The Future of Law School

The demand for law school and the government subsidization of school led to the growth of the school industry, aided by publications like U.S. News with its ludicrous school rankings. Schools became financial profit centers of universities (like successful sports programs) and in many cases were required to kick back money to the central university administration to help underwrite the rest of the less profitable parts of the university. The costs were passed onto recent graduates and, ultimately, the legal consumer in the form of high legal fees, especially in corporate law.

Who benefited? One of the beneficiaries was the law school faculty. The typical faculty member at a decent law school has next to no practical experience. The person went to a top law school, practiced for a year or two, and then went out into the legal academy job market at the age of 28 or 29 to get a faculty job. A few law professors keep up their practical skills by performing pro bono legal work, or by consulting on the side.

Most law professors know precious little about what it means to be a lawyer, and they’re actually proud of this. That’s because the rest of the university has always looked at law schools (and business schools) as essentially trade schools. Since law professors don’t want to think they’re engaged in a massive Vocational Technical school, they try to distance themselves from the practice of law.

Second, the actual curriculum associated with law school has changed little from the 1930s, when it focused on 19th century common law concepts or ancient tort or property law ideas. These principles have very little to do with the basic way property, tort, or criminal law is practiced in modern America. Most of these laws are statutory, not common law, anyway. As if to excuse their woefully inadequate ability to train lawyers, law professors and law school deans love to tell incoming students that they don’t teach you how to be a lawyer, they train you how to think like a lawyer through the Socratic Method.

Of course “thinking like a lawyer” is a silly concept. All it really means is thinking carefully about an issue. Yes, it requires a little bit of discipline. But it is not difficult, and does not require three years of school. The Socratic Method – the one that was made famous by John Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase – is also bunk. Most professors don’t do it well. And all it amounts to is asking pointed questions and hypotheticals about something that was just read, and will soon be forgotten.

The problem with the Law School – which has almost always been ineffective at training lawyers – is that it has a built in constituency – the law professor – who is going to fight like heck to keep his or her privileged position. Law school has been experiencing a boom in the past 4 years, as routinely happens when the economy takes a dive. That’s because rather than go out into an uncertain job market, a lot of young recent college grads (and even mid-career professionals) decide to go to school in the hopes of improving their employability.