Bullying in Law School

by Angela N. Johnson

Rebecca Flanagan’s article, “Lucifer Goes to Law School” is not in itself an article on women as law students, however it focuses on the underlying concerns of law students surveyed in the Yale study, Schwab’s survey, and the Law School Student Engagement research. Flanagan notes that due to the extreme shock of the first year of law school and the law school environment generally, “bullying behaviors [are] both a cause and a response to student depression, anxiety, and substance abuse . . . bullying is the unnamed missing link in the causal chain between the law school curriculum and the prevalence of depression and substance abuse in law schools” (Flanagan 453). Flanagan states that due to the research on the experience of women and students of color in law schools which has documented the deleterious impact of the law school environment on academic achievement, self-esteem, and confident of non-traditional students, women and minorities are likely hit the hardest. Though bullying rarely involves physical violence, the emotional and mental harms transfer to physical ailments in the form of substance abuse.

Flanagan compares the 1L law school experience to that of the 1969 Stanford Prison Experiment in which psychologists analyzed the emotional degeneration of mentally healthy inmates who agreed to act as inmates for two weeks on a voluntary basis – resulting in depression, agitation, and refusal to eat. Many prisoners became emotionally withdrawn. Flanagan believes that law school bullies are not “bad apples,” rather, the law school environment is a “bad barrel” which taints all the apples it confines. At a minimum, law students are recommended to devote six-to-ten hour days (equating to roughly sixty hours per week) to their studies. Law schools as institutions are isolated and hold peers in close proximity for most of the daytime hours which accelerates the socialization process among law students. “Because of the intense competition for grades and subsequent summer clerkships, students become distrustful of their peers” (Flanagan 460). Additionally, “the bell curve and peer ranking are frequently cited sources of law student distress and depression” (Flanagan 463).

Flanagan cites a Washington Post article, “Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web,” which details two accounts of women law students being slandered and harassed over the internet. Cyberbullying, according to Flanagan is a preferred method of bullying because of the anonymity it affords offenders. Further, the impact goes viral and is everlasting – often harming students’ post-graduation success and job prospects. According to Flanagan, the most offending bully in law school is the professor, who drills students with the Socratic Method and plays “hide the ball” in the classroom; often making sarcastic and demeaning remarks at the expense of individual students. Professors on the other hand, feel they are preparing their students for the hostile environment of the legal profession and the bullying in law schools serves merely as a “rite of passage” into the legal profession and “law school bullying becomes viewed as a form of hazing into the profession – seen as a necessary way to teach students what life will be like for them as practicing attorneys” (Flanagan 464).

Source Citation: Flanagan, Rebecca. “Lucifer Goes to Law School: Towards Explaining and Minimizing Law Student Peer-to-Peer Harassment and Intimidation.” Washburn Law Journal (2008): 453-469.

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