Surprise! Law Schools Don’t Teach Students How To Be Lawyers

The secret is out. From their first day of legal practice, most lawyers realize that their theoretical legal education is of marginal value when it comes to helping clients solve real-world legal problems. Our clients now know this secret as well — thanks to a comprehensive front page article earlier this month in New York Times.

The article is What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering” and subtitled “Schools Leave Practical Training to Firms by David Segal.

There were a few points made in the article that surprised me as an experienced lawyer, and might surprise you as well.

Things You May Not Have Known

I am well-aware that many law professors have little practice experience, but I didn’t realize that nearly half of the nation’s law professors have never practiced law – not even for even a single day. As Segal states, “If medical schools took the same approach, they’d be filled with professors who had never set foot in a hospital.”

I certainly know that most law reviews are filled with highly esoteric articles destined to be read only by an author’s faculty colleagues and perhaps – just perhaps — loyal family members. I didn’t realize, however, that there are actually 600 law reviews publishing 10,000 articles per year. That’s a lot of trees for articles — around 40 percent – that are never cited in court decisions or even in other articles. That’s a lot of mental gymnastics of questionable value.

The NYT article further enlightened me by connecting the dots for a number of other well-known facts in order to draw new, disturbing conclusions. We lawyers all know that:

  • The price of law school is obscenely high and many graduates enter practice with six -figure debt.
  • Since the 2008 recession, many new lawyers are either unemployed or underemployed.
  • Law professors make a pretty decent living; many earn six-figure salaries.
  • Law professors spend much of their time writing law review articles.

Why the system is neither logical nor fair

The article concludes that today’s law student assumes onerous debt in order to pay the salaries of professors who do a bad job of training students for practical service while at the same time doing a “good” job of generating thousands of meaningless law review articles.

In effect, new lawyers are saddled with debt so that professors (half of whom have never practiced law) can spend 40 percent of their time generating esoteric pieces of legal literature. That seems both illogical and unfair.

Although the system was probably just as illogical when I attended law school, it seemed fairer. When I graduated, debt loads were manageable and jobs were plentiful. Those brilliant academics in their ivory towers may not have known much about the every-day practice of law, but some of them were certainly fun to listen to in class.

Can this illogical and unfair system be sustained? Off-hand, I’m not smart enough to know the answer. It seems that we may have reached a “bubble” that threatens to crash the foundations of legal education. But then I read that, while law school applications are down 11.5 percent this year, there are no empty seats in the country’s 200 law schools.  So go figure.

One important thing I’ve learned while coaching lawyers is that everything in the legal profession – even the best of reforms – takes a long time to change. We do things because “that’s the way they’ve always been done.” But I am smart enough to know that the next generation of lawyers will be an angry one if debt loads and job prospects do not change significantly – and soon.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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  • I enjoyed your article. I have been seeing a lot of conversation around the value of law school lately, and I am interested to see if anything changes in the future. One thing I found quite intriguing in my adventures is that a few states, like California, allow ‘reading the law’ in place of law school. Here’s that I found out: http://www.sterlingeducation.com/the-sterling-blog/bid/66974/the-secret-to-skipping-law-school

    I wonder if other states will adopt this approach in the future, and if such an approach benefits or harms the legal community. What do you think?

  • Shenandoah Chefalo

    I totally agree with this blog. I have been a Legal Administrator/Creative Marketing Director for nearly 18 years and most recently I began consulting and coaching for solo and small firms across the nation. What I have really found is that Law Schools don’t teach you how to run a business either. Most attorneys I run into think being an attorney is enough for their clients and them. They forget that paying payroll taxes is important too!!

    • While we appreciate the blanket endorsement, I think you meant to say you totally agree with this post.

      If not, my mistake. I think Lawyerist is an awesome blog, too.

  • Mr. Ginsberg,

    This is an excellent post. And a nice summary of the NYTs article. Widespread reform in law schools will be difficult. As you note, the legal community is not particularly receptive to change. Also, in many law schools, decisions are made by tenured professors. In this instance, tenured professors who have never practiced law are likely not going to vote to infiltrate law school curricula with courses they are not equipped to teach. (To be clear, I have been acquainted with law school professors around the country who are fantastic teachers and brilliant thinkers – and there is significant value in learning from them how to “think like a lawyer,” as we say. Practical skills training, however, is certainly a missing piece of the equation.) My company, Greenhorn Legal, is working with law schools and law firms to provide intensive new lawyer boot camps to fill in the holes of law school training. We believe that with the proper training new lawyers can actually practice law and contribute meaningfully to client matters from day one. The skills new lawyers are lacking are not complicated, necessarily – to date, there is simply no mechanism for learning them. In any event, I think it’s important not only that we keep this discussion going, but that we work toward solutions. Thanks!

