1. There is a hallway on the second floor of Wasserstein that leads straight into the Hark cafeteria.
It’s on the far right as you face the big window. Not the side with the Milstein rooms, where you got to sit through all those Orientation speeches — the other side.
I am an idiot, and I never speak to anyone, ever, and so I didn’t know this hallway was there for my first nine months at HLS. During those nine months, whenever I was in a second-floor classroom, I had to decide whether I was going to use my two-minute bathroom break to take a piss or dash to the Hark and buy a heap of cookies. Needless to say, I always chose the latter, and my bladder suffered for it.
But though law school sometimes involves hard choices, this doesn’t have to be one of them. The second-floor hallway will cut your cookie-purchasing time in half. There’s even a bathroom on your way back. This thing is basically the Northwest Passage.
2. Harvard Law School is not anything like The Paper Chase.
And 99% of your Orientation experience is devoted to convincing you of this exact fact. However, just because your 1L year is not The Paper Chase does not mean you are going to enjoy it.
Some of you will not enjoy your 1L year. I myself was rather miserable for a lot of 1L, in part because I believed that I was supposed to be enjoying myself. Once I resigned myself to the fact that I hated everything I was doing, I felt much more relaxed and more like myself. I’m not sure if this trick will work for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a try.
Finding your people and your voice are certainly important parts of making your law school experience more enjoyable and rewarding, and there’s a lot of excellent advice in this issue about how to go about doing this. But here I want to take a moment to address some of you fellows at the edge of the room: the odd ducks, the prematurely elderly, the painfully shy. Sometimes it’s hard to find anyone who understands exactly what you mean; and sometimes you yourself will have no idea what on earth you’re trying to say. This isn’t anything to be ashamed of, either.
3. There is something subtly unsettling about Harvard Law School.
I think it arises from the coincidence in time between the transition to adulthood, which happens to everyone, and the transition into a world of power and influence, which only happens to a very few people, and which many of us never expected would happen to us.
Before we came to HLS, we were struggling to discover how to live morally within a certain circumscribed degree of agency. Now the possibility of larger agency and greater power is looming before us. The decisions we make in our future careers may affect many lives. When you’re plucked out of the general populace, however unfairly, to be a societal “elite,” how do you fulfill this role conscientiously? Is it even possible to live morally as a person of power?
This question is the brooding existential elephant in the room at places like Harvard. It makes us nervous in some deep stratum of our subconscious. We spend a lot of time reassuring each other that we belong: that we’re all right: that we’re just normal people after all.
But the fact is, simply by having been admitted here, we are all unnaturally and undeservedly perched atop the heap of humanity. Our world is filled with suffering, and some of that suffering might someday be eased or amplified by our decisions, or the decisions of people who are very like us, who may be our current classmates and future colleagues.
There will be moments when we seem to feel the full gravitational weight of this responsibility. There are other moments when we feel so lost and confused that we don’t believe ourselves to be powerful people at all.
But regardless of how we feel, we are all, proportionally speaking, powerful people on this planet, with all the spiritual precariousness this entails. It’s a very troubling position to be in.
4. Don’t be gaslit by your own legal education.
Once in a while, your brain will really resist bending in some particular direction, or refuse to accept some distinction as valid or relevant. This could mean that you’ve misunderstood something important in your readings or in lecture. But sometimes it just means that you are finding yourself profoundly skeptical of the law’s ability, in some particular instance, to achieve anything that a normal, non-lawyerly human person would instinctively understand as justice.
Sometimes, the “issue” you’re being urged to spot has damn-all to do what a layperson would think was the most pressing matter in the case. When you first start studying the law, this will seem weird. Then, you begin to expect it, and it may start to seem less weird. Don’t let that happen! It is weird! You weren’t wrong!
If you ever have that creepy feeling of dissonance, don’t sublimate it. Honestly, it’s probably more important to figure out how to articulate and explain and justify that instinctive mental resistance than it is to dive down all the theoretical and procedural rabbit-holes of a particular legal problem. When the operation of the law affronts your sense of justice, it’s probably not because your sense of justice needs fine-tuning; but rather because the law isn’t working as it should.
5. The Harvard Law Record, like the Phantom of the Opera, has a shadowy basement lair, and plots ceaselessly about how to stir up trouble.
We are not as prestigious as the Harvard Law Review, but our fridge is full of beer, and sometimes Ralph Nader calls us on the telephone. Come write for us!
This piece was a part of the 2016 orientation issue. To read more, click here.