Isolation - The Worst Counselor!
Cathaleen A. Roach[fn]
There is widespread, well-documented evidence of acute psychological distress among many
of our first-year students (majority students as well as minority and other non-traditional students).
While it may have initially sprung from good intentions, seemingly out of some form of tough love,
the "tough law" approach --which rests primarily on the Langdellian model of Case Method and
Socratic teaching and the traditional single end-of-semester exam--has unquestionably left numerous
students in tremendous distress.
One empirical report estimated that up to 40 percent of law students may experience
depression or other symptoms as a result of the law school experience. That data was collected ten
years ago during the so-called "boom years" when employment opportunities were better.
Additionally, the data contained no significant representation of minority students. Today, due in
part to increased tuition rates and decreased employment opportunities, the actual figures for both
minority and majority students are likely to be much higher. Studies also confirmed the at-that-time
surprising data that law students experienced distress that was as high or higher than that of medical
school students .
In addition to the widely accepted theory that law students experience
elevated levels of psychological distress, there also seems to be general accord as to the results of
such psychological distress. Often, students develop attitudes of hostility or emotional detachment.
Some authors describe this as alienation or disengagement, with the locus of disengagement being
the student's own self-regard. Moreover,. . . undue stress results in interference with the learning
process by causing students to worry more than they work, to reduce their intake of information, and
to create distancing mechanisms to reduce threats to their self-esteem. As a result, . . . [undue
stress] is more important than aptitude as a determinant of success.
That [law students] are generally hurting seems established by now, although the whys have
yielded some academic debate. Some authors blame the workload, the Socratic Method, and/or the
total absence of feedback throughout the semester for the distress. Other researchers blame the law
school environment itself as "unsupportive, impersonal, and anxiety-provoking." One interesting
theory blames the why of the pervasive anxiety, not on the legal aspects (i.e., the Socratic or Case
Method approach), but on the educational growth that a student must experience while moving from
a dualistic mode of thinking to a multiplistic and relativistic one.
[Some experts] suggest that students are psychologically distressed because of a loss of
self-esteem. The institutional framework of the law school promotes this loss of self-esteem. . . . It
is self-esteem which is the paramount issue facing law students. . . . [T]he genuine and tremendous
"psychic injury" that a psyche may experience in law school . . .can result in maladaptive strategies
to protect the self-esteem including anxiety, withdrawal and depression. In fact, . . . " l aw schools
must address the question of whether the diminution of self-esteem and the accompanying anxiety
and depression reported by many law students are necessary correlates of legal education."
Additional research as well as my own experience working with students, however, suggests
to me that perhaps the problem for both groups of students (majority and minority) results more from
isolation than it does from the typically described alienation or from a loss of self-esteem.
Although isolation is sometimes referenced as a by-product of the educational system, it is
not generally examined as a causative factor of pervasive psychological distress, and more
particularly, of significant academic distress. In my own experience as a teacher, I found that my
students were isolated from themselves, each other, their professors, and virtually all previously
successful coping mechanisms from their undergraduate experience. Essentially, in law school
students are taught and trained as loners, and this isolation produces great confusion and
psychological distress. One recent article hints at the institutional role behind such pain:
The failure to see oneself as belonging within the norm leads to a profound sense of
alienation based not just on the newness of legal education--which many first year students
share--but on the sense that while one is struggling to succeed, the system itself is set up to limit
Finally, there is also the compelling argument that much of the acute distress felt by law
students results in large part from the lack of context within which these students are operating:
Usually by Thanksgiving holidays, most members of the freshman class are brought nearly to a
panic by their awareness that they do not understand what is being demanded of them, nor can they
figure out how to meet this pressure.
As a cause of the pervasive psychological distress in the law school, "the lack of context"
explanation is compelling because it is essentially a subset of the broader causative factor of
isolation. Students are not only isolated from themselves, their former undergraduate successes, and
their fellow students, but also pedagogically. They are completely isolated from any direction,
modeling, or explicit instruction about what specifically is expected of them during their first year.
The combination of traditional Case Method instruction and Socratic dialogue does not intuitively
lead most law students anywhere, and the uncertainty caused by this isolation results in great distress.
