What’s the Point of Competition in Law School?

“Look to your left; look to your right. Only one of you will be here in a few years’ time.” I’m not the first Slaw columnist to be skeptical that that phrase was ever directed at first-year law students in this country. And based on my own experience, it’s nonsense: About 95% of my first-year class at Queen’s Law in 1990 graduated three years later. Getting out of law school isn’t the hard part; getting in is.

But the myth’s perniciousness points to a fundamental (and I think deeply flawed) feature of law school: its competitiveness. From Day One, law students who hear this message (or more likely, hear the myth gleefully repeated by upper-years) are being trained to think of their classmates not as colleagues or comrades, but as competitors, rivals for the limited number of seats on the professional lifeboat.

New law students quickly learn that a very small supply of vowels is available for end-of-term grading. As rumours of recessions and law firm layoffs circulate through the school, students become convinced that a transcript full of As, or at worst B+s, is essential to land a job sufficiently lucrative to help pay down the enormous debts they’ve undertaken. They learn the lessons of scarcity (to hoard and fight) rather than of abundance (to share and multiply).

The rules of the law school game reinforce this sense of embattlement. You must take exams alone. You must write papers alone. You must speak up more often in class, and make better points, than those around you. It’s a zero-sum game: the better someone else does, the worse you’re going to look by comparison. You and your classmates are in a game of musical chairs, and every time the music stops, you need to be ready to bodycheck someone out of the nearest seat.

Why do we do this? What’s the benefit of training law students to see every professional interaction as a fight for survival? Does it make the learning process more effective? I’ve found no studies that say so. Does it “toughen up” students for the brutal dog-eat-dog world of law practice? That’s a myth describing a legal profession of someone’s testosterone-fuelled imagination — today’s practicing lawyers know the key to long-term success is to earn a reputation for being civil and cooperative.

Maybe it suits the strategic aims of some schools to encourage a sense of scarcity in legal education; maybe it suits the personal preferences of some professors to see students straining as hard as they can after the outstretched carrot of top grades.

But it does not do anything good for the students themselves, and I’m of the increasingly adamant opinion that a legal education system that’s not student-centred isn’t worth maintaining. The staggeringly high rates of mental and emotional distress experienced in particular by new lawyers strongly suggests we are doing a lousy job of preparing tomorrow’s lawyers for the path that lies before them.

Every list of “key skills for future lawyers” making the rounds these days places a high priority on “collaboration.” To succeed as a lawyer in this century, you must be able to work cooperatively and constructively with other people — including colleagues, members of other teams, and various stakeholders — to achieve good solutions for clients and sustainable success for yourself and others.

How can we develop in future lawyers the skill of collaboration while maintaining a fundamentally competitive environment for their first three years in the profession?

When I taught a small class at a US law school several years ago, I assigned the students into different groups every day to complete a team project that they would present together at the end of class, and on which they’d be graded collectively. I hoped by doing so to give them experience working with rotating disparate groups of people (not all of whom they were going to like) and being judged on group outcomes rather than individual contributions. They responded extremely well to the opportunity.

I assigned letter grades to the students in the course, reluctantly — I would much rather have given every student who completed the course a Pass grade, with an “Honours” designation for the few true standouts. I wanted to impress upon them that what mattered was what they learned, how they acted, and how they grew during the course. But the grading system (and the equally broken law firm recruiting system) worked against these goals.

We need to reframe the law school experience. What are we trying to achieve here? To whose benefit? If this is a student-centred educational experience (and every law school insists that it provides one), how are students’ interests centred and prioritized in what and how we teach, in what and how we encourage, and in what and how we assess? If the future of lawyering is collaborative (and everyone I’ve spoken to believes that it is), how are we teaching students to recognize, value, and become proficient in collaboration?

Look to your left and right, in front of and behind you, all around you. These are your colleagues. These are your fellow travellers on the road into the legal profession. Learn to value them, appreciate them, and respectfully work with them to find the best possible outcomes. That’s the kind of lawyer we should want to develop.


  1. The “look left/look right” thing comes from Harvard Law and, to my knowledge, has only ever been used to sweepingly contrast the US and Canadian law school experiences.

    As to the substance, much to be considered here and I like the idea of trying to correct the disconnect between some learning methods and some practice skills. However, I would suggest that these same law firms that you say so value “collaboration” are also demanding grades, because they use them as the primary filter for hiring. If we unilaterally reframed the law school experience in the way you suggest, the profession would be very unhappy.

  2. Rob, making the profession unhappy is an unintended (but not entirely unwelcome) side effect of much of my work. :-)

  3. I’m a 3L at University of Alberta law. My law school experience is collaborative and collegial. People are quick to form study groups and support each other. In 1L (all online) a high-performing 3L told our class to reach out to him for anything. I did the next day and he spent 2 hours walking me through note-taking and exam strategies. Professors have been (almost always) open and engaging.

    I understand not everyone’s experience is like mine. Law school is a tough go and you have to keep your foot on the gas the whole way. My colleagues at school have been amazing and inspiring!

    I would say “look to your left, look to your right, these are your comrades in this journey”.

  4. Terrific to hear, Scott — thanks for sharing this!

  5. There is no mystery to why there is such intense competition in law school.

    Yes, there are always going to be the hidden gems who were C students but late bloomers or who possessed talents that nobody appreciated until circumstances revealed their value. But this is the exception, not the rule.

    Law schools, like most schools (from elementary school to professional school), do what the market for lawyers wants: thins the heard down to the most valuable students, so that the market has less work to do in finding them when they go from student to worker. Competition is the easiest, most efficient way of doing so.

    Having the cream rise through competition is not a perfect process, but the most competitive lawyers generally tend to be the best lawyers overall for the market’s needs. Top 10%? Law review? Odd’s are that you’re a safe bet, a good investment. “Grew personally”? “Collaborative”? How does the market easily and reliably measure that? How does an employer do so as well? Too much risk for most people. And it’s no mystery why.