Letters from the Dorm: Life at Harvard Law School under an X-ray

Even though you might be taught to learn in a particular way at law school, there’s nothing that says you can’t apply your own way of thinking, if that’s what suits you best

April Xiaoyi Xu |

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There are characters that you’ll meet at the start and never see again. There are characters that become more important as time goes on. Plots thicken and, at the heart of it all, there are conflicts that need resolving. Learning about a law case is, as I learned this year, not boring – it’s like watching a movie.

The first year of a law school like Harvard Law School is called 1L. As many first year law students come to learn, this year is about learning to practically use an X-ray to deconstruct everything about a person’s life. Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard, said in a talk that under such an X-ray nothing looks beautiful or interesting.

However, Gerald Frug, another professor at the school, said that the learning process is more like watching a movie, and I’d tend to agree. I’m a creative writer – I have a tendency to add flavour to my learning instead of analysing facts in a precise manner – so you can understand why I initially became somewhat disillusioned at the start of my first year thanks to this “X-ray” approach to learning. I told my friends and family that law school was stifling my creativity.

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Even though there was always something in every class that I found compelling and seemed to justify my reasons for choosing to go to Harvard, there seemed to be little time to think of my studies in any creative way – not when I had so much reading, legal research, and writing to do. I did not get to synthesise everything in a way that I found stimulating until it was nearly the exam period.

Law school is perhaps one of the most stressful academic environments to be in. As one professor remarked at my orientation, Harvard Law School students are “at the pinnacle” and “are winners”. When my non-Harvard Law School friends visit me, they often remark on the stress levels they can almost feel as a tangible thing on campus.

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Given how important the 1L exams are, it’s not surprising that everyone’s stress levels are at an all-time high. I felt really stressed in the week leading up to reading week, but I was able to get rid of this feeling by finally learning to synthesise information from my studies like Frug suggests. I started applying what I do best to the case studies – I thought like a story-lover. I tried to understand the individuals and parties involved in the lawsuits as characters. What were their motivations? What did the players from different cases share in common? How did they differ? How does law come into play?

This might not seem like a huge thing to everyone, but it was to me. The deconstructive way of learning a case taught at law school is not for me. I realised that I could apply a different way of thinking to my studies to make them more fun and more appealing to me. Thanks to this, I was able to find the joy in law school that I was looking for.

Edited by Ginny Wong