When I was applying to law schools, I spoke with several people who had gone to Hastings, and asked what they liked about the school. "Well, it's in San Francisco," said every single one. After the acceptances and rejections from the various law schools came in I spoke with people who went to other law schools, and told them I intended to go to Hastings, to which they typically responded, "Oh, I'm sorry," (much the way San Franciscan's now respond when I tell them I grew up in Los Angeles). If you are reading this, you are probably considering going to Hastings or have just begun there. You have probably heard that the competition is fierce, the students are backstabbing and the professors are grizzled and strictly Socratic. All of this was true, to an extent, when I first started there in 1995. But that doesn't really tell the whole story.
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A unique set of circumstances have combined to make Hastings a fairly inhospitable place for much of its existence.
(1) Hastings students have the unfortunate honor of attending a top tier school in the same region as two much better top tier schools. For the last 10 years, and probably longer, Hastings' U.S. News rankings have vacillated from the mid-teens to the low 40's. Many books consistently say that Hastings is one of the top 20 law schools in the country. But, UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall is firmly entrenched in the top ten and Stanford Law annually trades places with Harvard and Yale for the top spot. While the job market is incredible in California right now, it has not always been thus, and Hastings students, who, in any other region might have a shot at what is commonly thought of as the brass ring (Federal Judicial clerkships; primo big-firm jobs) traditionally struggle in job placement terms in a city of 800,000 where more than 800 top tier law students are graduated each year. Add in the several hundred more graduated from Golden Gate University, USF and other area schools, and the fact that San Francisco is a favored starting point for an inordinate number of young lawyers from the top national schools, and it's easy to see how frustrating the market can seem for a Hastings student seeking a job.
(2) The administration compounds the problem with its grading system. Unlike Stanford and Boalt, Hastings has a mandatory grading curve that limits A's to 15% and practically guarantees that most students will not leave without at least one C. The stated goal of this system is to place the top students on a level playing field with Stanford and Boalt job-seekers, the reasoning being that anyone with an A average at Hastings has accomplished something more difficult than achieving a "high pass" average at Boalt. The problem with this reasoning is twofold. First, firm recruiters are simply not aware of Hastings' curve, so they don't take it into consideration when weighing Hastings students against those from other schools. Second, it ought not to be the goal of a law school administration to cater to the needs of only its top 10%. As at least one professor who had been in charge of hiring at a previous job has said: "A ‘C' is death at almost any firm." The grading policy may or may not get Hastings its requisite number of Federal clerkships, but the administration shoots itself in the foot in terms of the jobs that 90% of its recent graduates end up with.
(2) The 65 club created an inflexible and outdated professorial culture. In the later part of the 20th century, Hastings came up with a rather innovative plan for recruiting some of the best legal minds in the country to teach there: The 65 Club. While the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords were pushing aging professors toward retirement, Hastings treated them as the viable resources that they were and offered many of them honored positions at Hastings for as long as they wanted to be there. This is why the school has been home to so many legal stars. Justices Traynor and Sullivan taught there. Tort god Prosser taught there too. Justice Grodin teaches there now, as does the author of 90% of the evidence books in use at law schools throughout the country, Roger Park. Professor Schwartz was one of the drafters of the Model Penal Code and helped create the SEC. And the recently deceased Stefan Reisenfeld spent over a half century of his life as the undisputed last word in matters of international law. While there is no denying the publishing benefits of having these men on staff, many 65 clubbers have been legendary jerk-offs and/or terrible teachers. Most of them came through a Harvard Socratic tradition that is now widely regarded as a relic of the previous century. They tend to be abusive, didactic and condescending. Being gods, however, many Hastings professors have followed in their footsteps. While there is clearly something to be gained from some degree of Socratic dialogue, the traditional mode of employing it no longer has any place. It's overwhelming use in first year courses tends to leave many students feeling stupid, embarrassed and unworthy. Even those students who are not bearing the brunt of a full frontal Socratic attack tend to want to take a shower after having to be present for one upon a classmate. Thankfully, both the 65 club and the hard-core Socratic method are being phased out at Hastings.
(4) The lack of a campus can leave first years feeling isolated. Unlike most graduate schools, Hastings is a stand-alone college. When it was first formed in the 1880's it was not part of the University of California system and it still doesn't really feel like a UC. It's governing board is a separate entity from the Regents of the University of California, and you get the sense, where finances, construction and improvement projects are concerned, that it's the red-headed stepchild of the system. The classrooms are pretty bleak 1960's Bauhaus utilitarian army surplus formica and beaten wood (recent construction, however, has vastly improved the facilities). The hallways and stairwells are too narrow. But the worst part, for many, is the fact that the school is located on the edge of the Tenderloin. The loin is a long-time haven for drug dealing, strip clubs and street prostitution. But it's not so much dangerous as depressing. As a man, I never felt threatened in the neighborhood, but the constant vision of people in the throes of the worst type of poverty can be depressing. I think it is to San Francisco's benefit that it does not and can not hide its poor, because homelessness and addiction end up being front burner issues in nearly every election, but during your first year of law school, particularly if you live in the student housing which is a block away from the school buildings, the depression can be wearing. At night, it can be both loud and scary. Women who live in student housing really do feel trapped in their own homes, and almost all first semester students in student housing find that their entire lives exist on one single block. Other urban stand-alone schools, like Loyola in Los Angeles have managed to create a small haven in the middle of the bustle. It would be nice if Hastings was capable of doing the same.
