December 21, 2010
The Extracurricular Explosion
Posted by Erik Gerding

One of the things that surprised me most when I moved from practice to teaching was the incredible increase in involvement of today’s law students in extracurricular activities, in particular with student organizations, honor societies, moot courts, and other competitions. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the offerings of student organization and particularly journals and moot courts. When I was in law school, there were two moot courts. New Mexico now has at least 11. I’ve seen students participate in multiple moot courts in a given year.

I can see much value in an extracurricular activity. There is a lot of good practical learning going on as students research, draft briefs, write student notes, and prepare for oral arguments. This learning might expose students to a depth of analysis and commitment and a range of skills that many law school classes cannot. Yet I am still a little puzzled as to why many students seem to spread themselves so thin and participate in not one or two extra-curriculars, but many. Moreover, not all extracurricular activities are the same; some seem designed much more for socializing then for preparation for a career. In a nerdy analysis: it looks like students are not thinking at all in terms of marginal analysis: even if one moot court makes sense, the marginal value of a second moot court may not be worth the marginal cost. One kind of marginal cost is much less preparation for the classroom.

What explains the extracurricular explosion? The intense competition for jobs is likely a huge factor. However, I am not convinced that a long list of activities will help with a hiring committee more than one or two deeper commitments. There is of course a herd mentality in many law schools, and a desire to make the second and third years more bearable. (I’ve heard one administrator talk about extracurriculars as necessary to help students “cope”; applying the language and logic of therapy to education still strikes me as odd).

There may be a more subtle explanation. Consider the misery of many high school senior this time of year as they send off college applications. I wonder if the process of applying to college, particularly the belief that a diverse range of extracurricular activities will appeal to admissions committee, has left a lasting imprint on students as they progress through college and onwards. The experience of applying to college has become an odd formative experience for students . It serves as a rite that embodies what our meritocracy supposedly values: collecting achievements, well-roundedness, and the ability to frame your life and qualifications in the form of grand narrative. Yet what appeals to college admissions officers may have little connection to accomplishment – or even elusive states like “happiness” or “fulfillment,” – in the years beyond.

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