On surviving Law School, a culture of not being good enough and celebrating selection, and remembering why I started.
What brought me to Law School was one simple wish: I wanted the ability to be strong for people who were currently not in a position to do so for themselves. A wish so simple it almost sounds cheesy (though I maintain it’s not naive), and yet when you take the leap and actually enter Law School, you move very far away from that goal very quickly.
It is worth making the introductory comment here that I study Law in Germany, a country which may have found the weirdest and most criticisable way to organise law studies yet. There are, in particular, 3 reasons for me to make this claim:
- The System
If you choose law school and everything goes according to the standard plan, you’re in for 9 semesters of studying. Of those, about 5 – 6 semesters are completely irrelevant to your final grade. That’s right: you can do really well for two thirds of your studies and still have no guarantee that you end up with a degree the first time round. Essentially, it works like this: You spend those 5 – 6 semesters passing a bunch of exams, doing internships and fulfulling some other requirements; once you have checked all the requirements off, you are allowed to register for the State Exam. Your final grade will consist of a “Specialization Exam” (33 %) and the “State Exam” (66 %) – the former being two written assignments and oral exams at your university, the latter being one week from hell during which you take 6 exams about 6 randomly chosen and – depending on your luck – potentially very specific bits of everything you ever learned about the law; plus, should you pass those written exams (which only about two thirds end up passing), you will have to deal with another day of oral exams. Everyone has a bad day once in a while; make that two or three and place them during that exam week and whoops, there goes your future. Well, more or less – but I’ll get to that below.
- The Grading Scale
The grading system for Law is (to my knowledge) unique in Germany, meaning no other discipline is exposed to this intense bullshit. The scale goes from 0 – 18 points; the passing point is at 4 points and if that’s the moment where you go “what the hell that’s so easy! I have to score 60 % to pass an exam!” then I regret to inform you that in most exams, the average is somewhere around 5 – 6.5 points and the failure rates usually around 30 % or higher (I once took an exam where the average was 3.5 points and scoring 5 points placed me among the top 15 % – and the professor complained that when she gave out that same exam 10 years ago, the average was so much better with a whooping 4.5 points). I don’t know who came up with the grading system, nor do I know who saw this 18 point scale and decided that the top third of it just wouldn’t be used – ever -, but I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for them. And the system alone – this beautifully crafted way to continuously make students feel like they are miles away from good enough for anyone or anything – isn’t even the worst part; what makes it worse is the way grades come to be: semi-arbitrarily. Law exams are essay-type exams, which are always harder to grade than a clear-cut multiple-choice exam; they’re even harder to grade when there are 300 of them to grade and you have to hire random law-graduates who get paid per exam and therefore have to speed up if they want to achieve minimum wage per hour. Just recently the case of a student who handed in his written assignment twice and accidentally received two very different grades – an okay-ish 5 points and an amazing 9 points – made the actual news. Your grade depends as much on your acutal legal knowledge as it depends on into which correctors hands your exam falls, at what time that happens, how tired he is at that point, how good the correction instructions were that were handed to him by the professor, how annoyed or hungry he is, how much he likes your handwriting and how much his life is pissing him off at the moment. And as if that’s not bad enough, it still get’s worse. The worst part is:
- How Much We Care About The Grades
Yes, the system is basically designed to keep your chances of achieving good grades – grades that in a normal system would reflect your skills accurately – to a minimum; yes, the grades are – while not entirely baseless – subject to large arbitrary influences and everyone, and I mean everyone who is a part of this system, everyone who ever studied Law, knows this; and yes, we care about them to an unhealthy extent anyway. Remember that scene at the beginning of “Les Miserables” where we meet the main character, Jean Valjean, and Javert keeps addressing all the prisoners by their prison-registry numbers instead of their names? If I ever were addressed by a fellow-jurist by my current GPA rather than my name, I would not even be surprised enough to bat an eye. From day one we are told how much these ridiculous numbers define us and our future – we are told that, if you want to be a judge, you need to make the magic 9-point-mark, and if you just barely pass your final exam, you’ll get stuck in an insurance company for life; we are told there’s no point in applying for certain things, certain jobs, below certain point-marks – no matter the additional experience you may be bringing to the table. People ask each other about their grades, some even select company based on grades, people hide books in the library and tear out pages for no one else to be able to read them and people remember the statistics from the last exam by heart so they can eternally compare themselves to each other.
