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