The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity

41 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2007 Last revised: 9 Dec 2012


The recent energy for reforming legal education focuses on curricular changes that expand students' understanding of what law is, move beyond adjudication and the courtroom, introduce broader forms of knowledge, and develop a wider range of skills. These well-intentioned and carefully analyzed programmatic initiatives may nevertheless founder because of the cultural mismatch between these proposals and the institutions they seek to change.

In this essay we argue that successful reform requires taking account of the culture of competition and conformity that permeates law schools. By culture we mean the incentive structures and peer pressure, dominant rituals and unspoken habits of thought that map the physical and psychic terrain for a majority of both students and faculty. That cultural mix exerts a constant pressure to make comparisons along a uniform axis. As a result, the requirement to conform will often trump the invitation to explore. We identify the features of conflict, expertise, professional identities, and incentives that structure and reinforce this culture of competition and conformity within the classroom, the institution, and the larger environment of legal practice. Law school culture emerges from the adversarial idea of law that is inscribed in the dominant pedagogy. It is reinforced by the prevailing metrics of success, which rank order students through relentless public competitions (for grades, jobs, law journals, moot court, and clerkships) and provide very little opportunity for feedback that encourages students to develop more contextually defined or internally generated measures of accomplishment. It is locked in by its resonance with the currency of success in the private bar-money. It is preserved by the detachment of faculty from students' professional self-definition and reinforced by the primary way students learn - in class through questioning by professors in the presence of peers, when students perceive they have either won or lost the interaction.

The culture of competition and conformity is an invisible but ubiquitous gravitational force that mediates the impact of curricular reforms on students' learning and decision-making. It discourages faculty from investing the time and intellectual resources necessary to make these reforms work. It saps the collective energy of sympathetic members of both student and faculty constituencies, each of whom has been habituated through their exposure to the culture of law schools into thinking of themselves as individual competitors. For these reasons, it is crucial to identify the aspects of the law school environment sustaining the culture of competition and conformity, so that its dynamics can be addressed as part of any successful reform initiative.

Suggested Citation

Sturm, Susan P. and Guinier, Lani, The Law School Matrix: Reforming Legal Education in a Culture of Competition and Conformity. Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 60, No. 2, p. 515, 2007, Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 07-155, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 07-23, Available at SSRN:

Susan P. Sturm (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
Jerome L. Greene Hall
New York, NY 10027
United States
212-854-0062 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)

Lani Guinier

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 300
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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