Law schools do not explain the goals nor the designs of any of its methods, prompting one student to observe that using the Case Method is like studying a forest one tree at a time.
Most importantly, as many authors report, it has become apparent on several levels that
professors do not test what they teach, as often during the first year curriculum they "teach by the
case method and actually test by the problem method." Typically, first-year law students are greeted
in the first weeks of school with massive reading assignments of appellate court opinions (the
standard Case Method) followed by class periods which engage in some form of Socratic dialogue
regarding those cases. At the end of the semester, although taught by the Case Method system,
typically they are presented with the standard three-hour exam with loaded fact patterns providing
complicated legal problems for which they have received little or no explicit training. This general
lack of context is also greatly compounded by the lack of feedback students receive during their first
year. Most receive no formal, detailed feedback ever. Most receive only a letter grade and no
formal discussion regarding how they performed.
In short, standard Case Method instruction isolates students on at least two levels: first, they
are isolated personally from each other and their professors, resulting in the psychological distress
discussed above; and second, they are isolated "instructionally" as they are taught by the Case
Method without any significant understanding about what exactly it is that they are learning, nor how
it all relates to their final examinations.
This lack of context mistakenly forces many students to rely on their undergraduate learning
strategies, which they developed for entirely different testing systems. Thus, for example, I noted
that my students intuitively struggled to memorize each fact of each case read in each class because
rote memorization had served them well as undergraduates. These outmoded strategies, however,
often just left them exhausted and confused. Inevitably, they spent weeks and months in educational
limbo. In a very clever and useful article, Professor Moskovitz likens this odd situation to a young
tennis player who studies all of the rules of tennis but will not actually play tennis until the final
exam whereupon his entire grade will be based upon that single performance.
two types of isolation (i.e., psychological and
academic) discussed above also function together by
restricting a student's access to important law school
survival information. This essential information helps a
student make the huge leap from undergraduate learning
to law school learning. For example, three key bits of
such survival information include explicit instruction
in: creating a rule-based outline; flow charting; and the pivotal importance of taking practice exams.
Typically, however, the first-year law curriculum provides no pedagogical context, and
incredibly it remains up to the second and third-year students, friends and family members, or the
rare "contextual" professor to explain the new system to the struggling law student. However, it is
often simply fortuitous as to whether or not one acquires those valuable friendships and
informational resources. It is the mere fortuity of having those relationships (and thereby access to
the survival information) that is the most troubling aspect of first-year legal instruction.
Law professors have typically responded that the "context" is either already evident, or that it
is not useful unless the student struggles to achieve it on her own. Since their own law school days,
however, these same professors have spent years honing a general legal framework or context.
Thereafter, as teachers preparing for their substantive classes, they have also spent months preparing
highly contextual approaches for those classes. Thus, in my opinion, law professors insisting that
students need no more context than that already provided by the existing Case Method, to paraphrase
First Lady Hillary Clinton, is a lot like Congress insisting that "there is no health care crisis" while
Congress itself is fully insured by the federal government.
Whether one views the causative problem as institutionally promoted isolation or something
else, however, the response has been clear. As a general rule, law schools have shown absolutely no
inclination to acknowledge or address the problems of undue psychological distress and isolation.
In fact, despite the growing research discussed above, most institutions continue with the model of
first-year education that has been around since the 1870's, prompting one author to bemoan that the
Langdellian method still rules us from the grave.
If, however, a law school refuses to acknowledge the interplay between a student's cognitive
ability and other noncognitive factors (i.e., isolation and his emotional strengths and vulnerabilities)
then it is not really teaching to the student as a whole human being. Most importantly, the
institution also fails to appreciate the significant academic costs which also result. If students are
isolated, they cannot be fully educated; at the end of the semester or first year, they are then tested
on that which they have not been taught and are graded on learning strategies to which many have
had unequal access. The plums of law review and second-year summer clerking positions thus are
not awarded on a level playing field because success can depend on little more than access to the
pivotal survival information possessed by second and third-year students or family members.
Consequently, there are likely equally deserving students who are never effectively or accurately
tested because they are so far outside of the mainstream by virtue of their isolation that they do not
have access to pivotal survival information.