School culture is an important factor to consider whether you are just starting the law school application process or evaluating your options. Historically, law school has had a reputation for being competitive and cut-throat, which has been fueled by movies and cautionary tales from students’ actual experiences.
The good news is a learning environment like that does not have to be your reality. Some law schools have worked hard to create a more cooperative and collaborative environment.
FACTORS INFLUENCING COMPETITIVE CULTURES
Law school enrollments have been on the rise. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) reported nearly 71,000 applicants already in 2021, a roughly 13% increase from the previous year. Demands to be accepted surge with more student applications and therefore it continues to attract and bring together a highly motivated group of individuals. That can lead to a culture of constant comparison and rivalry as students compete for grades, internships and scholarships.
While competition can be a positive, it can also become toxic and lead to burnout, depression, stress and more.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE
Law school can be a three- to four-year commitment, depending on whether you attend full- or part-time. You will likely spend a majority of your time interacting with professors and classmates. That is one reason for you to attend a school with good culture, an environment that makes you feel comfortable and an atmosphere that provides an opportunity to grow.
Here are some factors to consider to help you better understand the culture when evaluating law schools:
Grading: Law schools that use a forced grading system can foster an “every man for himself” culture. Because this system requires professors to grade students based on the performance of their peers, only a percentage of the class earns an above average score while the rest walk away with average or below average. Students are essentially competing against their peers for top grades in the class, which results in reduced collaboration and minimal peer support. Some law schools have eliminated forced grading to avoid such unproductive outcomes. Students can compete against themselves instead and earn a grade based on their own merit. Moving away from a competitive grading system empowers students to support one another and help their peers succeed since grades are not hinged on the performance of others.
Diversity: The American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools are required to report race and ethnicity of their students every year. Their findings showed decreased enrollment among students of color in 2019, and that Black enrollment had been dropping for four consecutive years. Having racial, ethnic and cultural diversity is important for enhancing the law school experience. A study published in the Iowa Law Review showed that more diversity in the classroom leads to better questions, analysis and solutions, which in turn results in more just and intelligent lawyers. It is important to consider the make-up of the student body when examining law schools. A more diverse law school can also help ensure everyone feels welcome regardless of their background.
Faculty and Staff Support: Faculty and staff can play an important role in creating a collaborative and cooperative environment, as well as making students feel supported. Ask Admissions for permission to observe a class to help you understand how a teacher addresses the students. Some are more supportive in guiding students to the correct answer versus ridiculing or embarrassing the student if they answer a question incorrectly. You’ll also find that attending a lecture can show you whether the law school offers a collaborative, interactive environment or is more competitive.
Available support services can also shed light on the culture. You can catch a glimpse of this during the admissions process, but your law school experience is different from enrollment through graduation. Pick up the phone to understand how much support each school can offer. For example, some larger schools only offer group career counseling or “drive through” counseling where students are limited to 15 minutes. That can make it difficult for those who need more help to feel supported and contribute to a survival-of-the-fittest culture mentality. Other schools provide more individualized approaches, including one-on-one career counseling to adequately support all students throughout the academic and career process.
Class size: Similarly, class size can impact a student’s law school experience. Students can sometimes feel lost in the crowd when attending a large school. That makes it even more difficult if they are struggling in a class and peers do not want to collaborate. On the other hand, some law schools cap class sizes to provide a more interactive and collaborative experience. Smaller classes can also help create a close-knit family atmosphere.
Finding a school that values a collaborative and cooperative environment can elevate your law school experience. Students no longer have to settle and assume a competitive and cut-throat environment is the status quo. Ask questions about the culture during the admissions process and ask to speak to current students to learn about their experience to help you identify the right school for you.
Michael Chen is the assistant dean of admissions at Western State College of Law. As the oldest law school in Orange County, California, Western State College of Law is an established institution with a 50-year track record of success and a reputation for producing both successful trial lawyers and more than 150+ graduates that have gone on to serve as judges and judicial officers in Calif. Follow Western State College of Law on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.