Cambridge, USA: Beginnings and ends, starts and finishes

BY JESSICA CORSI

Of all the starts and finishes we’ve gone through and are about to go through in our lives, the difference between the beginning of the JD and the end of the JD is particularly, spectacularly, pronounced. Think back to the first few days of 1L, when you met your section mates, the people you would see day in and day out for years. You sat through the mock class and had dinner with the Dean in the “Trophy Room” at the library; you posed for your section photo and it was still sunny and warm and fall hadn’t technically begun yet. Or go back even further—think back to admitted students day and the way you felt walking through the buildings for the first time as someone invited to be there—someone who was supposed to be there. I’m guessing that those on the eve of graduating with a JD are feeling very far removed from those early days.

The transformation that takes place at both the individual and the group level over the course of the JD is rapid and dramatic. The beginning and the end point of your Harvard JD are profoundly distinct. And like any change, it is unsettling. As we prepare to graduate, it is worth nothing that the disruption in front of us is not just a change in location or community or title or income. It is also a change in identity and self, and it has been occurring throughout the course of the JD.

Whether you suffered through 1L, deeming it the worst year of your life, or whether you loved it, it was likely a sea change moment. 1L begins with little context. Nothing you’ve ever done before could likely prepare you sufficiently for law school. You have no idea what to expect, and depending on your personality, this is either terrifying, or exhilarating, or some mix of the two. Like anything unknown, 1L produces fear in those living through it. When you don’t know where you’re going—you have the address in your hand but you’ve never been before—the walk or the ride feels longer and harder and more uncertain. You’ve never read anything like this, you’ve never been asked questions like this, you’ve never engaged in a process of reasoning like this.

Add the competition inherent in both a curved grading system and at an environment like Harvard Law School and you have compounded the fear. The perceived sense of competition couples with the fear of looking like an idiot in front of 80 other people that you’re decently certain are pretty smart and 100% certain that you are seeing again. Everyone is so darn motivated—does that make you lazy? If you thought of yourself as a hard worker before but you chafe at the amount of work you are assigned, while others seem to get down to it without hesitation, what does that say about you and how you had previously perceived yourself? If you’re struggling to stand out in a sea of overachievers, you are likely incapable of doing so without a hefty dose of stress.

It doesn’t help that the adversarial system of American legal reasoning pits us against each other: we are taught to tear each other’s arguments apart and pick out all of the flaws. The classroom divides as people take sides. The feeling is that it is personal: you made a mistake; you’re on the wrong side.

Throughout it all, you are being forced into a specific mold. You are instructed to read in a specific way; to repeat and analyze what you’re read in a certain way; and to write and argue in a specific way. You are being shaped and remade, and maybe you don’t like what you’re being turned into. Maybe the reshaping cuts off pieces of your former self that you didn’t want to let go.

The intense growth experience of 1L is mixed in terms of the feelings it produces: 1L might have been the most intellectually stimulating year of your life to date, but likely the pressures and processes involved in pushing you to new heights and new understandings was also significantly uncomfortable. You may have had to work harder in your life than ever before, and this challenge may have been exciting, but it is also fatiguing. This process, too, cuts you off from your former self. 1L is a year when people lose time; their days are swallowed up with law school. You may have talked to your family more prior to law school, you may have had more time for hobbies that addressed the non-legal, non-rational parts of you. Students can wind up with an extremely heavy load of classes even in the very beginning—17 credits in one semester? It happens. In addition to the volume, there is the lack of experience holding you back: you will never read legal material more slowly than you read it 1L fall. As a result, in 1L we are often forced to give up many of the things that had made us happy prior to entering law school.

For many people, 1L is the first time they have felt a sense of purpose and that what they do or say matters. Finally, what you’re studying will have some practical consequence for your life and your career, and your career is going to have consequences for other people. You can “do” something now. You can win a case; you can change a law; you can produce real outcomes that could affect dozens, thousands of other people. That is meaningful, but it is intimidating. Now you have to take your work more seriously. Now a mistake is more grave, a failure more significant.

Fast forward to the eve of graduation and those early moments of the beginning year seem a million miles away. The change we’re about to experience in leaving Harvard Law School cannot be understated. For several years we’ve been ensconced in this community, and we’ve been enriched by it, and we’ve been protected by it. On the one hand, we’re lucky simply to have communities. Americans live increasingly atomized lives, and are less and less likely as the decades progress to be a “member” of anything. Not only are we members of the law school, we’re members of the Harvard community generally, and we then join all sorts of sub-communities within the schools, based on religious or political or other affiliations, or focused on specific projects or activities. There is always something to join or do here, and even if you didn’t take any action to join or participate in anything, your default community is large, diverse, and positive. Few people if any would think that membership in the Harvard Law community is other than an exceedingly good thing. You don’t lose this membership by graduating, but you lose the almost daily interaction that it provides. We’re being scattered around the world—how will we find each other again? What will our days and weeks be like without the support we feel here?

Graduating in 2010 presents an added wrinkle: this is not the world we expected we’d be graduating into. Part of what makes Harvard great and what makes it tough to bear is the loftiness of the expectations all of us bring to the table. Clearly, we can be the next president of the United States! Obviously, we can be the next Supreme Court Justice!

When you’re here, there is no ceiling to your aspirations. But, the world is being remade in front of us. Most HLS graduates target jobs at large, famous law firms in big cities for their first post-graduation job. Those types of firms are still reeling under the presure of the economic downturn that has afflicted the entire world, and as a result, they’re not hiring nearly as much as they were when this graduating class entered law school.
Still, I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb if I said that I believe that everyone in this graduating class is going to find a job. But a big difference between 1L expectations and end results now, though, might be the job you end up finding. In the years we’ve taken to complete our JD, our opportunities have changed. Our expectations and wishes might not have. Now, they might not match. This is unsettling, and disturbing, and definitely not what we signed up for.

I’m willing to bet, though, that whatever we’re feeling in the weeks leading up to graduation, and however we view our 1L experience or our JD experience generally, that we wouldn’t t
rade it for the world. I think that even the most miserable graduate would answer that they would do it all over again, and have a host of reasons for professing this. Something with that powerful of a draw, and that huge of an impact on our lives, is very hard to leave.

Jessica Corsi is a graduating 3L and Opinion Editor of the Harvard Law Record. This is the last of her two year long series of columns for this paper.

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