August 18, 2019

Killing Them Softly (Part Four) — Law School: Legally Inflicted Brain Damage

rhodesLaw professor Douglas Litowitz’s 2005 book The Destruction of Young Lawyers summarizes the law school experience this way:

The one thing that we know with certainty about law school is that it breaks people, that it is experienced as a trauma, an assault. Like other traumas, when it is actually taking place it is overwhelming and very difficult to understand. Only after it is already finished can it be pieced together in retrospect, like a robbery victim who later tries to reconstruct the features of an assailant.

When I say that law school breaks people, I mean that almost nobody comes out of law school feeling better about themselves, although many come out much worse – caustic, paranoid, and overly competitive. From outward appearances, the students churned out by the law school machine are shiny and bright, with a professional no-nonsense attitude, but inside that shell lies a nagging hollowness.

Law school is not transformative because it does not engage the students on an emotional or intellectual level.

Strong words indeed, but nine years after Prof. Litowitz wrote them, Prof. Austin’s “Killing Them Softly” article reveals that we’ve got a lot of new neuroscience to back them up, or in some cases clarify them. For example, Prof. Austin points out that it’s not that law school doesn’t engage the emotions, but that it does so through a filter of stress:

The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition. (Emphasis added.)

Stressed emotions warp neural function, debilitating and even destroying the very brain processes needed to achieve what Prof. Austin calls “optimal cognitive fitness.” She thinks we can do better:

Because the processes of learning, memory storage, and memory retrieval involve both the emotional and thinking brains, law students, legal educators, and lawyers should develop an understanding of the impact of emotion on cognition and the nexus between brain and body.

In other words, if we could get our minds around the idea that promoting law student brain and body wellness would be good for all of us, we would approach legal learning in a way that, instead of traumatizing law students, would enhance their learning and improve their overall health. In fact, we would emphasize helping law students be happy about studying law.

A prior series of this blog spoke about promoting happiness in law practice:

[H]appy lawyers are more likely to deliver the best of the competence, communication, timeliness, and sound judgment we’re ethically obligated to provide. It also means that the best-performing law firms – the firms that will also make the “best places to work” lists – could be founded on a single guiding principle: promote lawyer happiness.

The same could be true of law schools.

Now there’s a concept…

Rhodes has been a lawyer for nearly 30 years, in firms large and small, and in solo practice. Years ago he left his law practice to start a creative venture, and his reflections on that topic appeared in an article in the August 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. His ebook, Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania, chronicles his misadventures and lessons learned about personal growth and transformation, which are the foundation of much of what he writes about here. If you enjoy reading this blog and would like to contribute a blurb to Kevin’s upcoming collection of these posts, please email Kevin at

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