  • Gwynne

    Let’s not forget that law schools, in order to maintain accreditation, must abide by ABA rules. Some of those rules are outdated and oughta be revised.

    It’s interesting how there are comparisons between law school and medical school cropping up. And I still find it interesting that business school teaches about business and something about the law while law school teaches you the law and nothing about business. While the whole system may need an overhaul, changing the “nothing” to “something” seems like a manageable start. Some law schools are doing that already with solo/small firm incubators.

  • I can understand that Law Schools have to teach the core classes. But, Third Year should really be more clinics and practical teaching. The electives I took in that last year were not of much value. On the other hand, I took an accelerated trial advocacy class that was really worthwhile. grads have a hard enough time finding that first job- law schools don’t do enough to help.

  • I completely agree that law schools can and should do a better job of preparing law students to become practicing attorneys. At the same time, during this transitional period when law schools adapt and change their curriculum, law students need to take the initiative and go out and work on acquiring those skills. There are lots of opportunities for law students to interact with and represent real clients during law school. Students can also choose to pursue an externship or even a paid clerking job with a solo practitioner who can help them understand the business-side of the law. Law schools can certainly do more to help prepare students, but students can also help themselves.

    • But what about those who don’t have the resources? Not everyone who goes to law school comes from money, can afford to work unpaid or knows local attorneys. I largely made my own opportunities to work in my area after getting out of law school & taking the bar exam (I moved out of state after graduating since I wanted to live where I do now + my spouse had a job here; there were also very limited resources for what I wanted to do). I also am all for clinics & internships since I think working in my school’s legal clinic gave me some good practical skills. Honestly, I think the rankings should account for student participation in internships & clinics if so few people actually DO them as well as practical skills as a whole. Perhaps law firms also ought to be considering people with business backgrounds & law firm experience vs. GPAs, class rank & law review. I have no sympathy for them when they are snobs about where one went to law school. We all know it’s irrelevant for how good of a lawyer someone is & I’ve seen + heard that very sentiment from more than one source.

      • I understand your point about resources, but students can certainly take advantage of externships (which is arguably paying to work somewhere) or get a paid clerkship during law school. I got more than paid job as a law clerk despite not knowing any local attorneys.

        I completely agree that law school curriculum needs to change, along with the rankings. I’ll stand by my point though, most students certainly have the chance to get valuable practical experience during law school—but they have to make an effort to get it while schools are [slowly] adapting curriculum.

  • Law schools also fail to teach critical business development and other executive skills that would make their graduates more valuable to clients and make the law students “hireable” in other executive positions.

    For too long, law schools have been educating way more lawyers than there will be ever be legal positions – I’ve seen statistics that say in good times, law schools educate 30% more graduates than available law market demand.

  • Law school has never resulted in lawyers being able to just start practicing law. The practicing (sorry Allen Iverson) of law is where attorneys become valuable to their clients and it takes time, mentoring and continuous study. Going to law school is valuable in helping attorneys realize that hard work, study and dedication are essential ingredients. I even went to graduate tax law at NYU but still was not prepared to practice as a tax attorney. It took years of working for big 8 accounting firms and then on my own to really know something and how to do things.
    As to professors not knowing jack, that does not surprise me, since it takes a lot to actually practice law and a lot of diverse skills need to be in place.
    My advice to anyone going to law school would be to expect to work hard and to work hard for the rest of your life and enjoy the ride. If you do not like that equation then forget it.

  • My December 2 2011 post was recently cut on this site, and I would like to know why.

    I advocate that law schools must teach further executive skills besides law – they need to teach executive sales, leadership, marketing, communication and other skills. I advocate this can be done in training modules in tandem with traditional training modules.

    I have written a new book on this subject called “How to Avoid the Law School Trap and Achieve Lasting Success in the 21st Century.” I mentioned this in the last post as a helpful aid, much in the same way that the “Green Horn Legal” training mentioned its services above. One would hope that the monitor of the blog would be fair and allow different points of view, and points ov view different to his own.

    • Referring to your own book as a “helpful aid” is like George Foreman pimping his grill as the answer to your grilling needs.

      The only two comments you have ever left on this blog are on this post and involve your book. If you were a regular commenter of substance, I probably would have overlooked it. As it is, it seems like you just showed up as an excuse to mention your book and to try to get people to buy it.