When in School, Be a Student

There is a lot of discussion within the legal community about how law schools can (or should) prepare students for the business of practicing law.  It is common to hear complaints about how young graduates do not understand how to run a practice, and that the law school faculty and administrators should better prepare them for the real world.  I respectfully disagree.

There are so few times in our lives when we can truly immerse ourselves in the science of our profession.  The years in law school expose us to intellectual experiences that may never be found in a private practice.  The law school faculty is best equipped to challenge the law student’s mind in the most thought-provoking and critical ways.  In law school, we learn how to write clearly, concisely, and persuasively.  Law schools offer opportunities to study and understand fundamental legal rights that serve as the foundation for most legal disputes that arise within the practice.  Learning about and discussing, in a critical and theoretical manner, constitutional rights or contract rights or procedural options instills a preliminary basis for everything we do as lawyers.

The best way to run a well-respected law practice is to demonstrate strong skills as a lawyer.  You can’t do that unless you have obtained a good education – one that offers the type of critical legal analysis and knowledge that is acquired in school.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many pieces that need to fit together properly to run a successful law practice.  I submit that a solid legal education is the first and arguably largest piece in the cog.  A commitment to an ethical method of practice with a high level of integrity will naturally lead to the acquisition of the other pieces necessary to operate the machine we call a law practice.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Dean Strang

    Julie — Bingo. Right on the mark.

  2. Michael Cicchini

    I think there are a few problems with this position. First, because of the very high cost of law school (tuition and sometimes opportunity cost), many students start feeling antsy and want to be marketable when they graduate. Second, the recommended approach is not always possible due to academic freedom of professors. For example, I still don’t know anything about the commerce clause, free speech, and numerous other areas of con law b/c the visiting prof only wanted to cover one amendment for the whole semester. Third, probably 95 percent of what will be gained in law school will be gained by the end of the first year, and students who took the first year seriously start to go a little stir crazy after that. And fourth, the self-taught nature of law school diminishes the importance of, well, law school. It doesn’t matter if you’re a smart 2L or a lawyer: there’s only so much value to discussing the cases once you’ve read and thought about them.

  3. Greg Weyandt

    I think Julie and Dean Strang have it right. If the argument is law school should be shorter or better, I agree with the latter and have serious doubts about the former. Either way, her point seemed to be:whatever you are doing, do it well. If that be a student, be a good one. The time is short and there is much to prepare for.

  4. Ellen Henak

    The premise of this post seems to be that law school is either theoretical or practical. But it need not be totally one or the other. Theory without practicality tends to become divorced from reality. Practicality without theory tends to be cramped and limited. At their best, they intertwine.

    Like many students, I learn more by doing than by listening, despite managing to be a very good student in the traditional classes.

    In law school, I did not really understood what different philosophies of civil procedure really meant on the ground or what the implications of some of the intellectual purism that some of my professors espoused in that and other areas really meant. My clinical education also helped me learn what I did not know and therefore enhanced my understanding of theory and “thinking like a lawyer.”

    Many times in my legal career that I was glad to have gone to a law school that valued both theory AND practice and felt that the combination gave me more than either would have alone.

  5. Andrew Spillane

    I’m with Ms. O’Halloran, Mr. Strang, and Mr. Weyandt on this one. The real benefit to be had in law school (as contrasted with learning on the job in practice) is that you not only learn the fundamentals of a particular subject in the law, but you have an opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of the legal system as a whole. That viewpoint allows students, practitioners, and legal academics to use what they know about one area to introduce a new level of intellectual rigor to another area.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has engaged in this type of reasoning it multiple times over. Just recently, the Court likened employee benefit plan administration under ERISA to trusts in CIGNA Corp. v. Amara. The Court also appealed to the well-established willful blindness rule in federal criminal law to define the scienter requirement for active inducement of patent infringement in Global-Tech Appliances v. S.E.B.

    I cannot think of a better way to gain this holistic understanding of the law than time devoted exclusively to legal education.

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