Law students are a damaged lot to begin with. As Bill Murray said in Stripes, "There's something really wroooooong with us, something terribly, terribly wrooong. We're mutts." Almost all of us spoke with lawyers before we applied to law school, and almost every lawyer we spoke with said, "Don't do it." Yet we apply and we go and we become lawyers anyway. If accountants unanimously told young numbers crunchers that theirs was just an awful profession, do you suppose anyone would be sitting for the CPA exam every year? I have friends that refer to Hastings as "The Land of Broken Toys" and its an apt description. Bright broken toys don't do well with frustration, attacks on their egos, and a deaf administration, so there's a reason that year in and year out Hastings has one of the lowest Alumni giving rates in the country. The alums are bitter.
That said, there are up sides to Hastings. Many of them.
I will not stray from the herd by claiming that the biggest upside is anything other than location, location, location. San Francisco is a great place to live and a very good place to go to school and work if you subscribe to the work hard and play hard theory of life. It's a big city in a small space where the people really do seem to be friendlier and, if not smarter, at least more culturally literate than many other places. While the Bay Area is exorbitantly expensive (think Manhattan) the one thing that is a consistent bargain is food and drink. I won't wax poetic about the city, because everyone does, and you can get that information elsewhere. There are people who hate it, but they tend to know that immediately, and they are hard to come by. All I will say, because it's relevant to the law school experience, is that the opportunities to let off steam abound.
Another upside – and this is something that I never thought I would be saying about Hastings – is that the education you'll get there is very good. I suppose that's something you ought to consider when selecting a law school. When I first graduated, and during most of my time at the school, I was unimpressed with the education I was receiving. But after a couple of years practicing, I realized that Hastings does a few important things that many schools do not. The curriculum focuses on good writing and penetrating analysis (Yeah, I know, this review is not evidence of good writing, but you're not my client and it won't be used to calculate my GPA, so get off my back, eh.). Many law schools focus on teaching the "black letter law" so that their grads have the basic tools (i.e. several hundred memorized 4-part tests) to pass the bar. Consequently, many of these people are unequipped to teach themselves a new area of law that was not one of the dozen or so subjects covered by the bar. Nor do they have the basic skills to creatively problem solve within areas with which they are familiar. Worse, the standard of writing that ends up passing for professional within the field is appalling.
Of course, the level of education is not unique to Hastings. Any respectable law school will probably focus on the same skill sets. The point here is just to say that Hastings has it covered. That the school does not focus solely on Bar passage should not be a concern, however. Hastings regularly has one of the top passage rates in the state.
Another of the fine things about Hastings that is probably not unique to Hastings is the people. While it is clearly populated with all the wingnuts you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, the students are by and large bright, fun and interesting. Hastings does pretty poorly in the area of ethnic diversity (it's an overwhelmingly white school), but by most accounts it is only miserable for black, Latino and Asian students in the same ways that it's miserable for everyone else. It's a shame that Hastings has done so badly in this regard, because San Francisco itself is such an ethnically diverse city.
The student body is, however, a really interesting sampling of classes and backgrounds. It's Legal Education Opportunity Program and financial aid make it possible for a great many people who might otherwise not be able to afford law school to get a legal education in only 3 years. My class had people from a variety of professions: several teachers, stockbrokers, an actress, a pro football player, a chemical engineer, a ski bum, an expert in Chinese art, a political pollster, a former lackey for Vice President Gore, a former record store owner, several musicians, a sportswriter, a prune farmer, homemakers and tons of people with other post-graduate degrees. People become close to their classmates at all law schools, I suppose, but I think that the unique foxhole environment of Hastings forges a different class of friendship. I hate to fall back on cliches, but these really are people that I will be friends with for the rest of my life; they are the first people I call when I need something, and vice versa.
The new guard of young and middle aged law professors are a different breed than their nasty predecessors. Many of them are on the cutting edge of their respective fields, yet embrace an inclusive learning philosophy. They tend not to support the mandatory curve or the hard-core Socratic method. They invite participation but are flexible with their demands. Hastings also manages to find fantastic visiting professors from around the country who, whatever their age, have a focus on teaching rather than publishing. One of these was voted by the students (over all of the regular tenured professors) to be the professor-speaker at our graduation.
Finally, Hastings offers a wide variety of clinical programs and externships, some of which will give you an opportunity to practice law in a way that you will not see again for a number of years after graduation, if ever. After a year or two of theory and outlines and hypotheticals and counterintuitive definitions that are part of a four-part test that is part of a three part balancing test wrapped in an enigma, tied in a riddle, attached to a puzzle and stuffed in the back of my underwear drawer, it's great to be able to apply something. You'll end up working as hard as you did when you were a first year and you were swearing that you'd never work that hard again, but at least you be putting in 60 hour weeks in preparation to kick some big firm partner's butt (or faceless governmental entity) in a case that he couldn't reasonably bill more than 5 hours for. Plus, in the wake of on campus interviews and mounting debt, it's refreshing to have something that will remind you why you signed up for this sh..., uh, stuff in the first place.
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