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Monday, January 6, 2014

Hard Truths about Law School

By Geoffrey J. Miller

Photo Credit: US News and World Report
Law school gets a lot of criticism these days.  The most common criticisms are that law school costs a lot, fails to teach the nuts and bolts of practicing law and leaves many graduates in debt and unemployed.  Some of these criticisms are justified in light of the modern view of education, but if one understands the historical purpose of law school and is willing to work hard, beyond classroom time, for three years; then the resources are there to pave the way to a successful career.  I write this as an intern for a recent and successful graduate from my school, the University of Connecticut.  The goal of this article is to respond to some general criticism that has been applied to all law schools, especially those schools not in the top fourteen of U.S. News and World Report.

1.  You can graduate from a good law school and not get a job.

Law school, like anything, is what one makes of it.  Graduating does not guarantee a job. To get a good job, one must learn the skills necessary to land and excel at such a job.  In this, law schools are often guilty of inadequate training.  While career services is generally equipped to help those who seek it out, schools should probably offer a core class on marketing one’s self in the legal job market.  From how to interview, to resume writing, to knocking on doors; there are many ways to get a job that are unknown to students, mostly because they do not know what questions to ask.  In most schools, however, there are plenty of resources available to those who will invest the time.  The best review of these skills is contained in Kimm Walton’s book: Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of your Dreams.  If you are a law student or recent graduate, you need to buy this book.

There is a simple explanation for why one can graduate from law school and not get a job.

That reason is grade inflation.  In the past, graduation with a 2.5 GPA or higher was enough to find a job.  Why?  Because about 25% of 1L’s flunked out and many received low C’s and D’s.  If you do not believe me, read One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School, by Scott Turow.  Nowadays, with a B-Median, many have similar GPAs, so it is very possible to have no prospects with a 3.5 GPA, something unheard of thirty years ago, where a 3.5 would have caused one to grade onto law review at Harvard.

Considering the job market and cost of education, maybe law schools should flunk out the bottom 25% or at least recommend dropping out in order to save money.  With modern grading, showing up to exams is enough to graduate with a law degree, so it should not come as a surprise that many graduates are not successful.

2.  Law school does not teach students to be lawyers.

This is a popular criticism and seems justified given the modern view of education. Students at a professional school expect to leave with the ability to practice that profession.  This, however, is not an accurate view of the purpose of modern education.  The goal of law school is to create learned professionals who are able to adapt and work well even when the legal system changes or they need to delve into a very different area of practice.  Job specific training is important, but so is the classroom education.  Does medical school train one to be a doctor?  Yes and no.  The classes provide a necessary foundation, but it is the rotations, internships and residency that teach a medical student to practice medicine.

According to a medical student I know, no textbook can teach a student to even find an appendix, let alone conduct surgery.  However, medicine changes every year and the practical training only goes so far.  Without the foundation in classroom, it would be very difficult for doctors to create and adopt new and better methods.  Electricians, plumbers and doctors all go to school to learn the foundation for their professions and then spend significant time as apprentices to actually learn the trade.

Not long ago, law school was optional and law practice was considered an almost purely apprenticed profession.  Much like training to be an electrician, practical instruction came from observation and participation.  Law schools were not intended to replace the apprenticeship part of legal education, but rather to create better legal thinkers.  That notwithstanding, today law schools offer clinics and academic credit for internships to allow for the concurrent study of the academic and practical aspects of legal education.  If one wishes to practice in a particular field, he can participate in a clinic or a school-sponsored internship.  If none is available, he can drive to an office that offers such experience, knock on the door and ask to work for free.  The law school will then vet the employer to make sure that the internship is a legitimate educational opportunity and then award academic credit for that work.  These programs offer an excellent opportunity to gain practical experience while attending law school.  Anyone with a little initiative can shape their law school experience to teach them just about anything.

There is a practical need for what is taught in a law school classroom.

Law school teaches how to think through legal problems and it teaches the basic nuts and bolts of causes of action, defenses and procedure.  The usefulness of these skills are apparent from the first day anyone tries to practice real law.  In my own experience working in a law firm, I have participated in initial client interviews, honed the issues, probed for possible legal theories and defenses, written briefs and motions and done a host of other things that have caused me to lean heavily on the training I have received in Law School.

I have one case that is a contract matter and I have relied almost exclusively on the words of my Contracts professor, Lewis Kurlantzick.  Is there promissory estopple?  Substantial Compliance?  Can I bring a reformation action?  Is this an unconscionable contract of adhesion?  Westlaw, LexisNexis and Google are great tools, but they only work if one’s brain is already filled with legal theories to look up.  One must have ingrained knowledge to come up with creative legal theories to help their clients.  Despite the criticisms of law school education as impractical, I learned enough to practice basic contract law from my Contracts and Civil Procedure classes.

Note of Thanks:

I would like to thank my 1L professors.  Professors Lewis Kurlantzick, Thomas Morawetz and Alexandra Lahav, who taught me Contract Law, Criminal Law and Civil Procedure respectively; Professors Jessica Rubin and Jennifer Mailly who taught me legal research, client counseling and negotiation; and professors, Steven Wilf, Bethany Berger, Loftus Becker, and Sachin Pandya, who taught me law, policy and how to creatively apply my legal knowledge to real cases and controversies.  All of these people have contributed to my legal education and all have helped me to develop skills that are desperately needed to practice or teach law.  It has been an honor to learn from all of you.  Thank you for your contribution to the next generation of legal minds.