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An estimated 5-minute read

Plagiarism in Law School: So What?

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Note: The only reason I post this is because plagiarism has become a habit most law schoolites have become unnervingly comfortable with; this is the only nexus the topic has to law in general. Hopefully it will remind all of us that we were not brought up to respect copycats. I do not aim to offend, but if you are offended, you should know that it's probably for very good reason. I really do believe everything I've said here, but differing opinions are fine, at least they're evidence you're thinking. ;-)

 Let me be the first to point out that I'm one of those despicable hypocrites (is there any other kind?), one who regularly allows terrible work to be credited to her name, work that can't really even be called 'hers' unless you subscribe to the notion that research equals copying on a mass scale, which I don't.


I often allow myself to submit shitty work because I am stupendously, flagrantly lazy, but I can still argue for myself that the words, the construction and the conclusion are all mine, which is unhappily more than I can say for a lot of people. Is that enough? Absolutely not. does it bother me? Yes, as it should bother all of us. We need a good amount of discomfort to shake up this self-congratulatory stupor we're all asleep in.


Some of my friends and I were having a discussion the other day on plagiarism and why it's wrong, if it's wrong at all. We've all heard that utterly depressing monkeys-with-typewriter analogy, and some of us have on occasion cracked that particularly infuriating joke about research being copying from ten people rather than one. As much as you'd like to believe it, monkeys will not ever, in any number, write anything of note during our lifetimes, and neither will you, if you seriously believe that 'research' equals 'copying'.


By 'originality' in this context, I mean simply that the one who claims credit for an idea should have come to it by aid of his own thought process, regardless of whether somebody else had thought of the same thing at any other point in history (copyright jurisprudence uses a similar measure of 'originality' I think).


We must be original. Even when faculty can't tell the difference, the college doesn't care and our post-lunch nap is calling to us, we must fight the urge to download+print, and we must be original.


Why must we be original?


Because ideas are our only real wealth. Ideas are the only thing of any value, and I'm not referring to an airily vague abstraction of some distant moral 'good'-ness, i'm referring to cold-hard-cash-notes-in-your-butt-pocket value. Ideas are the little golden flares of magic thought sparked off your skull when the world collides with you everyday. Ideas are our closest shot to the fame, power and Russian-starlet-wife ideal we lust after collectively. There is probably only one really good idea for every thousand bad ones, which makes it even more important to stay within the habit of thinking, to have those terrible ideas so you can find that elusive good one.


Consider this - we lie in beds someone else made, eat food someone else grew, wear clothes someone else made, read books other people wrote, watch news about other people. We talk to, think about, even frame our public opinions carefully around the sensibilities of the people we care about. What do we have left if we outsource even our thoughts to other people? That is really the last frontier, so when we allow it to fall, what claim to individuality, to sentience, to humanity do we have left?


Ideas can, if you look at the far end of the scale, spark revolutions; but what use is a revolution to that creature of comforts, a corporate lawyer? So consider instead that ideas can also start companies, or firms. Ideas can start firms, create policy, invent concepts, sell those concepts, push legislation, repeal legislation, shut firms down and start other ones.


Those of us who've done our litigation internships are only too aware that litigation does not stop with blind reliance on caselaw, even though that's the best that most of us are capable of. Law schools teach us economics, political theory, sociology and jurisprudence so that we are never lost for an argument or an idea, and after years of absorbing all of that, if we find ourselves incapable of creating a simple argument from first-principles on demand, say for an assignment or a project, we should be ashamed of ourselves and of a permissive system that lets us operate consistently at a level that is beneath our intelligence and should be beneath our contempt.


It's easy to dismiss all of this as the ranting of an ideologue, but I am not an ideologue. the assessment system of my college is very tough on us, and given the nature of the course we study, sometimes we could be forgiven for thinking that ideas are a dime a dozen and have no real value at all. But cynicism aside, ideas cannot be undervalued.


Globalisation has shown us that we have choices beyond what our parents ever dreamt of at our ages, and the recession has shown us that blind belief in concepts we've always pictured as 'safe' - houses and banks - can destroy us. With only the slightest exaggeration I can say this is in many ways a post-apocalyptic world, and I believe that entrepreneurs are the only people who will survive it. Ideas have always been important, but they will never be more important for us as a young nation, than right now.


Isaac Newton once claimed that in his work, he was standing on the shoulders of giants. We, on the other hand, are snoring at their feet. It's time to wake up, shake off the laziness and self pity and change that, at the risk of becoming - as a generation of lawyers - first wrong, next incompetent, and finally –




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