We Need to Educate Non-Lawyers in the Law, Too
This morning, I opened up my Facebook account only to be swamped by a flood of bar-exam-passage-celebrating statuses from my former law school classmates. What better occasion can there be to reflect on my own decision not to take the bar exam (at least not yet) and to pursue a career outside of legal practice — as well as the idea of going to law school?
As my blogger spotlight hopefully shows, I’ve never been completely sold on the idea of being a lawyer. My experiences in law school only solidified my goal of putting my substantive legal knowledge to use in another field — legal analysis at think tanks and media outlets, if I have my way. If your life experience is anything like mine, then this goal should remind you of another piece of advice that you’ve probably heard a million times: “You can do lots of things with a law degree.”
It’s hardly a myth that law degrees are versatile; Lord knows plenty of lawyers go on to make their marks in business, politics, banking, and sundry other occupations. The question is whether this versatility makes it a good idea for someone who would rather not become a lawyer to go to law school.
I’ve already gotten a very blunt answer to this question from an actual lawyer, and an Ivy League-trained one at that. Almost three years ago, I met a fellow alumnus of my alma mater who had graduated from Harvard Law about six months earlier and was working — surprise, surprise — as a highly-paid corporate lawyer in Manhattan. When I inquired as to how work was going, he said, “It’s funny you should ask that. I actually just gave my two weeks’ notice last Friday. I can’t take it anymore.” Taken aback, I asked why, and was treated to a litany of the horrors of corporate practice: the grueling (billable) hours, the grinding tedium, the office politics, the pressure to make it rain. Having gotten just a taste of the lawyer’s life, he already wanted out.
Presently, the conversation turned to my motivations for going to law school. I explained that, while I still considered public-interest litigation a goal of mine (I was still a 1L, young and foolish), I was exploring career options outside of legal practice as well. I mentioned that I had gone to law school in large part out of sheer intellectual interest in legal issues, primarily constitutional and international ones. With a rueful laugh, he interjected: “That’s a terrible reason to go to law school. If you’re smart, you’ll go to law school only if you really, really want to be a lawyer — period.”
Other 1Ls, faced with this advice from this high-achieving graduate of one of the two or three best law schools in America, would have seen the handwriting on the wall and left law school for sunnier climes. Though I wouldn’t have blamed them, I saw it through to the end, since I knew that much of the politically-oriented analysis that I wanted to do professionally would require firsthand familiarity with the laws of the land. As a general principle, however, I eventually had to concede his point — for the most part, at least — based on what I learned during the rest of my legal schooling. Given the stress and hard work that it entails and, above all, the sheer cost of enrollment, law school generally really is best suited to those who go through it in order to do the one kind of work that one absolutely needs a law degree to do: lawyering.
As law schools gravitate toward more practice-oriented instruction, traditional J.D. programs are less and less appropriate for people who want to know what lawyers know without necessarily doing what they do. Yet as University of New Mexico law professor Carol Parker recently noted, legal knowledge comes in awfully handy for people throughout the whole workforce. Law schools are now churning out thousands more new graduates than there are new legal practice jobs each year, with countless graduates ultimately putting their legal knowledge to use without actually practicing law. This development is unsurprising given the overall climate in the country. As the regulatory state continues to grow and governments and courts continue to pile rule on top of law on top of regulation, there is less and less reason for familiarity with this tangled web to be the exclusive preserve of attorneys, judges, clerks and law professors.
Professor Parker advocates “creating exciting programs that combine legal information with the arts, sciences, and other professional programs.” This idea makes sense to me. I would have been delighted to find a non-J.D. academic degree program — in a political science department, for instance — that would have focused on a more intellectually-oriented study of the law. The deal breaker for me, however, would have been that the program provide the same depth of familiarity with constitutional and international legal doctrines law that actual attorneys have. The ideal setup would have taught me fundamentally the same material that I learned in the constitutional and international law-oriented courses that I took in law school, but in a very different style, one more similar to the kinds of study — independent as well as course-based — that one finds in graduate school programs. There should especially be less emphasis on courses in which the entire final grade is based on one final exam result (a topic on which I plan to comment at greater length in the future).
In my last post, I argued that J.D. programs should focus more on training students to practice law and less on teaching them abstract values like “educated citizenship” and “leadership for the future.” In addition, either law schools or grad schools should consider offering “Master of Law” programs that would take the approach I advocate above. Let those who want to be lawyers learn just that, and let those who want to learn about the law for other purposes do likewise. To each, his own.
Featured image courtesy of [Marc Baronnet via Wikipedia]