Denver Bar Association
June 2008
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"The Trials of Law School"

by Becky Bye

How does your law school experience compare?

Wide-eyed and terrified, new law students apprehensively find their seats on the first day of law school in a generic classroom. In one of the opening scenes of the new documentary “The Trials of Law School,” a relaxed professor then enters the room, looks directly at a student, addresses him by name and proceeds to grill him on the first assignment.

Unbeknownst to these new 1Ls, the law professor memorized the names of several students as part of his annual prank. The otherwise good-natured professor confesses to the camera that he’s established a tradition of terrorizing first-year law students on their first day of class, as part of the curriculum at the University of Oklahoma.

The documentary follows eight law students through the trials and tribulations of their first year of law school. The film begins with the dean’s speech to all the first-years about how they are the crème de la crème of the applicant pool and how this experience inevitably will change their lives forever.

The eight students, with diverse backgrounds, introduce themselves on camera and begin to discuss their journeys. Several students came straight from undergraduate school to law school. Others are starting second careers. A single mom with some government experience wants to pave the path to a better life. Throughout the documentary, she struggles to raise her young child and to give him enough attention, while also giving her law studies enough attention to do well. Another 41-year-old, non-traditional student struggles to balance his family life with his teaching career as an undergraduate professor. 

All students begin with high hopes and optimism. The documentary soon shows, however, that they all struggle to balance their intense legal studies and their other obligations. Soon, the single parent finds her child saying, “I hate you,” for the first time. The undergrad prof finds himself unprepared to teach his own class. The other students struggle with their personal relationships, and they fear that there is not enough time to comprehend and synthesize all the cases, black letter laws and notes from the four law school classes.

The documentary also offers insights from professors across the country on issues common to all law students. Competition with other students is fierce. Balancing course loads is nearly impossible. Intense cramming sessions before finals are inevitable.

I was surprised to see that the University of Oklahoma students’ experience practically mimicked mine, academically, socially and personally. However, I found that the tone of the documentary was inapposite. From the opening credits, the theme of the documentary is that law school is one of the most stressful and horrific periods of one’s life. At one point, a somber soundtrack plays as one of the younger students scrambles to study between classes; he has fallen behind. A very melancholy song with the refrain, “Here come better days,” drags on as the camera follows the distressed student studying frantically between classes.

At that moment in the film, I remembered how law school certainly had its up and downs. But my theme song for law school was more along the lines of, “I’m walking on sunshine!” Law school was not only one of the most academically enriching experiences of my life, it was also socially enriching and personally rewarding.

Writer Becky Bye and her friend Megan celebrate law school graduation. Apparently, law school wasn't so bad!

The documentary reminded me of the first article I authored for my law school’s newspaper. Half way through my first semester, I detailed my preconceived notions of law school as a scary place, filled with hours of endless studying amongst mean-spirited competitive people. Unlike the documentary, my article debunked this myth. I had found a great balance between work, social activities and law school extracurricular activities. Most important, I made genuine lifelong friendships. To express my enthusiasm for law school, both in and out of the classroom, I published a picture of a group of people laughing at a bar holding big German beer steins to commemorate the entire uplifting experience.

“The Trials of Law School” paints a fairly accurate picture of the universal law school experience – the terror, the balancing act, the tense Socratic-method moments and finals. Unfortunately, the documentary’s tone is a little too negative, and may further scare away potential law students from enrolling in law school.

The content of my student newspaper article — and the picture — chronicling my first few months of law school was a far more accurate representation of law school.

“The Trials of Law School” is the first feature length documentary from filmmaker Porter Heath Morgan.

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