Or, Why I Love Legal Clinics as well as Lawyers and Law Professors That See Their Primary Job As Helping Students Reach Their Goals
Or, Disrupting Law Schools

Version with links here:

by +Derek Slater,@derekslater,
w/ feedback included from +Lila Bailey

v.9, draft as of 10/16/2011

[Disclaimer: Some of my best friends are lawyers. I’m married to one, even. This blogpost is about the institution of law schools as they stand today, rather than the people who I have had the privilege to work with, who I think swim very hard against institutional currents in ways that make them better people and better teachers. The subject of this blogpost is law schools, but it’s for the dozens of people who have asked me whether they should go to law school, in hopes that this is a somewhat more coherent answer for them. Finally, this post is clearly biased by my own personal experience and thus sounds much more prescriptive than it ought to be. Comments/feedback/hatemail welcome.]

When your toilet is broken, you want to hire a plumber who knows exactly what to do, not someone who has studied the design of indoor plumbing.

Now, imagine you treated education in the same way. Imagine you needed a skillset as a means to personal goals, and you were in the market to hire an institution to teach you. Imagine you interviewed them like they were interviewing for a job, and imagine you had no constraints on who or what you could hire.

If the job you are hiring them for is, “teach me how to become a legal academic,”
then I would recommend you hire a law school to do this job for you.

If the job you are hiring them for is, “I know I want to be a litigator. Teach me that.”
then the only way to do that today is to hire a law school, but you won’t really learn the skills necessary to be a litigator unless you’re smart about your externships and clinical work.

If, on the other hand, you don’t know what you want to be exactly, but you know why you want to work; you know there is a problem in this world that you want to solve; you know that you want to help change the world in ways small or big, but preferably big; and you want to be happy while you do it:
then I would not recommend going to law school.

I hear too many stories of people ending up unhappy and exhausted at law firms, because they never really wanted to end up there. It’s a necessary cost, on their way to whatever goal they really have in life. You need it to learn how to be a good lawyer, and you need it to pay off your debt, but otherwise, you wouldn’t be there.

And I see the data that say that tuition keeps skyrocketing, the law school attendance bubble is bursting and while it used to be that going to law school could at least guarantee you a good salary, now it can’t even do that. Even if it can do that, you’re likely to have more money than time and not necessarily more happiness.

The first step to being happy is realizing that you are not a unique or special snowflake. On average, the things that will make you happy are the same things that will make anyone else happy. The odds of you bucking the above trends are low.

So, if you are looking for the best return on your investment of time and money, then I would say: don’t hire a law school. You shouldn’t hire them.

I would recommend a different path, probably software engineering. Not necessarily a PhD, because that’s not necessarily a measure of how capable you are of getting stuff done.

If the thing you want to have an impact on is politics and/or the legal system:
then I’d still recommend you probably be an engineer, and that you direct your engineering talents to politics.

In the alternative: I would recommend you focus on where you have passionate beliefs, and surround yourself with really smart engineers and really smart lawyers. I would apprentice with those types of people, and show a willingness to get your hands dirty and work hard toward what they’re passionate about.

Baseball players don’t learn how to be great baseball players by going to baseball school, learning The Theory of Baseball as taught by Babe Ruth, or studying the gamefilm of In re: Giants v. Dodgers. They probably have done all those things, but that’s not primarily how they become great. Nor do they become great just from working alone in a gym. Baseball players have coaches and teammates, and they spend the bulk of their time learning from one another and actually playing the sport. Moreover, those coaches and teammates are ultimately measured by one thing - Wins and Losses - which means their success is interdependent.

Why should we train lawyers any differently? We measure law students today on how they perform on a 3 hour in class exam. But in the real world, lawyers are doing a service for people; they’re working on teams and having to figure out how best to serve their client; they need to do a lot more than issue spot and know rules. Meanwhile, law professors are measured by which journals they publish in and how many times they are cited. They’re certainly not measured by whether they have helped their students achieve their goals or contribute to society. There are exceptions to this - both individually in the form of certain teachers, and institutionally in the form of Clinics and Centers that focus on directly helping students and building a community that can educate them in other ways. But on the whole, that’s not how the law school institution is setup.

So why would we expect this institution to be the right candidate for the job you’re looking to hire it for?

If law schools want to be the candidate hired for this job, then they need to change, and they can use as a model other colleges and universities that have started to change to meet the needs of today’s students.

The first model I’d look at is how colleges are training really amazing software engineers. There is nothing inherently special about the people who are software engineers that make them better or more able to change the world. They’re not inherently smarter than lawyers. They are not unique or special snowflakes either.

They have just been trained better. The difference is that they have been trained to be immediately effective in the world. They are trained in ways that allow them to contribute to the companies they join right out of the gate. They know how to code.

Law students are currently the equivalent of someone asking Google or Facebook for a job, and saying “I don’t know how to code, but I know a lot of theory about the Web and I’ve looked at a ton of websites. I’m really smart. So hire me and teach me how to code, ok?”

Law schools need to put a greater focus on training students to have practical skills that allow them to actually help clients.

They should spend a lot more time building communities of interesting, cross-disciplinary people who can teach students other ways of thinking.

They should recognize that a lot of their value comes in the form of the physical space they inhabit - the notion that new ideas must come from old buildings, and that universities are often embedded in diverse communities.

They should spend a lot less time drilling theory into students’ heads. In law school, they teach you about The Theory of Contracts, but you won’t necessarily read a contract or write a contract or learn that forming a contract is about two people trying to define in words a very complex relationship.

In other words, law schools need to look a lot more like legal clinics and specialized centers of practice & study.

In the long run, the legal profession needs to change the way it uses proxies, like where you went to school, to measure competency. And public policy needs to shift the way it funds and cultivates these institutions.

But in the near term, the change is basically going to be made from the bottom up by individual students’; teachers’ decisions; and by clients and law firms.

That last category is important: right now, law firms are the ones expected to actually teach students how to be lawyers, and those costs are being passed on to the client. Students are going through a system that is making them indebted without giving them necessary skills; that cost of training is passed on to the firm; which is in turn passed on to the client.

Clients are paying law firm associates to learn how to be lawyers.

Common sense should revolt at that, but it doesn’t today, and there are two negative societal repercussions: (1) law schools are creating a ton of waste and inefficiency in the system, and (2) legal services are far, far more expensive than they should be, and many people cannot afford them.

You used to be able to walk out of law school, and hang a shingle above your door, and start a practice. Now, you can’t, and that’s not simply because we live in a more complex world. It’s because law schools haven’t, on average, adapted.

As the famous business school saying goes, you don’t buy a quarter inch drill because you want a quarter inch drill, you buy it because you want a quarter inch hole. And you certainly don’t buy a drill because you just want to think about holes.

Now, nothing I have said addresses the hypothetical where you do have constraints on who you can hire for the job - in other words, the case where people do not start with the means, financial or otherwise, to have all opportunities at their fingertips to learn. We need better political and public institutions to solve that problem too, once we remember that that’s the job we want our political and public institutions to do.
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