Not all people, of course; it goes without saying that, as within any discipline, Law has some great and chill people. But this is the general climate – one of competition and comparison, one of never being good enough and one of disdain for the weak. The conditions are harsh, yet there is collective pride of just that – as if arbitrarily making it harder to pass exams, let alone achieve good grades, made the discipline and its students somehow superior to others.
When I came to Law school, I wanted to be strong for people who were currently not in a position to be strong for themselves. I wanted to learn about issues related to human rights and civil rights, I wanted to learn how to defend people whose rights were endangered and how to make the State a little more just for everyone. Instead, I spent a lot of time dealing with a lot of very basic theory and abstract knowledge (as opposed to actual cases; the German system is not as jurisdiction-oriented as, say, the British system with all its case-law, so the first time I actually dealt with real cases in depth was after about 3.5 years, in a lecture within my area of specialization), and I used up all of my strength just to keep myself up and running rather than lending it to people in bad positions, because any display of weakness seemed out of place.
The first time I came seriously close to quitting was between my third and fourth semester. This was simultaneously also between the fifth and sixth semester of my Bachelor’s in Psychology, which means that the stress from my Bachelor’s thesis and applying for Master’s programmes came as a charming little addition to the whole thing. One might have thought that I was fine, seeing as I’d never failed an exam at that point and my grades were quite average, which shouldn’t have bothered me considering I was doing a whole other degree “on the side”. The thing is, our expectations aren’t always so logical; while the outside perspective might have been “oh wow, two degrees simultaneously and the grades are still fine, that’s impressive!”, all I could think was that I was getting nowhere. There was just so much new stuff to learn, there were so many Law lectures and exams and you were supposed to prepare for the lectures and then repeat what you learned after the lectures, all that while preparing for the exams (side note: you hear many lectures that are not relevant to the exams you are taking that same semester, but become relevant in later semesters, which makes for a difficult balancing exercise) – I felt like I was climbing a sand dune; like I kept sliding back down no matter how hard I tried to get up there. I felt like the whole thing was crushing me and there was no one who would understand, and I just wanted it to stop.
What made me push through this was not the heroic thought of why I’d come to Law school in the first place, not strength or discipline or any other great quality, so much as one simple reason: petty defiance. The day I went to enroll for Law in addition to Psychology, I encountered the most ill-tempered employee the matriculation-office had to offer. From the moment I entered her office until the moment I left it, she basically didn’t interrupt her rant about, in short, how unpleasant it was that I was interrupting her afternoon and wasting her time with such a silly request as wanting to enroll for two subjects in parallel, because people like me never pulled through with stuff like this; she informed me I would try this for a few semesters, then admit to myself that it was too hard and just pick one, which would make this a waste of her time. I left that office swearing to myself that even if it turned out to suck, I would graduate, and with an excellent grade too, just to shove it into her arrogant face. Three semesters later I was still petty enough to have not let go of that and to make it my reason to persevere – and as stupid a reason as that is, it was good enough: I stuck around. 8 semesters later, I now appreciate that this woman had a stressul day, a stressful job, and some people probably did waste her time – and I’m actually very glad that she was having such an exceptionally (I hope for her family) grumpy day, because as silly as that was, it got me through my first rough patch.
The second time I nearly quit was between my sixth and seventh semester of law – around one and a half years later, and yet it felt like an eternity. The situation was similar in that I had pushed myself over the edge with a serious overload of work; I’d pushed through too much for too long and now I was just exhausted. What was different was that this time, I had stumbled into a proper quarter-life-crisis; I was just tired, so tired, and I didn’t know what for anymore – I’d lost view of where I was going with these degrees, I kept pushing myself without anything in sight that made it worth pushing for. I was at a point where I had to admit that I loved Law, but I hated being a Law student; I had rushed through all my requirements and started preparatory courses for the State Exam (while working on my Master’s in Psychology) and I just couldn’t do it anymore – I couldn’t stay up until 2 a.m. to prepare a case for class the next morning one more night, I couldn’t sit through one more lecture and repress my panic at the realization that everyone else knew more than me, and I couldn’t spend one more break trying to ignore the group next to me chatting about how many hours they’d studied yesterday and how many cases they were going to catch up on today. I couldn’t stand any of it for another day without having a clear view of a good reason.
