Three years ago around this time, I had my seat deposit in, and was ready and excited for law school. I had gone straight through school from daycare to law school; never living in the real world as a working adult like many of my friends. In the Fall of 2011, I would be starting classes at a top law school, I was following in my grandfather’s footsteps, and thought law school would be great.
Today I’m a law school grad with six figures in debt and a jaded view of what law school is all about. As I write this, I’m gearing up for my bar exam review course starting this week, and looking at a future where I’ll probably never have to sit through a classroom again. (Luckily my bar course can be done online). In the past three years, there are a number things I realized about law school. First, law school does not prepare you well for legal practice. Second, law school is way too long. Third, law school is a death spiral.
When you start 1L classes, you take all the foundational classes required like contracts, con law, criminal law, legal writing, torts, and civ pro. In 2L and 3L, you can take courses in areas you’re more interested in like corporations, copyright, etc. While you become immersed in the black letter law in these courses, the vast majority of courses in law school poorly prepare students for legal practice. A course like legal writing is helpful because it teaches you how to write proper memos and appellate briefs, things that you will do as a lawyer. However, a course like civ pro, which teaches you all the rules and law surrounding it, is not helpful unless you take evidence and trial advocacy courses later on. There is no requirement to take those subsequent courses, and thus, there’s a likelihood that while a student may understand the rules of civ pro, they don’t necessarily understand how to use those rules.
Through my three years of law school, I found it amazing that I never saw a full complaint, typical motions and memos related to the motions, business organization documents or a contract beyond the most simple of agreements. As a law student, you see bits and pieces as necessary to accomplish the point of a course. As a summer associate and law clerk at a firm during the school year, I was exposed to the aforementioned documents in entirety for the first time. It took me a while to really understand how legal practice worked, and at time, my employers would get impatient by my lack of experience in how the legal process worked. It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t know; the problem was and is, that the legal education system is broken. Even in courses like legal drafting or business planning, courses that actually have practical skills based assignments and substance, I never saw documents to the extent I did as a summer associate or law clerk. A course like negotiations was also not as helpful as it could be because it lacked the realistic environment of a real negotiation. We were taught to work with the other side to find a solution that could benefit everyone. But as lawyers know, negotiations don’t always work that way, and often, one party has more leverage and doesn’t need to give in.
Law school is also largely litigation based. While litigation is a dominant area of legal practice, there should be more courses available for students who wish to pursue transactional, regulatory, or policy based careers. My law school had plenty of courses in these areas but often, they were for 1 or 2 credits even though the amount of work was closer to 3 or 4 credits. It wasn’t fair that I was doing more work and taking more classes per semester to get to my minimum credits because I was more interested in business law. The lack of emphasis on non-litigation courses leads to students taking more litigation based courses in order to meet credit requirements but so many of these courses fail to teach and expose students to what legal practice is truly like.
Three years of law school is far too long as the law school structure currently stands. It makes sense to have the foundational courses during 1L because these are areas that every lawyer should have some competence in. However, there should be more skills based courses and requirements for students to take courses in areas like corporations and tax. These are courses that have more practical implications for a law student. It’s amazing how many times I have heard of law students going into business law practice without having taken the most basic business related courses. The way law school is currently structured, there is absolutely no reason to have three years of school. Two years is more than enough time and there are actually schools who are moving towards this. It would make more sense to contract law school to two years because so many courses are already useless for actual legal practice. Anyone smart enough to get into a good law school and get a good legal job can learn an area of law. What’s more important is for law students to understand how to use that knowledge, which is largely absent in law school education.
Law school should consist of the foundational 1L year, followed by required courses in 2L in corporations, tax, business planning, negotiations, and legal drafting. Much of 1L is geared towards preparing a student for litigation. 2L should do something to prepare students for transactional practice. 3L should become a skills based/clinical year where students take more practice courses and/or take the year working in clinics, externships, firms, or other organizations to really develop their legal skills. While many law students already partake in internships during the summer and school year, there are also those who do not, or the experience they get is lacking due to the supervising lawyers themselves or just a poorly structured experience. The more experiences that law students have in legal practice, the more likely they will actually develop skills necessary to be a lawyer and contribute right away. With firms going lean and mean, if law school education changed to emphasize more practical and skills based education, firms wouldn’t have to waste millions a year training junior associates and underutilizing them. The first few years of practice at a large firm, for ex, encompasses research and writing, and due diligence. While these are important tasks, there is so much more that a junior associate should be able to do. Why waste the first few years of their careers doing something that a paralegal could do at a fraction of the price?
Law school is a death spiral. People go to law school to make money. While there are idealists who will attend law school to make the world a better place, the vast majority of law students are there because they want the opportunity to enter into a potentially lucrative career. Lawyers all know that when it comes to legal jobs, you’re either raking it in at a big firm or making less than someone who doesn’t even have a college degree. The funny thing about law school is that there is a curve where a certain amount of students need to receive a certain grade along the grade distribution. The problem with this is that the goal of law students is to get a good job. A good job is largely based on grades when it comes to law. When students get good jobs, the law schools benefit because their ranking is based on things like employment rates and alumni giving.
Law schools are in the business of making money. Don’t be fooled by those who say law schools are in it for educating future legal leaders. The truth is that law schools are in it largely for the money because they are large corporations despite their non-profit status in most cases. When a curve is in effect, it makes it difficult for all students to do well, even when they may very well understand the material, and would have received a better grade without a curve. Since getting a job is based on grades, the curve makes it tougher for students to get jobs. If students aren’t able to get jobs, it hurts law schools because employment rates look worse, alumni giving goes down, ranking goes down, and students are less likely to attend the school. This leads to a lower caliber of student, leading to less likelihood that students get jobs (even with the curve, a student with a high gpa could very well come off as an idiot to a firm, and potentially leads to less employers attending OCI), leading to lower employment rates, leading to less alumni giving, leading to less money for the school and lower rankings, and so on. It’s a death spiral.
On the subject of this, it should also be noted that the way law students are tested is also so very wrong. Legal practice does not require a lawyer to sit through a three hour exam that tests only bits and pieces of a subject area. It also does not involve going through a case without all the materials you could possibly have at your disposal (many legal exams are closed book). When the curve is so important, the problem with a legal exam is that it benefits some more than others. Law school exams cannot test everything you learned in a class; there just isn’t enough time. Some students will inevitably study something more than others so if there is a question of a subject that student A studied more than student B, student A should have the advantage. Now, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue if legal exams only focused on the most important themes of a course, but often professors will get “creative” and test on the most asinine of subjects that one student may have more knowledge about for whatever reason. Considering the implications of grades in getting jobs, and the curve that makes no sense, the way students are tested makes no sense. Not to mention nothing about a legal exam actually tests practical skills.
So this is what I learned in law school. Law school is worthless when it comes to actually learning what a lawyer does. It is way too long and doesn’t properly prepare students for legal practice. Ironically, the way law school is setup, law schools are creating a death spiral that it will not be able to escape. After all, the number of students attending law school is going down, and inevitably, the caliber will go down because the smart ones will see that it’s not worth losing three prime years of your life, and amassing six figures of debt, for a chance to land a good job. Going to law school and getting a good job is harder than winning the lottery.
There are those who will disagree with my assessment of law school but anyone who has attended law school in the past decade or two cannot in good conscious state that my assessment is flat out wrong. Even those who disagree should see the issues with legal education I have stated. The legal education system is broken and without some major changes, it will be difficult for the legal profession to be taken seriously.