Facing Down the Gladiators: Addressing Law School’s Hidden Adversarial Curriculum

Monash University Law Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2011

ANU College of Law Research Paper No. 12-01

15 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2012

Date Written: December 1, 2011


Law students arrive at law school well-indoctrinated in the popular culture myth that the dominant role of the lawyer is as an advocate in an adversarial system. These students, if they become practicing lawyers, will be more likely to fill their days with negotiation than with litigation; they will be more likely to represent a client in mediation than at trial; they will more likely be deal-makers than gladiators. Nevertheless, their preconception or misconception of the dominance of the lawyers’ adversarial role will be reinforced in their legal training.

Adversarialism is deeply embedded in both the formal and the hidden curriculum of US and Australian law schools. While most law schools now teach courses that deal with non-adversarial processes, the pervasive ethos is – often unintentionally – adversarial. This ethos may constrain the way that students conceptualize their future roles and limit the possibility space available to them for creativity, constructive lawyering and peacemaking. The ethos also contributes to a climate of the law school hostile and unhappy for many students.

This paper explores the law school’s hidden adversarial curriculum – the unstated norms and values that are communicated to students. It uncovers some of the unintended messages sent through choices of teaching materials, classroom pedagogy, assessment practices, and extra-curricular emphasis on contests. The paper suggests that, by addressing the hidden curriculum, law schools can create more space for constructive lawyering and better prepare students for the variety of roles that they may inhabit as lawyers (including roles as advocates in adversarial processes). It will suggest that to provide greater room for non-adversarialism in law school and in legal practice, legal education must import non-adversarial processes and materials into its pedagogy; it must provide broader measures of student merit; and it must take control over the law school contest culture.

Suggested Citation

O'Brien, Molly Townes, Facing Down the Gladiators: Addressing Law School’s Hidden Adversarial Curriculum (December 1, 2011). Monash University Law Review, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2011, ANU College of Law Research Paper No. 12-01, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1988555

Molly Townes O'Brien (Contact Author)

ANU College of Law ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory Territory 0200
02-6125-0437 (Phone)

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