Rituals in the Legal Profession

Design Your Delta No. 5

Let’s start by saying:


to all the law students graduating this spring! You have survived an experience designed to test your resilience and move you to the next stage of becoming a legal professional: The Bar Exam. 

You briefed cases (for the first few weeks at least), made outlines, pulled all-nighters, and took long exams. To teach you how to “think like a lawyer,” you likely endured a few Kingsfield-like professors who cold-called students, asking questions with often unknowable answers, to supposedly build resilience by breaking students down so that they can learn to get back up again. 

And you survived. 

In the last few posts, we have shared our personal stories reflecting on our training as lawyers and how those experiences motivate our work with the Delta Model. In doing so, we pointed to the inadequacies in legal education’s training of tomorrow’s lawyers. Alyson spoke about the pressures of following a singular narrative of success, and Cat spoke about the gaps between what she learned in law school and the skills she needed in practice.

Time and time again, research has demonstrated that neither the LSAT, law school exams, nor the bar exam are a proven predictor of success in the legal profession. So what is the point of law school? It might be fair to say that law school does an adequate job teaching you how to “think like a lawyer,” but it does so in this hazing-like ritual designed to not only answer questions such as: Can you survive? Do you have what it takes to make it? 

But let’s be honest, the profession actually wants to know: 

Can you survive as we did

Do you have what it takes to make it as we did

In previous posts, we introduced the idea of legal education as a period of liminality, a time marked by rituals to guide individuals from one state to another, to “something more than we were before.” We went on to say that “In essence, we have created rituals that more closely resemble hazing, where individuals (at least those fortunate and privileged enough to be admitted) ‘emerge on the other side transformed,’ yes, but only marginally prepared.”

haz·​ing: an initiation process involving harassment

Of course, we are hardly the first to call law school or the bar exam a hazing ritual (see here, here, here, here, here, here, etc.). 

But as we watch many of our students get ready to graduate and walk across that stage (virtual or physical), we want to call out the profession and say enough is enough. It is one thing to say we are building resilience, but based on what research?  The resilience we build is within a context singularly focused on training individuals “how to think like a lawyer” and is void of the holistic skills actually necessary to practice law, or guidance to explore the variety of career options available, or even a modicum of a pedagogically informed curriculum. 

To put it bluntly,

We have failed our students. 

So what IS the law school curriculum based on?  A tradition.  A tradition that has well served those in power, who want to believe if they had to endure, then so must the next generation. That is all it is. 

To understand why hazing persists in a society that frowns upon it, we can look to college campuses, where a proliferation of laws have been passed but where hazing is still rampant. 

Why?  In one story, supporters said it was because it makes the initiated stronger, ready to get back up again in the face of adversity. Others point to the importance of tradition, seeing themselves as “stewards of the institution.” While still others say it creates a lifelong bond that stems from the adverse conditions they faced together.  

Sound familiar? During interviews, attorneys like to commiserate with law students about shared experiences and like to know that the person sitting across from them has endured as they have. 

But at what costs?

Our students are suffering.

In 2014, the ABA sponsored a survey of Law Student Well Being and found that 42% of the respondents felt they needed professional help for emotional and mental health issues. And in the summer of 2020, the national reckoning of police brutality against black individuals brought to the forefront the many more and unique struggles our black students and students of color may endure.

This is yet another motivation for our work with the Delta Model. We hope the Delta Model provides that simple visual framework to build a legal education curriculum that provides a more complex and holistic set of skills. 

Of course, we are hardly the first to point out legal education’s inadequacies--tons of initiatives over the years have attempted to redesign legal education (see here, here, here, here, here, etc.). But we believe the Delta Model honors these previous efforts while providing the organizing framework needed to approach a redesign more holistically. The Delta Model not only identifies a more accurate set of skills necessary to succeed as a legal professional, but it is also a visual framework for quickly understanding the relationship between those skills and a tool for assessing and planning curricular and professional development efforts around those skills. 

“If law schools would teach @DeltaModelLawyr skills, bar examiners would assess for them, and employers would hire for them, just imagine how holistically competent the legal profession would be!”

@inspiredcat, July 8, 2020

In these initial posts, we have focused on our personal stories and experiences, exploring our internal motivations to keep this work going.  But as legal educators, our motivation is external as well.  We talk to our students and hear their struggles. We see their suffering. And we want to provide them meaningful ways to reimagine this system.

Soon, we will begin featuring the stories of our students, our colleagues, and others in the legal profession to understand what the Delta Model means to them and how they see the Delta Model transforming our profession and helping us all navigate in this larger liminal age of legal.

-Alyson and Cat

19 April 2021