The Law School Monster

Over at Last Psychiatrist there is some discussion of law school as scam and law school students as marks. Though I am dismayed to see aspiring law school students characterized as helpless babies who need some sort of consumer protection from something that, in my experience, they would kill to get a shot at, there is an element of truth in the idea that there is something wrong with the way we currently train lawyers. One of the commenters there suggested that all the doctrine courses are worthless, and that one’s time would be better spent in internships or something. Speaking as a member of a state Bar, I would say that is almost right, but not quite. Exposure to case law, especially at the same time that one is doing the writing/research courses, rewires your brain in far-reaching ways that are a necessary condition of lawyering, independent of what you retain. I probably retained my 1L classes, Con Law, Evidence, some of Remedies, and (oddly) Employment Discrimination. But the rest of it was not for nought, because it set up that proverbial “thinking like a lawyer” thing. The danger of learning the law entirely through practice is that practices other than the big firms tend to specialize, and seeing the law through the lens of a small area can create an illusion of understanding about everything you don’t practice in. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but if I take my car to the shop, even if I take it to someone that only does brakes, I’d like her to know that “that transmission really doesn’t sound right, you should have that looked at.” Where I went there were useful things that were not sexy, meaningless electives, things like clinic, pre-trial litigation, judicial extern. But clearly law school cannot replace experience. And though I don’t think I would’ve passed the Bar without BarBri, the areas I had extra coursework in (mostly UCC stuff) did make the process of studying a lot easier, as I could focus on the stuff I hadn’t taken more and get a cushion.

The question in my mind is whether this much law school, three years worth, is necessary or desirable. (Whether it should be so expensive is a chicken/egg problem, since you cannot teach law school, on the whole, without going to one first, which opens the door to more lucrative employment, which the schools must outbid). I think probably not, for a couple of reasons. In the past, and for all I know still in some Commonwealth countries, studying law meant majoring in it, as an undergraduate, and the content of the courses required for the major were close to what you now get as a 1L. At the end of the day, you’d get an LL.B. and then do whatever to practice. I think this makes more sense than our current system, but also more sense than a pure apprenticeship model. It would cut the law schools down to something more closely resembling a college in a university, which for the most part is what they are supposed to be, and eliminate the obscene, pig-in-a-poke cost of entry to the profession. But most important, it would give undergraduates an opportunity to learn something enlightening for citizenship. You really can’t make sense of your own society as a political structure without knowing something about law beyond what you get from a newspaper, but as it is now, it’s very unlikely that a non-lawyer will pick up enough of this to be able to (for example) see through the pundits’ lies about legislative agenda and vote responsibly. Majoring in polysci just doesn’t do it, for the same reason that studying the sociology of medicine prepares you to perform brain surgery. This means that to a large extent the only people truly competent to evaluate politics in this country are the politicians themselves (many or most of whom have been to law school), and while I am unusual in thinking that they aren’t nearly as bad as we like to tell ourselves, their incentives would tend to be skewed in predictable ways. This is all a shame. I don’t want there to be less law school; I want it more equally distributed, and cheap enough that the cost of being exposed to it is at least no greater than being exposed to English literature. This, I would think, would also demystify the law a great deal, and take away some of the incentives that send some to law school looking for importance and identity instead of a useful craft.

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One comment on “The Law School Monster

  1. Pliny the Elder says:

    As I have said elsewhere, the current problems were all predicted in the mid-90s, but, since the articles were not on the internet, the dumbest generation could not possibly consider them. Clearly when deciding to invest three years and thousands of dollars the only sources worth consulting are the law school websites, U.S. News and World Reports, and your friends’ favorable comments on Facebook. Going to the local strip mall, for example, and asking one of the half a dozen solo practitioners why she is not in a big firm is clearly not possible, since it would not involve an iPod or Twitter.

    One either enjoyed law school or did not. If you did not (then I cannot imagine why anyone continued) then you made a truly horrible investment. If you enjoyed it and cannot find a law job now (like Mr. Wallerstein in the New York Times article) then you simply took a lifetime of vacations in advance. Either way, it is time to pay and no one who has spent their childhood being spoiled with the new digital technologies has ever had to think of that. I am certain that it is unpleasant, to say the least.

    As for redesigning legal education, much of that has already been offered as well. I think that a good start would be making the third year optional, replaced with a mandatory articling period. (The third year could be for those who wished to pursue authentic reasearch, write a thesis, and qualify to teach law.)

    Making it an undergraduate major might be even better, but I hesitate. One of the few good things about law school as currently configured is that you frequently do encounter folks who really have done stuff and can think in different ways. In my law school class we had a medical doctor, a Ph.D. in biochemistry, a couple of C.P.A.s, a handful of military officers, a former union local president, and a businessman who was only there because he had been fired during a dispute with his boss.

    Of course, this concern could be addressed by moving away from the stupid model that assumes that the right thing to do immediately after high school is go to college. But I have already bitten off far too much.

    I hope someone is listening.

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