The most important skill to learn during 1L year is how to argue both sides of an issue. It is the foundation of successfully analyzing a client’s legal position in a memo, preparing for Ames advocacy and performing well on issue spotter exams with their built-in uncertainties. This is a difficult skill to implement. People quickly become entrenched in even arbitrarily-assigned positions. I would be hard-pressed to switch allegiances in my LRW brief after a semester of viewing the world as the partisan for one side, and I am not the only one of my classmates convinced of the legal superiority of my position. This principle goes beyond law school. Political views are apparently correlated with psychological traits, which means that your beliefs arise, at least partially, from your “openness to experience” or your “need for cognitive closure.” As someone who prefers a world where conclusions are based on facts and susceptible to amendment upon the availability of new data, none of this is very comforting.
Law students are particularly vulnerable to this single-mindedness. We tend to be opinionated, confident and sufficiently skilled at persuasion to convince ourselves of the strength of our own arguments. This year has consistently yielded lively, intense classroom debates in which the fundamental difference between positions has been the personal policy preferences of each individual. To use an obvious example, most students seem to approach criminal law with stronger sympathies for the defendant than the prosecution, with one clear and glaring exception. On the law of sexual assault, the classroom discussion changed dramatically, and in particular the female students openly acknowledged their internal struggle between sympathy for these particular victims and general defense-minded principles. The personal basis for these beliefs was clear. The near impossibility of changing anyone’s mind through classroom debate was also clear. This concerns me, if only because many of my accomplished and hard-working classmates will eventually achieve positions of power and prominence, and it appears unlikely that our consistently-held opinions are susceptible to successful challenge.
The best way to improve performance is to practice. Many of our classes assign a student to argue one side regardless of personal beliefs, but only one of my first year classes took it a step further and asked the same student to argue both sides. For such a simple task, i.e. just do what you normally do but do it twice, it was surprisingly difficult. But we had to learn how to do it. It was an explicit requirement of two-thirds of the final exam and a theme consistently emphasized throughout the semester. In terms of skill-building, this class has been the most useful. Now, at the close of 1L, I want to give credit to Professor Joseph Singer’s Property class. Even after the precise details of executory interests, conditions subsequent and vested vs. contingent remainders fade from my memory, I’ll be grateful to have been a lucky member of Section 3.
Geng Chen is a 1L. Her column runs every other Tuesday.
The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.