The Five Stages of 1L

Ruoxi Zhang
Staff Writer

There are five stages of grief. Perhaps there are five stages of 1L as well.

“The School of Athens” by Raphael exemplifies Philosophy, and many art historians suggest that almost all great ancient Greek philosophers can be found in the painting.

Stage 1: Illusion

You might have imagined that law school would be somewhat similar to the scene depicted in “The School of Athens”—studying in a grandeur hall, learning from masters of their fields, debating with peers, and finally, gaining a firmer grasp of this aloof, abstract idea of “the law.” As you read and brief cases in the library, eat lunch in the Vanderbilt courtyard, make new friends, and listen to the deans tell you that you belong here, you are filled with hope for your law school career.

“Ashes” by Edvard Munch is part of an uncompleted series called “The Frieze of Life” that explores themes of guilt, shame, lust, betrayal, and impotence.

Stage 2: Frustration

Law school can transform from “The School of Athens” to “Ashes” within the span of a few weeks. In “Ashes,” Edvard Munch depicts a pair of separated lovers. One cowers in grief or fear, while the other looks slightly frenzied and lost—when lovers are consumed by the hot flames of passion their love turns to ashes.

This theme parallels a law student’s experience, where passion is lost in the obscure and convoluted language of some judges, or in contradictory precedents. The law is not settled. On rare occasions, the doctrine actually makes sense. But sooner or later, complications will revert you to a rattled and frustrated state, looking just like the couple in “Ashes.” The only relic of “The School of Athens” may be the Socratic method, often leaving embarrassment rather than enlightenment anyways.

The 1893 version of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. There are four versions in total.

Stage 3: Panic

In November and April, when the memos, briefs, outlines, internship applications, and practice exams all pile up, and the only topic of discussion is exams, nothing is more appropriate than “The Scream.”

Stage 4: Enlightenment

When you finally calm down and study, you are able to see some recurring themes in the law, such as the trend from formalism to functionalism and from rules to standards. Modern art has taken a similar path, detaching itself from restrictive academic art and embracing the changes new technologies promote. Artists are free to explore less formal aspects of representation. In “Vision after the Sermon,” Gauguin paints the field red, using the color to express a passionate or even fervent ambience rather than to depict a life-like field.

“Vision After the Sermon” by Paul Gauguin.

Stage 5: Acceptance

You accept that despite your professor’s best efforts, you might never be able to answer the question—“What is the law and what does the law do?” You accept that sorting out every rule is not the goal because the law is evolving. You accept that legal study is about looking at things from different perspectives, which is why working together is so beneficial. You find that “The School of Athens” is, in fact, not too far from reality. Above the fresco, there is a separate tondo bearing the phrase: “Seek Knowledge of Causes.” Is that not what you have been doing in law school all along?

Published by

The Commentator

The Commentator is the official student newspaper of New York University School of Law and a seven-time winner of the American Bar Association’s Top Law School Newspaper Award. Founded over 50 years ago in 1966 as a biweekly print publication, The Commentator was re-launched as an online newspaper in 2015.

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