Things Law School Doesn’t Teach

A humorous top-ten list, including, at the end, the hairy-hand scene from The Paper Chase.   

The post is obviously a joke, but it is funny because the items on the list ring a little too true, so it is worth thinking about them.  I think. Thanks to Feminist Law Profs, where I found the link.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. David Papke

    With the exception of item #10, I thought the list was cynical to a fault. Too many lawyers have a sad bitterness and mean anti-intellectualism about them. Maybe living in debt and working in the context of hierarchy and bureaucracy produces those attitudes. I wish somehow that lawyers could remember law school as a demanding but enriching academic experience.

  2. Jessica E. Slavin

    A very good point. And yet I have to admit that the reason the post struck me as funny was mostly the cynical, bitter tone that rubbed you the wrong way. I wonder if I reacted differently because I’m a Gen-Xer, we are supposed to be so cynical.

    I agree with your point, though, or at least I think I do. Isn’t the problem that law students are rarely asked to think of law school in that way, as a “demanding but enriching academic experience”?

    A number of the items on the list (6-8, at least) rang true for me, because of experiences in internships during law school and in my few years of practice, working with real human clients. I wished I had been better prepared for that work. I don’t mean, necessarily, that I wished I’d had a chance to act out such experiences in a practical way, at law school. Just that very little of the coursework I’d had in law school gave me resources to draw on in those human experiences.

    So I found that grain of truth in the blogger’s bitter frustration. I think it’s true that, overall, law school provides too few opportunities for students to engage with other human beings in the ways that they will do as lawyers. Or maybe, more specifically, for students to develop intellectual and emotional resources and good perspective for that kind of engagement with other people. Preparation for helping people with problems while still treating other human beings like human beings.

  3. Richard M. Esenberg

    I guess I was unusually blessed because most of the list does not ring true for me. I do agree that law school doesn’t help one pick a jury which is largely a function of indulging stereotypes and beginning your argument when you ought not to (i.e., during voir dire).

    I also agree that law review can lead to document review or, more accurately, practice as forever discovery (as well as a rather substantial salary). In general, I don’t think law school prepares lawyers to deal with factual uncertainty.

    But my clients never hated me and (with two exceptions) never seemed to think they were smarter than me. I think that case law and precedent meant – if anything – too much once the matter is brought to the attention of the court. Judges want to find a controlling case. It makes their job easier and they often see cases as “cows” when they are not.

    What law school doesn’t teach you is that most litigation is resolved with little or no judicial intervention and, in that context, many legal questions are not decided, but assigned a probability which then gets thrown into the settlement calculus.

  4. Chris King

    I’m not sure why lawyers seem to expect law school to be able to teach them how to be good at the job of being a lawyer starting on the first day of the job. I certainly wasn’t good at the job of being a mechanical engineer my first day on the job after four and a half years of an undergraduate engineering education. All any school (graduate or undergraduate) can do is provide you with the tools to go out and learn how to be good at your chosen profession. I think its important to remember, like Professor Papke notes, that law school is an academic experience, if we want law school to be more of an apprenticeship then that is an entirely different discussion than perceived shortcomings of law school.

  5. Jessica E. Slavin

    Just to be clear, Rick, I didn’t mean that I actually thought that my clients hated me, or thought they were smarter than me, or that I thought judges just made stuff up as they went along. Like the rest of this list, I thought of these as overexaggerations. And Chris, I at least didn’t expect law school to prepare me to be a good lawyer right off the bat.

    Phew, that will teach me to post a sort of throwaway post like this one! I need to give more careful thought even to those. Thanks for making me think more carefully, commenters!

  6. Andrew Golden

    “But my clients never hated me and (with two exceptions) never seemed to think they were smarter than me”

    Well, to be fair, you worked at Foley and Lardner. For what clients pay, one would assume they’d at least trust their attorneys there 😉

    In all seriousness, though, I think that most of the list really does ring true, though not for the reasons the writer seems to imply. For example, I admit to only vaguely remembering International Shoe from Civ Pro, but, then again, I’ve spent the last year and half doing virtually nothing but criminal law-related things, so when would it ever really come up? Picking a jury . . . well, given that no two litigators can agree on standards for picking a jury, I doubt a law school could ever teach us a proper procedure (though Trial Advocacy 2 is supposed to be doing that for me this Spring.) And if these 6 months at the Public Defender’s office internship have taught me anything, it’s that A LOT of clients hate me because I’m white, because I’m Jewish, because they perceive me as looking through them, or just because I’m not cuffed and they are.

