In a recent post I mentioned that I'd been awarded a really terrific scholarship from Stetson Law. This is definitely a good thing.
I also mentioned that, unfortunately, Stetson was not my top choice school. Rachel* left a comment that I shouldn't say that--specifically, she said that, "I was very specifically told that one of the reasons they felt justified in giving me such a hard time was because I admitted my disdain for them online."
Rachel*, you see, was a student at Stetson Law and had a less than enthralling experience there.
Of course my first instinct was to note that our situations are still markedly different, since I'm not really being disdainful when I say they're not my first choice (or when I say they're my fifth). But then I thought about that. Maybe a very insecure person or group of persons might think I was showing disdain.
I posted a short comment and then deleted it, but now I've been thinking about it for a few minutes and the whole area seems to need elaboration. Extensive elaboration. Damn, I wish the Jump was still working, because this is going to take up a lot of space and there are other new posts below it. I'll try it.
First off, I think it's worth pointing out that every law school applicant this year has a ranking in their head of school preference. This is human nature. And for many people that ranking will not have any real effect on reality--meaning, they'll go to a school that's low on their personal ranking, because they weren't admitted to their top choice schools or couldn't get the money. And, too, a lot of people, if they used a service to help write their personal statements, told their first choice school that it was their first choice. (I didn't, but I think the whole idea is silly.)
So I have a preference, sure. In order, it would be, Virginia, William & Mary, Stanford, Georgia State, Stetson.
This ranking developed while I was writing the personal statements, not before. I wrote a single essay, then modified it for each school, and included some comments about what made that school one of the few I applied to. If it was free, everybody would apply to every school; and there are lots of great schools across the country. I thought it would be helpful to mention one or two things that made a school so interest me that I'd spend the money to see if they'd actually let me in. Call it flattery if you like; I'd prefer a much more sophisticated word but I can't think of any.
Regardless of what I wrote in the essays, my thinking goes like this. I like Virginia because it's the only top-ten school that students, alums, and professors all agree is not a 100% eat-your-classmates cut-throat institution. It's also one of only three schools on my list I ever visited, and though I only visited the MURP grad program and that was in 1998, I really loved the place. It's in a great location, and I can't overstate the importance of location in my life. Not that I think I'd dislike any location (well, maybe UND in Wahpeton, North Dakota), but place is important to me. Additionally, Virginia has a ginormous class offering. I know not every class is available every semester, but that's true even at places with much narrower course offerings. Finally, UVA, like Stanford and W&M, attracts the absolute top of the pool of law school students, and I'd rather be challenged by students who are smarter than me than be the one doing the challenging.
William & Mary stood out for its instruction method, which I won't go into here because you don't care. It also has a great location, though I'm finding housing in Virginia generally is grossly overpriced.
Stanford is like the third-ranked school in the country, depending what rank system you look at. They're in a cool place, have great students who seem to really have fun there (as opposed to many law students who seem utterly miserable), and have a huge class offering, like UVA. Stanford slips to third on my list, but remember my list is the top five of about 400 schools in the country. They're behind the Virginia schools because California is a long damn way away. It's that simple.
Georgia State moved into fourth because while I was reading through their literature again to write the essay I stumbled across a joint metropolitan growth center that the law school participates in with the planning, architecture, and public administration schools at GSU and Georgia Tech. I may not have any desire to complete my Masters of Urban Planning or to be an actual planner, but growth management is still very interesting to me. This seemed like a really unique program GSU offered, and frankly on some days of the week I'd say GSU was my third or even second choice. Also, most of my best friends live in or within a few hours of Atlanta, so that doesn't hurt.
Stetson slipped to fifth because it lacked anything like GSU's urban issues program despite its urban setting, and because it just doesn't have the breadth and depth of course offerings at the other schools. But Stetson does have one of the very best trial advocacy programs in the country and if I stay in the military or go back in as a JAG later, trial advocacy is what I'm going to be doing. Learn from the best, right? I'll be the first to admit the study of law and the solving of problems will be like cake to me compared to trial, so going to a school that excels in trial advocacy would be a great way to strike at what I perceive as a likely weakness. Also, it's in town, which means not only could I keep my condo, which I love, I could stay in Tampa for three more years, which would be a really long time for me to be in one place. I'd either get really bored or else I'd never leave again; hard to say.
In positions six through 390-something is every other law school in the country to which I didn't apply. So if someone from Stetson wanted to troll through the internet to see what their applicants are up to in the name exercising their first amendment rights to free speech, they'd want to keep that in mind.
But that really wasn't the only reaction I had to Rachel*s comment. I'm contrarian even in the best of circumstances, but this is a bigger matter. I won't pretend to know what Rachel* went through with Stetson, but I think I can understand at least some aspect of her mindset there--namely, who are these people to tell her how to think and feel, or to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself?
I feel the same way, if possible even more strongly. The military tells me everything: where to go, when to be there, how long to stay, what to do while I'm there, what to wear while I do it, how to do it, when to do it, when to stop doing it, who to do it with, how I should feel about it, what I can say about it, what I can say about everything else, how I should feel about everything else, and also how to shave and how I should cut my hair.
I understand, believe me, that at every point in my life somebody is going to be trying to direct me on at least some, if not all, of those issues. And I'm 28 years old now, and all those somebodies can go straight to hell.
If a school decides they don't like me because I don't display the right attitude towards them, then I hope they enjoy not having me as a student. It won't be any skin off my back. I like to believe people aren't that petty, but of course experience has shown time and again that they are. People are terribly stupid, short-sighted, petty creatures, and it's certainly possible that a school that beat out hundreds of other schools to get my application and my money might feel so slighted by my description of them as only fifth choice that they'd take some sort of action against me.
In that case, they'd merely be showing me that I don't want to be there. I don't care to join an organization that is so insecure that it can't handle a frank statement.
Look, I'm polite, courteous, and deferential to people I meet in life. But public organizations and public figures lose the right to automatically expect that kind of behavior from me or anyone else simply by being public. With individuals, you don't tell them their faults to their face, you don't gossip about them, you don't call them names, and you measure your honesty in appropriate doses--there's a time to tell someone he looks like hell and a time to hold your tongue about it. Most people seem to follow those rules to some degree.
Maybe I'm completely psychotic, but I don't see why I have to give public organizations the same treatment. I think it's generally a better tactic to be explicitly honest about what organizations or public figures are doing, because any agency or person who works in the public sphere needs to be told when it or he is being an ass, so he can stop. Maybe this is idealism, but I tend to think public agencies care what us plebes think about them so they can do a better job serving us, since that's their purpose. I'm probably wrong. I don't care. I'm happier this way.
So, I guess the truth is, if Stetson would be offended by a comment that they're not my first choice school, I'd ask, why take offence? Is the criticism warranted? Does it amount to libel? Are opinions supposed to be shelved and ignored if they aren't just what you want to hear? And how negative does a statement have to be before it causes harm?
This isn't a legal issue about public criticism. This is a philosophical issue, and an important one. If any school can't trust me not to write terrible libelous things or reveal a scandalous past, then they're no better than the military, which claims to trust me but has to tell me how to do everything (the safety briefing for office workers includes a mandate not to read while going upstairs, for example) and check up on me once a quarter to see whether I'm doing it just as the reg says. Don't law schools assume the students they're admitting are fairly mature, and able to take responsibility for themselves? If a school doesn't, I have no interest in going there. Why would I want to leave one place that doesn't trust me to do anything right just to go to another one that's exactly the same?
If a law school can't trust its students to be responsible for themselves and to speak their minds frankly, and reasonably, without causing harm, I'd want to know before I enrolled.