Occupy Law School

What Law Schools Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering

Nothing new.  Simple truths:

““The fundamental issue is that law schools are producing people who are not capable of being counselors,” . . .  “They are lawyers in the sense that they have law degrees, but they aren’t ready to be a provider of services.” ”

“Law schools . . . have added or expanded programs that provide practical training through legal clinics.  But almost all the cachet in legal academia goes to professors who produce law review articles, which gobble up huge amounts of time and tuition money.  The essential how-tos of daily practice are a subject that many in the faculty know nothing about — by design.  One 2010 study of hiring at top-tier law schools since 2000 found that the median amount of practical experience was one year, and that nearly half of faculty members had never practiced law for a single day.  If medical schools took the same approach, they’d be filled with professors who had never set foot in a hospital.”

” . . . there are few incentives for law professors to excel at teaching.  It might earn them the admiration of students, but it won’t win them any professional goodies, like tenure, a higher salary, prestige or competing offers from better schools.  For those, a professor must publish law review articles, the ticket to punch for any upwardly mobile scholar. ”

And of course not only is there a lack of incentives, there are numerous disincentives, for law faculty to engage in the more theoretical forms of teaching, such as curricular design and developing effective means of assessment that measure actual learning of professional competences.

So.  The emperors stand arrayed in all their naked glory on the front page of the New York Times, in what seems to have become almost a regular ritual of rather harsh exposure of their, ahem, shortcomings.

Will a single hiring decision, of the hundreds about to unfurl at this very moment in law schools across the country, change in the slightest?

Will a single prospective student in the process of deciding where to apply, modify his or her list of law schools one iota?

Will a single accreditation or government funding decision be even faintly affected ?

And, most important, will USNWR make any adjustment whatsoever to the solipsistic criteria that accord so much weight to the opinions of these very naked emperors of legal education?

No, no, no, and no — I’ll take whatever odds you’ll give.  Nothing is changing.  Not unless and until prospective law students finally realize how they are getting ripped off and stop showing up.  Which will not happen because each student is betting that she or he will land in the 1% who either does get a good education in law school — that is possible — or who despite an inadequate education, finds a meaningful and satisfying way to live and work after law school that justifies that student’s investment in law school — which is also possible, though rare.

Will the Occupy movement change the maldistribution of wealth and/or income disparities?

Will repeated denunciation of the self-serving structure of legal education transform — or even alter — that structure?

I’m not holding my breath.

3 Responses

  1. Although I am delighted that the NYT is featuring the problems with current legal education, I am annoyed that they love to focus on the problems and not on solutions, on divisions rather than on creative collaborations. Those who have been working since 2007 to build solutions, to reach across the scholar-teacher divide, to collaborate, explore objectives and assess progress just don’t make the front page because the work is more nuanced and the progress is slow. One place we can find some support is iwth each ohter. Come join me and others in building bridges and creating pathways for improvement at the Center for Excellence in Law Teaching inaugural conference March 30,2012. http://www.celtconference2012.org .

    • It is disappointing to learn that the requests for proposals for the CELT conference is only seeking legal educators. As an attorney who is a was involved in a clinical program in law school, I think a non-educator could provide valuable insight into what is wrong in law school, and how to make it right.

      As others have noted, one of the largest problems with law school instruction today is the lack of experienced attorneys represented in tenure-track positions. This is particularly true when you have these inexperienced faculty are teaching skills-based courses such as trial advocacy. More unfortunate still, it seems that law schools take the position that if one has actually practiced law for any period of time, they have sullied themselves too much to ever be able to be faculty, except in a pinch as an adjunct.

      I’m afraid that if the legal profession is truly going to change, it has to come from outside the academic community and instead be initiated by licensing authorities. Many other countries require an apprenticeship before being able to practice. Unless an newly-minted attorney has a very involved mentor, the first years of practice present significant difficulties for the new practitioner. As a result, such apprenticeship is necessary to complete legal education in order to produce lawyers rather merely law school graduates.

  2. Thanks to Ruth Anne for sharing this article on the listserv. I think the major problem with the article, like much of what has been written in the vein lately, is that the perspective is way to narrowly on the large law firms and the elite law schools. While many law schools follow the lead of the elites, many also do not, but most of the schools who do not follow the model as closely are the lower ranked schools. The large law firms could solve some of their problems by recruiting at law schools that actually do produce practice ready graduates, and of course USNews is also a big factor. I realize that there has been a trickle down effect so that all new graduates are likely to find themselves competing with more experienced lawyers for any openings, but that is likely a very short term effect, and many of the newly unemployed former associates from large firms actually did not get much useful transferable experience during the first couple of years at those firms.

    I think that the article and the economy are likely to increase the rate of change in law school curricula, and that is a good thing. But more importantly, for me, the current situation can be a blessing in disguise. At my school, and I am sure at many others, I regularly hear students and recent grads talk about the reasons that they came to law school as related to wanting to do some good, make some change, serve communities that are underserved, etc. Of course they want to live a decent comfortable life and the debt loads are scary, but they chose to come to law school anyway because of the less tangible rewards at least as much as the financial ones. If the focus in the profession can shift away from money and how much you can make if you become a lawyer, and move more toward the other rewards, then this economic crisis will turn out to be a real blessing. I think this article still seems to buy into the monetary and financial rewards model, and that is both inaccurate and sad.

    I also am tired of hearing about the shrinking job market. Though it is certainly true that there has been a loss of legal jobs, there has also been an large increase in the unmet legal needs of people, though most of the people whose legal needs are unmet are people who are struggling with their finances because of the weak economy. But there are vast opportunities out there for lawyers who are willing to serve those clients and charge reasonable fees. Such a practice can be financially rewarding as well as permitting lawyers to maintain work life balance and to help people who really appreciate the legal work.

    Perhaps each of us who teaches at a school or in a program that helps law students prepare not just for practice but for a full and rewarding life should invite Mr. Segal to come and visit. Maybe his perspective would change. Maybe he could be as effective in supporting the good things that are happening as he is in identifying the problems, because there is no doubt that many of the problems he discusses are real.

    Bob Seibel

    California Western School of Law


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