Law in Contemporary Society

Didn't They Teach You That in Law School?

My interviewer, at this stage in life, was clearly a content person—it was all smiles and excitement when talking about work. The interviewer had done the whole firm thing, was not satisfied, and then went into the public sector and found happiness even with such high volumes of work. (As a side note: the interviewer mentioned a cute little story about how a partner at the firm did not think twice about contacting my interviewer for something work related while my interviewer was away on a honeymoon). When we discussed law school life and why I was here, the interviewer admitted to going to law school for reasons I feel that most of us would probably never confess to: that college had gone well and because it went well people said “you should go to law school!” and “you can do anything that degree!” and alas here we are trying to figure out what we are doing in this place.

The interviewer then admitted to having “learned nothing about how to be a lawyer in law school.” It was definitely not the first time I heard a statement like this one but I still found it to be refreshing. The interviewer was just being genuine and expected the same from me. Later on, I spoke with another attorney who enthusiastically explained how he does not “remember shit from the classes in law school” and that he, now at the top of his field, had learned everything on the job.

In a way, this “law students do not learn anything in law school” theme makes me feel a little better when thinking about employers. If employers do not expect you to know anything, what is there to worry about right? To everyone else in the world, the idea that you do not actually learn how to be a lawyer in law school is, understandably, just crazy. I fully expect to be asked the “didn’t they teach you that in law school?” question at every family get-together from now on. I will find myself responding, in the words of Joe Pesce in My Cousin Vinny, “They teach you contracts, precedents. Then the firm that hires you, they teach you the procedure. Or, you could go to court and watch.” This theme is something that, based on our class discussions, we all grapple with. I will be the first to admit that to say that law students do not learn anything is wrong. We do learn issue spotting, case analysis, memorizing rules etc. and these skills are no doubt used by practicing attorneys.

But in my view law school education seems to be very incestuous. It seems that most “good” law professors come from the same two or three schools, having been taught a certain way and then regurgitating these methods to more students, many of whom will go on to academia and keep the process going. These methods then force students into a “conflict of commitment” as Eben would say. At this point in the 1L year I think we have all realized that you cannot come into a law school classroom ready to use your imagination. We must face the reality that learning and exploring the law is a separate goal that requires different skills and priorities from doing well on one blindly graded law school exam which the professor will probably read in 5-10 minutes (law professors are important people who obviously have better things to do). We must trade in learning/exploring for learning how to take a test that will not truly prepare us for a law career. With so much riding on the grade given, there is no room for anything but unbridled pragmatism.

It is hard to rationalize this backward system. Even if taking law school exams were a good way to become a lawyer, it is not as if we are even allowed to see the exam again, especially if it is multiple choice because the professor will not want to bother to write new questions. If we request to see our responses (so as to see where we went wrong and how we could improve) we are given a printout of our responses with some checks, the occasional comment, and a number on it.

One way I think we allow ourselves to feel better about this is by comparing the law school process to the medical school process. Getting an MD requires 4 years of schooling followed by another 4 to 8 years of residency before medical students really become doctors. From what I understand, however, doctors in residency are thrown into the lion’s den and really get their hands dirty. This seems to pale in comparison to the slow development of recent JD graduates who are, in the eyes of employers, in no shape to be able to do any meaningful work. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for those attorneys whom put up a sign and take on clients right out of law school. The clients are out there but the skills aren’t.

A classic cynical thought then creeps into my head: those who can’t do, teach. Checking out some Columbia faculty biographies I have found that out of my 7 professors this year, 2 have practiced law (Eben included). Maybe law professors are those who just do not care about the practical aspects of law and so focus on theory or whatever else they feel like talking about so that the situation is like placing an order at a (very expensive) restaurant except the waiter decides that he is going to give you whatever he feels tastes best. Or maybe they just think that everyone would rather be in law professor school. Or maybe it is because they have never practiced before and would really just not know where to begin—if this is the case, the question to ask would then be, didn’t they teach you that in law school?


Webs Webs

r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:42 - IanSullivan
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