I Graduated From Law School . . . But I Have No Idea How to Be a Lawyer

For me, there’s a very bright light at the end of this tunnel. I graduate from law school in December and then it’s out into the real world. My experience at Marquette, in the classroom, has been an exceptional one; but until I spent a summer surrounded by practicing  lawyers, writing actual briefs, drafting complaints, and petitioning an out-of-state court for pro hac vice admission, I hadn’t realized how just how clueless I really was.

Granted, I could rattle off the elements of adverse possession with the best of ‘em (thanks Parlow), discuss “penumbras” over cocktails, and wow underclassmen with my thorough understanding of International Shoe… but when I showed up for work on my first day and was handed a new-client file and asked to draft a summons and complaint, the only thing I could muster up was a spot-on impression of a deer in headlights. I thought I remembered talking about complaints in a class once (which one was it?) but the task of actually having to write one was overwhelmingly daunting.

Luckily for me, the attorney who assigned me the project must have noticed the sweat dripping from my temples and the nervous twitch I had suddenly developed and he took pity on me. He pulled up a chair and for the next hours or so, he walked me, very slowly, through the drafting process for a summons and a complaint. I got to file a real lawsuit that day and when I went home that night, with a cheesy grin plastered on my face thanks to the adventures of the day, I was in awe of how much I had learned in just eight hours. And it got me thinking- I had spent almost two years attending an amazing law school, writing countless outlines, studying for more hours than I cared to count, memorizing elements and making flashcards for dozens of final exams, and yet, in just eight hours, I felt like I had learned more, gotten smarter, than I had in those two years combined.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit dramatic, and I’d also like to make it to graduation, so I suppose from here on out I will choose my words carefully. I’m not suggesting that law school is a waste of time- not even close. And after more than just one day of work out in the real world, I completely appreciate how my legal education has prepared me to do the work we’re asked to do as lawyers. But if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think that law school, by itself, is the key to producing great lawyers. Perhaps great legal minds, yes, but not great lawyers.

We’re taught in law school to think like lawyers- and this is a critical skill because very few people know how to do this before attending law school. But I don’t think law school necessarily prepares people to be lawyers- and I think this is a crucial distinction. Back in the “old days,” lawyers never went to school- they just learned by doing. Abraham Lincoln, who was a pretty decent lawyer, learned the law by reading Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and apprenticing with other practicing lawyers- but he never once stepped foot in a legal classroom. It worked. He was a competent and able lawyer despite his lack of a formal legal education.

Some people actually think we should go back to this. Hans Bader, a Harvard Law School grad and practicing attorney, thinks we should do away with law school all together and just force wannabe lawyers to take a rigorous bar exam. As Attorney Bader explains:

[o]n graduation from law school, I knew next to nothing about the law, having frittered away much of my legal studies watching “Married With Children,” arguing with classmates about politics, or drinking peach schnapps in the basement of the Lincoln’s Inn Society. All that changed when I had to prepare for the bar exam. Because I suddenly faced the sword of Damocles in the form of exclusion from the bar, I studied hard and learned a lot of basic principles of law . . .  that I never had mastered in law school. Thanks, Barbri and the New York Bar Exam, for teaching me what Harvard Law School failed to do.

I can’t say I agree with Bader’s position because I think there is a lot of value in being taught the basics and having a foundation to build on, but I do think he’s on to something. Northwestern also proposed a controversial change to our current system of legal education when it suggested that law school should be a two-year program. David Van Zandt, Dean of Northwestern law, said that “[f]or us to be successful, we have to be producing students that the rest of the world wants. Just producing people who are great at legal analysis, they are a dime a dozen out there now.”

Condensing a legal education into a much more focused and intense two year program might do some good.  But I still don’t think it addresses the concern I had after showing up for work on my first day, only to discover that – while I might be somewhat book smart – I was completely unprepared for this career I had chosen. I knew how to CREAC, and IRAC, and issue spot a ridiculously dense three-page hypothetical, but I had no idea how to be a lawyer. I didn’t know what that really meant until I tried it.

Someone a lot smarter and wiser than me once said that, “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.” I think Aristotle got it right. All of us will sit in a classroom for three years. Some of us will memorize elements more accurately and write better essays on exams than others and will make the dean’s list. Some us will be members of more organizations than we even have room to list on our resumes. Some of us will participate in competitions or help a professor with research while we’re in school. And quite a few of us will do all of this without ever getting out into the real world to actually experience what it’s like to be a lawyer.

That’s a pretty scary thought- not just for us but for those clients who we’ll be representing. So what’s my suggestion? A compromise. I think law school is valuable and necessary. But I think working and, as Aristotle said, actually doing, is valuable too. So I would propose that to practice law, a two year legal education be required along with one year of practical field work.

I don’t think either of these elements, by itself, is nearly as powerful as the two are when paired together. But when you combine a rich legal education with actual work experience, you might find yourself faced by a young lawyer who has not only been taught to think critically and analytically but who has actually experienced life as a lawyer and who knows how to interact with real clients.  Such a lawyer can do more than just spout off cases he or she read in a casebook, or impress you with his or her ability to recall the exact language of the 5th amendment. You might find yourself faced with a young lawyer who actually knows how to be a lawyer upon graduation. Imagine that.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Ed Fallone

    The best method for training lawyers has been debated for over a century, and the debate seems destined to persist into the future.

    The Commission on Legal Education of the State Bar of Wisconsin wrote a thoughtful report on this debate over 15 years ago. The Commission’s Report outlines the complementary roles that both law schools and the practicing bar have to play in order to promote an educational process that begins before the student enrolls in law school and continues throughout his or her professional career.

    The chapter of the Report on the role of Wisconsin’s law schools can be found here, although I would urge that the report should be read in its whole:


    One reason that skills education is sometimes neglected in law school in favor of substance-based legal rules is that skills education is very resource intensive. It takes smaller class sizes and more faculty to give the kind of “one on one” instruction that a mentor practicioner can provide to a beginning lawyer.

    I believe that Marquette University Law School actually does a better job at skills training than most law schools (and certainly better than Harvard and the other ivys). We devote a great deal of resources to legal writing and to appellate advocacy, for example, and we have a top notch field placement program. Marquette goes farther in emphasizing practical lawyering skills than many of our peer institutions.

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