It’s just too busy here.  Its one of my least favorite aspects of life at HLS, and results in people preferring to wave to you as they pass by then stop and speak to you for 5 minutes. If they do stop and speak, their likely answer to “how are you?” is either “busy” or “tired.”  Fun bunch we are when we’re pulled in so many directions at once.  The faculty and staff certainly seem to encourage this.  At Cambridge, the first thing I heard was to make sure not to overdo it, and to take the time to engage in fun activities.  Here, there are high expectations from every camp, without much allowance for other coursework or outside commitments.  But it can’t all be chalked up to outside pressure: HLS students are the type who constantly drive themselves, and that can add up to a tense and hurried social setting. 

And yet we’re not the only high-powered law school out there.  Why is it that they seem to have more fun at Stanford or NYU? Theory #4:  New England is not such a barrel of laughs.  Let’s be honest: it’s really cold here.  The bars and clubs only stay open ’til 1AM. Again, it’s really cold. New England is not known for its hospitality, and Harvard is not known for its party people.  Also, it’s really cold. 

Still, law students in Stockholm seem to know how to have a good time.  Boston, on the other hand is known as a bit of a tough town.  With its mobster heritage and diehard sports fans, it’s not a soft and squishy place.  If we all went to law school in Rio, on the other hand, we might be more apt to blow off studying to meet our friends at the beach or skip out for the entire week of Carnival.  In other places, the pressure runs in the opposite direction, and you’re chastised if you’re too much of a workaholic.  If only HLS were that place.

But we’re not a homogenous crowd, or at least, there is another group lurking amongst the J.D.s: they’re the LL.M.s, and they seem to have much more fun.  I’ve been studying them to find out why.  In the first place, they can savor the shortness of their stay.  Their year long course incentivizes them to really live it up, whereas looking out across three years
can feel prettybleak for a J.D.  The other secret of LL.M.s: they mostly hang out with each other.  Out at dinner with a handful the other night, this group told me they’d given up on J.D.s.  “Its not worth the effort!” they said, since J.D.s never made the effort in return and continually “blanked” them: UK speak for when you walk right by someone you know without even bothering to acknowledge their presence, let alone say hi.  J.D.s note this too; I remember a friend complaining to me about this phenomenon and how he’d gone to a dinner party with a guy he’d met no less than five times, and who still insisted that they didn’t know each other.  Maybe this person was too stressed out to remember; or maybe he was on a power trip of acting like he was too important to remember.  Whatever the case, it stinks.

So what’s a frustrated J.D. to do?  My advice: infiltrate the LL.M. class. And if that fails, head to the Ed school: teachers are nicer than lawyers, hands down.

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