The law school subculture

The law school subculture
During the first week back at Osgoode, I overheard some of my classmates referring to law school as a “subculture.”

I was struck by the use of this word because, having been a student of sociology, I have come to understand the dynamics of subcultures very well. Yet, in all of my analysis about law school, never once had I described it that way. But yes, it dawned on me in that moment; that is exactly what law school is.

Subculture is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behaviour sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society.”

Clearly, we fall into the social group category. Perhaps law schools could be even further defined based on their region.

But let’s turn to the tougher question: What are the distinct characteristic patterns of law students that make us different from others?

I think this question is one many of us have pondered in the first couple weeks of school. First years are getting acquainted with the law school way of life and wondering how they fit in. Second and third years are trying to paint themselves as “ideal” law students in order to get those OCIs and articling jobs.

So what is it?

Before law school, we all led diverse lives, so it’s hard to draw connections prior to starting this career. However, there are some common denominators that stand out: people enter law school as highly accomplished, bright individuals with a strong work ethic and lots of ambition.

So that’s our starting point; we’re keen overachievers. Pretty obvious.

What changes, then, after that? What further distinguishes a law student? Who is the “ideal” law student? Why does it become so difficult to have a non-law conversation with non-law students?

I should clarify that this article is not heading in an elitist direction. To be honest, the fact that law school is such a closed subculture is kind of off-putting to me. I’m not sure if this place brings out the best in people or the worst.

In my first article for Canadian Lawyer 4Students, I wrote about the competitive nature of law school and called for more collaboration. So competitiveness is probably the first characteristic I’d use to define the subculture.

The reason for this is pretty clear. There are a couple of hundred straight-A students in one graduating class striving to continue their record of academic achievement when only 10 per cent of us can actually do so. Those hundreds of keeners then go on to compete for the same jobs and have to stand out from the rest to get it.

In sum, high competition in conjunction with ambition and a strong work ethic are definitely defining features of law school.

What else? What do we idealize in our peers? In any subculture, whether it’s a religious group, a criminal organization or a sports team, there are traits that are held in higher regard than others and those members who embody them are revered.

Perhaps it’s high marks and top jobs at big firms that get people’s admiration in the law school bubble. That would be the easy answer anyways.

The OCI season definitely highlights that feeling. It seems like everyone who applied to OCIs wrote a very similar cover letter: “I’m a leader but also a proven team player; I’ve got experience in your area of law, but I’d like to expand my knowledge; I have strong values and a unique personality, but I’m very versatile and will adapt to any situation I find myself in.” It all sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? So really, what do we respect in our peers?

I’ve had more than a few conversations about this question in the past few weeks, but to be honest, there was no consensus. A more cynical student might say unless you’ve got a Bay Street job lined up to match your straight-A average, you’re not going to get much recognition at the law school stage. A slightly more optimistic person would say there are so many opportunities in law school, you can excel in a variety of areas and there will be people who take notice and admire you for it.

I’d like to think that it’s not just top marks and big firm jobs that gain respect in law school. Like I said earlier, we’re a very diverse bunch of people from all backgrounds, surely we’re going to have different goals. Shouldn’t they all be respected?

I’m afraid there isn’t a clear answer to that second question, so I’ll jump to the third: Why does it become so difficult to have a non-law-related conversation with a non-law student?

Well, that’s easier. Law school is hard. It’s all consuming. You work harder than you ever have before and dedicate 90 per cent of your time to the task. All of a sudden in first year, you’re thinking only in terms of estoppel, liability, division of powers, and then only beyond a reasonable doubt. You speak only in short forms and acronyms, saying SCC, OCI, PFJ, LHD, and IRAC and your non-law friends say WTF?! Another element of subcultures is dialects.

Law school is definitely a unique experience no matter how we differ in our descriptions. And there are certainly enough distinguishing features to argue that it is a subculture of a sort.

Now, being a member of a subculture isn’t necessarily negative, but it is something to be mindful of. Maintaining perspective and exposure to the “real world” is probably recommendable — even if it’s just to make sure our non-law-school friends don’t ditch us!

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