Legal Education: “Both/And” not “Either/Or”

Lisa’s post on international law in legal education brought to mind an ongoing internet debate about the impact of the supposed demise of “Big Law” (large firms) on law schools. The argument is that, if large firms hire fewer lawyers, law schools won’t be able to command the same tuition or attract the same number of students and will have to become more like trade schools, emphasizing the practical and putting aside more theoretical and interdisciplinary course offerings. Law professors will need to become more “instructor” (in a narrow sense) than professor and scholar. (The point is not that Big Law wants more theoretical and interdisciplinary courses – there is a seperate debate about that – but that large starting salaries induce students to be willing to pay for them.)

Part of my reaction to debate like this is that it something that is largely irrelevant to the majority of American law schools who neither offer a steady stream of courses on Kantian Perspectives on Third Party Practice nor limit themselves to the graduation of superannuated paralegals. Nor does it seem that the nature of legal education at these schools is much related to the health of Big Law since most of their students know that they will never be at a large firm (and that is not necessarily a bad thing).

I got a glimpse of this last week in my Law & Theology seminar. The topic of the day was Joseph Allegretti’s application of H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology of the relationship between faith and culture (i.e, Christ Against Culture, Christ of Culture,etc.) to the relationship between faith and the practice of the law.

At one point, two students almost simultanteously said two different things in tension, they thought were in complete agreement. This suggests that the “either/or” model suggested by the “No Big Law = Trade Schools” suggests.

One student, comparing his experience with friends at “lower tier” schools, said that these friends can’t believe – and envy – the breadth of courses at Marquette and how they prepare students to be more than legal technicians. Another, comparing his experience to friends at “top 20 schools,” said that they don’t get the practical preparation that he believes has characterized his legal education here.

There are, I think, two lessons. We are training lawyers and they need to how to accomplish the technical things that lawyers do. But we are also forming lawyers and, as they move through practice, what increasingly distinguishes good from bad lawyers is not technical expertise, but wisdom and judgment. In our society, lawyers are significant authority figures and exercise influence beyond a simple identification of what the law does and does not require.

Figuring out the law is often the easy thing. What is hard is assessing who is telling the truth and how to manage uncertainty. It is deciding what is and is not worth fighting over and how to manage interactions between people and institutions in matters of some complexity. It is about how to be intentional in making the difficult choices that professional life sometimes entails. As Rick Garnett puts it, “the practice of law, properly and richly understood, is . . . more (deeper, bigger, harder) than I think people give it credit for.”

As someone with a bit more and broader practice experience than most full time legal academics, I couldn’t agree more.

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