How the Other Side Lives: Commentary on the Law School from a Double General
By Alex Eichenbaum Returning to W&L as a law student, I was anxious and excited to return to a school full of time-honored traditions. The many things that set W&L apart from other undergraduate institutions—the collegial environment, relationships between students and professors, student self-governance, the Honor System—can also be said of the law school.
But these traditions take on a different feel across the bridge. As an undergrad, I was always in awe of the support and engagement of the administration and faculty with students whether in the classroom or outside. At the law school, the students, administration, and faculty are much more independent. The law school community is not as constantly engaged as the undergrad, and therefore, those special kinds of relationships that are often seen at the undergrad are fewer and far between. That’s not to say there is a lack of engaged and supportive W&L law faculty—but with the abundance of visiting, or short-term, professors and lack of out-of-classroom interaction with students, it’s harder to foster those relationships.
Another remarkable difference is the tradition of student self-governance. The Student Bar Association (SBA) oversees most of the student activities at the law school and works with the administration on student-related issues. The SBA consists of 10 members—1L, 2L, 3L class presidents and vice presidents, along with four executive officers. Additionally, each class elects representatives to the SJC and EC. These are great opportunities to get involved on campus and interact with faculty and the administration. However, these are some of the only opportunities. A constant complaint I heard my first year of law school was the lack of extracurricular opportunities for students who are used to filling their resume with all sorts of positions. There are a number of law student-only organizations, but their scope and interactions are limited. This is partly because law school is incredibly difficult without the added burdens of extracurricular obligations (17 credits your first semester as opposed to the standard 12 in undergrad). But as can be seen on the undergrad side, students who are more engaged and active on campus have a lot more stake in what goes on than those who do not.
The Honor System is another revered tradition that is ever-present on the undergraduate side, but not often seen at the law school. As one undergrad and law school alumnus recently remarked, “It always seemed to me that the law students loved the benefits of the Honor System but never took any responsibility for it.” It’s true—students enjoy leaving their things out at the library (still true, despite the recent thefts), and enjoy the ability to schedule their own exams and take them in their carrels. Another purely pedagogical difference between the law school and the undergrad, however, is the lack of opportunity to cheat or see the Honor System come into play. Law students typically only have one graded exam or assignment per class. When your entire semester comes down to a four-hour test, you are understandably preoccupied with the importance of the exam as opposed to the pledge that only some professors remind you to note at the end.
Although these longstanding traditions take a different form at the law school, the essence of community is still the same. In the wake of two tragic student losses last year, I saw the entire campus come together. The law school never felt more a part of the community than after the loss of 3L Lara Gass, when all of W&L reached out and made us feel at home. Though we have our trying times on the other side of the bridge, we are still proud to be a part of this community and take part in all that makes W&L special.