Reengineering Law School?

Posted on Categories Legal Education

There has been some back and forth on the legal blogs over a post by Paul Lippe on the AmLawBlog criticizing the current model of legal education. In short, Lippe believes that law school is too theoretical, disconnected from practice, too long and too expensive. He complains that faculty are isolated from, and uninterested in, the legal profession and that law school graduates are less prepared for practice than, say, medical school graduates. He argues that faculty scholarship is largely without impact in the “real world.”

My own view is that Lippe has a point, but that it is overstated. He suggests, for example, that doctrinal courses, i.e., teaching students how to read and analyze the law, needs no more than a year. I hope that our students are not offended when I say that most are still not proficient at this by the end of the first year.

I also am unpersuaded that law school graduates are less prepared than medical students who spend years in internship and residency after graduation. I went to a law school as theoretical as any and, within a year of graduation, I was taking depositions and had tried (and won) my first jury trial. Within five years, I was directing the defense of a significant portion of a major piece of public policy litigation. My experience was not all that different from my peers. In fact, truth be told, practical acuity has not always been my strong point.

A more truncated model of legal education is prevalent in Europe. One common criticism of European lawyers — I was told about it when I became a GC and learned it to be true* — is that they are good technicians and who are of no help in thinking through the big picture.

It is true that there is a gap between legal scholarship and law on the ground. I am not adverse to theoretical or “law and …” scholarship. Five of the eight articles that I have either published, had accepted for publication or am finishing draw substantially on the insights of theology or Catholic Social Teaching in addressing real world doctrinal issues. Another draws extensively on social science literature.

But there is still a reluctance in the legal academy to take the insights developed in more scholarly (and less accessible) work and do the work necessary to bring it to courts and practitioners. Lessons learned at 30,ooo feet (to continue to use a business metaphor) need to be brought to ground level.

One benefit of a greater willingness on the part of legal academics to do this would be a dramatic improvement in the quality of CLE. Most of it today is done by lawyers as a public service or as part of a marketing plan. Some of them do a wonderful job, but I think that the continuing education of lawyers could be improved by people who have had to face pedagogical issues in a way that most lawyers d0 not. I suspect that law schools would benefit from another way in which they can remain connected to their alumni and to the legal community.

One thought on “Reengineering Law School?”

  1. Lippe’s complaints (assuming they are accurately presented) are incoherent. If law schools are too long, too expensive and too theoretical, then the comparison to medical school is extraordinarily inapt. Medical school is longer, very expensive, and highly theoretical (technical). As Prof. Esenberg points out, medical school graduates have completed a longer course of training than the three years a law school graduate did. And even then few med school graduates immediately join an established practice with senior physicians, much less go out on their own to start their own practice.

    Most if not all med school grads go on to their Internship (of one or two years) in which they practice medicine on real patients under very close supervision of experienced physicians. Multi-year Residency often follows for specialized training (even for family medicine).

    Compared to a physician, a newly minted lawyer reminds me of some of the newly minted officers I met in the Navy; whom we lowly blue-jackets referred to as “shake and bakes”. This was not a complement.

    If law school grads are inadequately prepared, only some of the blame could be put on law schools; certainly not because law schools are too long or too theoretical or too doctrinal.

    What the legal profession needs is the equivalent of Internship and Residency. This is a job for Law Firms, not Law Schools. The profession needs to get organized and not be afraid of change.

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