    I do bristle, however, at the notion that #7 and #10 aren’t taught. Most of the PD Workshop hours have been devoted in one way or another to hearing war stories about how clients reacted, talking about how OUR clients react, figuring out how to best interact with our clients in the future, etc. And not recognizing that there’s always room for improvement? I don’t know of one professor I’ve had that HASN’T said that, no matter what class it was. So, no, I don’t think it’s accurate on that front.

    Also, to respond to Professor Papke:

    “Maybe living in debt and working in the context of hierarchy and bureaucracy produces those attitudes.”

    I couldn’t disagree with you more vehemently. I think the problem is that the happy ones don’t waste their time making silly lists; they do their jobs well and enjoy their lives. It’s just the few vocal malcontents that seem to grab the spotlight. I can only speak to my personal experiences, but the people I work for at the PD’s Office are FAR less cynical than I am, and I’ve been called overly idealistic by many people at MU Law. If ever there were a group of lawyers debt-ridden and bureaucratically limited, it’d be PDs. And yet, while they good-naturedly moan and groan about the pay (though in this economy I’m not sure I’d diss a statutorily-set yearly income and full benefits), you can look in their eyes and see that they’re proud of what they do. Truth be told, I haven’t met many of these lawyers who hated law school; every one of them reminisces happily about it.

  7. Jessica E. Slavin

    I am so glad to hear that others’ law school experiences (Rick’s and Andrew’s) were different and better than mine! And maybe this would be a good time to point out that I didn’t go to law school at Marquette, and didn’t take full advantage of all the educational opportunities available to me at my own law school.

  8. Gideon Trumpet

    I am very happy at my job; I love it. I wouldn’t do anything else in the world.

    The list was a joke, an attempt at humor with some truth sprinkled in.

    I’m not bitter and I’m not a malcontent and I did generally enjoy law school.

    Really the only thing on that list I’m dead serious about is jury selection. I understand that different lawyers have different tactics and different approaches, but law school doesn’t teach you anything at all. There are basic questions almost everyone asks, regardless of the format. Maybe make jury selection a part of some other class. Something can be done and it should be.

    Thanks for the link.

  9. Richard M. Esenberg


    I don’t think it was a throwaway at all. It got people thinking. I should acknowledge, as Andrew points out, that big-firm experience may not be like many other experiences. I could probably make a cynical list about it, but ’tis the season of good will and good cheer, and I don’t want to tax my wa.

  10. David Papke

    I’m pleased to hear Andrew Golden has observed only minimal alienation in the PD’s Office. It’s nice to know there are islands of integrity and commitment in the profession.
    However, I strongly agree with Chris King’s sense of the proper relationship between legal education and the practice of law. We don’t want law school to be lawyer-training school. When we cave in to demands of that sort from the ABA and assorted study commissions, we actually invite alienation among law students and lawyers. Legal education should appreciate the depth of the legal discourse and explore its rich complexities. It should operate on a graduate-school level and graduate people truly learned in the law.

  11. John Kindley

    The biggest flaw in the previous commenter’s philosophy is that law school is mandatory if you want to practice law. The government of most all states will forcibly prevent you from doing it unless you’ve gone through those three years. It’s not too much to ask, therefore, that there be a close relationship between what is taught in those three years and preparing students for the actual practice of law. People can think deep thoughts about the law, and pay for the privilege, if they choose to do so, maybe as an elective.

    I say this as somebody who was deeply enthralled as a youth by the liberal arts idea, and who almost went to St. John’s College (which offers the Great Books Program and one of the most impractical degrees out there) before ultimately enrolling across the street at the Naval Academy. I continue to be enthralled by legal philosophy, and most recently have found the thought of Lysander Spooner to be especially inspiring. But I don’t feel like I or anyone else should be forced to pay for these high-falutin intellectual pursuits in order to practice a profession that for better or worse does not depend on such pursuits.

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