This time, it took me more strenght, or more of an effort, to push through than the first time. The decision to walk away from something is often terrifying – leaving a steady job from which we’ve gotten everything there was to get and which is now sucking us dry, walking away from a person who’s very close to us, but doesn’t treat us the way we deserve: sometimes, our self-respect dictates we do something that seems dreadful and yet is inevitable, because if we don’t look after ourselves, no one else will. And that’s what I did – I walked away from Law for a whole semester. I was scared – scared I might fall behind drastically because of this, and even more scared that I might just never find the strength to come back to it; yet I knew that if I didn’t take this step now, if I didn’t take my distance and invest the time to find a really good reason to go on, I wouldn’t make it either way, and I’d be potentially looking at consequences that were worse than just a Law-school drop-out. So that’s what I did – I spent the semester doing some electives for Psychology, pursuing different interests that I’d never previously had the time for, and invested a lot of time into volunteering; by the end of it, I’d found a good reason – I’d found my way back to where I started. And not only that, I rediscovered my love for Law, in spite of its irritating study system. I returned after this semester hungry for new knowledge and eager to take on the final challenge in order to finally arrive at the destination I’d aimed for since day one: being able to be strong for those who currently couldn’t be.
That semester I made use of my new-found motivation by starting my area of specialization – for the first time, an assignment I handed in would be relevant for my actual final grade. Shit was getting serious. I still felt like a kind of average student – I didn’t have any special skills, but I now had my determination, and it was stronger than ever. This close to the end, there was no way I was backing down: I was going to finish this degree, in spite of my skills or lack thereof, and then I would finally do what I’d come here to do in the first place. I handed in my assignment and waited; when the day of the oral exam finally came around, I was so nervous that I was more focused on not being sick inside the exam room than on my actual presentation. Afterwards, I waited around nervously for the interviewers to agree upon my grade, praying to all of the deities to let me pass and not make me redo the whole assignment, until finally the moment had come. I sat down and anxiously eyed the lecturer’s expressionless face as he, after a moment, opened his mouth and informed me that –
not only I had passed the exam, but they were unanimously so impressed with both the scientific quality of my assignment and my style of writing, as well as with the comprehensive understanding of the topic that I had acquired during this time, that they wanted me as a student research assistant at their department.
I was in utter shock. For four years, I had been mediocre at best, a student with no particular talent for anything, no individual worth – and suddenly, I was being told I had special skills? A worth beyond my grades? And then I realized: there was a reason I was still here, and it wasn’t just defiance or stubbornness, not even just perseverance or dedication. I was here after all this time because I belonged; because I wanted to do something and I had not only the dedication but the skills to get there.
Law, like perhaps no other discipline (though of course, I can’t know that for sure, but I know no other discipline with a similar bad reputation), has managed to create a system and a culture that keep telling us we aren’t good enough, we’re nothing beyond our grades and we never will be good enough because the system is designed to keep the highest grades out of reach. It is a system that removes any individuality from us students because it does its best to limit our perception to one specific set of numbers; and if your personal skills – although they may make you an excellent fit for certain areas of law/jobs in the legal spectrum – don’t align perfectly with the skills it takes to achieve good grades in this bizarre system, you may not see them for a long time. It is a system that pushes us to feel bad about ourselves until we are fortunate enough to discover those individual skills by ourselves – or have them discovered by someone else, in my case; in a way, this is how we beat the system. Not in a grand toppling-maneuver, but little by little, day by day and student by student who finally discovers their worth outside and beyond the system and is rewarded for it.
I finally understood why I’d never quit: because this system couldn’t break me, nor could it break my love for Law for what it was – nor could it ever keep me from doing what I came here to do in the first place.