Why law school is like prison

In his writing on total institutions — that is, anywhere the inmates work, eat, sleep, and spend their leisure time within the institution — Goffman makes a distinction between some total institutions where the inmates are meant to become more like their keepers, and others where the relationship is different. For example, you go to boot camp to become more like the higher ranking soldiers and officers who are running the boot camp, and you go to a monastery to become more like the monks. On the other hand, you don’t go to prison to learn how to be a prison guard.

I was reminded of this at Thanksgiving dinner, where I was talking to people who came from a number of different professions. We had a doctor, a lawyer, an actor, and maybe others, and we were talking about what your relationship is in each of these different professional training programs to the professors who are teaching you. For example, I know from presentations I’ve seen about ethnography in business schools that the situation is a little weird in B-school: you’re a businessperson learning to be a business executive, but the people you’re learning from are researchers. I imagine law school and med school are similar: your professors aren’t lawyers and doctors, or at least not practicing ones; instead, they’re academic researchers who are in charge of training the next generation of practitioners. Fine arts programs, I learned, are different: the instructors there tend to be working artists in the field. So you don’t learn how to be an actor from researchers; you learn to be an actor from actors, and maybe you’ll take a theory class from a theoretician to supplement it. And then in my case, I’m working with researchers to learn to be a researcher. PhD school, when it works well, is much more of an apprenticeship model.

So that puts art school and PhD school in the same category as monasteries and military bases. Business school and law school are in the same category as prisons and psychiatric hospitals. I feel like there’s a joke to be made here about “vocation” vs. “incarceration.”

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Posted in Institutional discourse

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