[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

Law School: Now With Less Law?

This is a re-post of a law school column I wrote about 2 years ago this week.

Three of the closing paragraphs from a recent New York Times article on the craptastic legal market:

If the downturn is prolonged, law schools will need to keep tuition and other costs in check so students do not graduate with unmanageable debt. More schools may follow the lead of Northwestern, the first top-tier law school to offer a two-year program.

Law schools may also become more serious about curriculum reform. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released an influential report that, among other things, urged law schools to make better use of the sometimes-aimless second and third years. If law jobs are scarce, there will be more pressure on schools to make the changes Carnegie suggested, including more focus on practical skills.

They may also need to pay more attention to preparing students for nonlegal careers. Law graduates have always ended up in business, government, journalism and other fields. Law schools could do more to build these subjects into their coursework.

So let’s get this straight. We’re at a professional school that might have the singular distinction of being described by both students and employers as leaving most of us woefully unprepared to do any actual work on our first day in the office. And the remedy for this is somehow to find a way to crowbar more stuff into the curriculum that isn’t the law?

Channeling, for a second, the male protagonist in Derrick Comedy’s Blowjob: that is the opposite of what is needed. The reason law graduates have always ended up in other jobs is often because they shouldn’t have gone to law school in the first place. For many students, that dual degree is a step towards gaining expertise in a field that will inform their law practice or catapult them to a teaching career. Those 12 credits of Law & “__” classes are merely satisfying an intellectual curiosity. But for others, this desire to do non-law things with their time at law school represents a lifeline thrown to a vision of themselves that they only wish they had the courage to pursue fully. And for others still it turns out that even if you enjoy the intellectual rigors of publicly sparring with Richard Primus over the finer points of constitutional interpretation, you may, surprisingly, not enjoy interminable electronic discovery or combing through an offer document looking for rogue blobs in brackets.

And I’m not merely talking about the petty but pervasive frustrations of any life that involves more than 55 minutes of sustained concentration and is infrequently punctuated by drunken burrito binges and Guitar Hero marathons. (Although, for those law students who have never held a 9 -5 job, having your introduction to the working world be 60-80 hours a week of document review is understandably sub-optimal.)

No, the heart of the matter lies in the fact that many law students are either uninterested in or ill-suited to being actual lawyers. For many, the practice of law, particularly at its lower, more mechanical levels, elicits the kind of marrow-level boredom that unmistakably means that you’ve failed in choosing a profession. Granted, the law is necessarily pyramidal; there is simply a lot of fairly mundane stuff you have to know in order to get to the ecstatic bull sessions that may characterize certain subfields of law as practiced at the highest levels. But being a lawyer is going to be really boring for a lot of people. In some circumstances being bored at work is OK, but it becomes quite a bit less OK when the boredom is a surprise and you’ve just spent 3 years of your life at law school and are severely undercapitalized as a result.

The idea that a law degree is a versatile one−”it’s the Swiss Army Knife of graduate degrees!,” says your Uncle John−while maybe true to a certain extent, is mostly a pernicious piece of self-deception transmitted from one generation of disaffected lawyers to the next. This is all in the interest of making everybody feel better about having taken out ~150k in loans and effectively wasted 3 years of prime life-living time. The truth is that not only is law school probably too long and expensive for people who actually want to be lawyers (unless we decide to make some or all of the third year a mandatory externship/apprenticeship), but it’s certainly too long and expensive for people whose ultimate goal is to do something else. The fact that some journalists are lawyers does not mean that law school is a good idea if you want to be a journalist. More than a handful of novelists and hand models are lawyers, too. These days, lots of hobos are lawyers. In fact, hobodom may in fact be the most likely alternative career path for some of today’s law students.

Current students find themselves entering the contracting legal market in medias res, where “res” equals a giant shitmist of uncertainty and plummeting job prospects. This means that a lot of people who viewed the law as camouflage for their indecision or as a cash-lined waystation en route to a career in competitive log rolling are finding themselves repeatedly kicked in their sensitive bits. And seriously in debt. Lots of debt.

So there’s a related question of don’t we think that there’s going to be something fundamentally wrong with a profession when applicants are discouraged from demonstrating an actual interest in the profession? And that once in law school students aren’t required to have any exposure to the sorts of things they’re going to be expected to do on the job.

Anna Ivey, a former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago and now The Authority on applying to law school, gives the traditional advice against turning your personal statement into anything resembling what she calls a “statement of purpose.” But why don’t law schools actually require or solicit something like this? While it might make Sarah Zearfoss’s job more tedious, having an additional essay expressing what people hope to get out of law school and fewer essays about manually masturbating wallabees on the Isle of Man might be a good thing. Maybe if applicants were evaluated, in part, on having thought a little bit about why they’re about to spend 150k of money they don’t have to get a legal education, we’d be one small step closer towards not producing lawyers who hate their jobs.

Because of the barriers to entry in the legal world, law school applicants are unable to get a real up-the-butcher’s-ass view of what being a lawyer actually entails. So, every year, thousands of post-graduates try to get as close as possible by being paralegals at large firms, an experience that miraculously doesn’t dissuade them from going to law school.

Business school students, on the other hand, almost always have prior experience doing something similar to what they hope to do upon graduation and are therefore more than eager to pay for two years of beer bonging, hand shaking lessons, and supervised business card exchanges, content in the knowledge that they’re going to enjoy their job upon graduation.

So, to circle back to the possibility offered up by NY Times piece: the last thing law school needs is less law. Our Law School in particular hasn’t shown any signs of mandating juggling or TV/VCR repair classes, and this is clearly a good thing. And while undeniably shitty for current students, the demise of the idea that law school is a risk-free path to riches for bored humanities majors might not be the end of the world.

HT: Prettier Than Napoleon