Law School v. a Bar Review Course

Do you really need three years of law school to be a lawyer? There seems to be a general consensus that law school doesn’t really prepare us to practice law. I’m not even convinced it prepares us to pass the bar exam.

For that, I think the bar review course I took the summer after graduation was much more helpful. As commenter Vivian Rodriguez wrote last week in response to Andy’s An Open Letter to My (4th Tier) Law School:

I’ve always felt that the law school experience can be effectively replaced by a good bar review course; it’s cheaper and accomplishes the same thing in terms of teaching practice skills.

If she is right, isn’t all this discussion about whether law school is a good value completely academic? Shouldn’t we really be talking about whether law school is necessary in the first place?

While I agree that law school did not do much to prepare me to start a law firm, I definitely picked up some important skills that have helped me practice law.

The question is whether I could have picked up those skills without spending so much time and money. Could I have just sprung for BARBRI and skipped three years of hell and a debt that still haunts me and my family? A couple of justifications spring to mind.

Thinking like a lawyer

The justification for three expensive years of law school often seems to boil down to this: it’s necessary to teach you to “think like a lawyer.” It’s true that once you have gone through law school you will be completely unable to reason like a normal human being for the rest of your life. Instead, you will weight every issue like you are sitting in class while a professor terrorizes you with the Socratic Method.

This is a good thing. Thinking like a lawyer is a very real and important skill for lawyers to have. But I feel like one semester of Torts or Contracts would do the trick just as well. Or just taking a few cases under the supervision of a more-experienced lawyer. Experience is a far better teacher when it comes to analyzing legal problems than a few semesters of Socratic Method with tests at the end.

Three years of taking subjects we’ll never need to know during our careers seems like a pretty inefficient way to begin to learn how to solve legal problems.

Legal writing

The part of law school I found most valuable was my first year legal writing class and two subsequent years in Civil Rights Moot Court, as well as a year of the Misdemeanor Prosecution/Defense Clinic. I didn’t learn everything about legal writing (or oral advocacy, for that matter), but I got a solid foundation that has served me well ever since.

If a school has good legal writing, moot court, or clinical programs, it can give students a head start on what most lawyers do more than anything else: write. Of course, drafting a half dozen briefs or wills or contracts under the supervision of an experienced practitioner would probably get you further along than a few classes in law school.

After all, even though I got a solid foundation for writing and argument, I didn’t really get the hang of it for another three or four years of fairly constant litigation. You can’t really get the hang of it, after all, until you are writing in the context of an actual legal matter, and even clinics are nowhere near as intensive as actually practicing law.

Networking with future colleagues

Law school, perhaps more than any club, networking group, or anything else you might try, is full of the people who will be your best referral sources — five years or so after graduation. That’s how long it will take before your classmates have any business of their own, much less extra business to send your way, even if they like you.

I’m thinking you could build a pretty solid referral network from scratch in eight-ish years, and for a fraction of the cost. Of course, without law school loans hanging over your head, you might not need quite so much business in the first place.

The value of law school

In the end, if both will get you past the bar exam, there is just no way law school is a better value than a bar review course. On the one hand, you waste three years and spend six figures for a JD. On the other, you spend a few thousand dollars and a few weeks taking a bar review course. If both get you a license to practice, which one would you go for?

The only problem, of course, is that the number of states you can take the bar exam without going to an ABA-accredited law school is fairly small. And most of them have really hard bar exams.

A few states are new to opening up the bar exam to people who don’t have an ABA-accredited degree. In those states (Minnesota is one), the difficulty of the test probably won’t increase right away, so there’s a short-term opportunity to get a license to practice law for a steal.

The real question, I think, is if a few weeks at a bar review course will get you past the test, why in the world don’t we either get rid of law schools or raise the standards for practicing law?

The intangibles

I am an English major. When I graduated college, the dean of our department said that the only thing we really learned during the previous four years of poetry, literature, and writing, was how to learn. Which is true, of course. I may never need to know the differences between four different translations of Dante’s Inferno, but in studying it, I learned how to approach a body of information, take it apart, analyze it, and put it back together.

Something similar happens in law school, I think. Law school is a liberal education, not a practical one. I’m definitely a proponent of injecting more practical skills into law school so that students graduate more prepared to actually go out and practice law, but I’m firmly against turning law school into a trade school.

I may not be able to quite put my finger on it, but I think my three years or law school were worthwhile. They were probably overpriced, of course, but still worthwhile. I don’t have facts or figures to back that up, but I think it would be a shame to toss law school out entirely and replace it with a three-week bar prep class.

Surely there’s something!

Setting aside the intangibles, what we’re missing is a statistic showing how many people pass the bar who just take a bar review course versus those who graduate from an ABA-accredited law school. I’m pretty comfortable guessing that the law school graduates will do better, but just how much better? 10% better pass rate? 20%?

Depending on the number, we might decide law school’s time and expense is justified. Or we might not.

Even if you fail the bar exam after taking a bar review course instead of law school, you’ve only lost a few thousand dollars, tops, instead of the six-figure debt load many law students graduate with.

Besides, if more people fail the bar exam, we’ll have fewer lawyers, which nearly everyone can agree would be a good thing.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenorton/2229437427/)

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  • Li

    This is such an interesting post. I too was an English Major in college and I am a lawyer. Law School does not teach you how to practice. Only practice can do that. But I agree Law school has a purpose.

    It’s like hazing before you enter the Fraternity (or in my case Sorority). It’s all painted very shiny so that you desire to be part of that clan; no one really knows about the torture unless they are going through it; and in the end it’s a way to break you and build you back up into an overly-analytical strategic thinker. Through that process you build a network of fellow “pledges” who you may or may not encounter on the other side.

    I think that there are three phases in becoming a practicing lawyer: Law school to teach you how to think and to toughen you up for the role; Learning how to take and pass a test, so that you can get through the Bar Exam and get your license; and finally, learning how to be a lawyer, which is as sink or swim as anything else.

    The three together are key. Though I will say, I think that each component can be implemented more effectively.

    Great post!

    Best,
    Li

  • Looked at the July 2011 California Bar stats: 18% of first time takers who did the four-years-without-lawschool route passed (and I think that was, like, 11 applicants, 2 of which passed). 5% for repeaters. Cal ABA First Timers: 76%.

    Also, I wonder if there’s a correlation between people who don’t pass and those who use up most of their law school careers taking “Law and” classes.

    • The problem with those numbers, however, is that the kind of students who go to ABA-accredited schools are probably more likely to pass the bar, whether they graduate or take a bar review class.

  • Andy Mergendahl

    The bar exam does not measure your ability to practice law. It’s just an artificial barrier to entry into the guild. It protects lawyers, not clients. Law school does teach you to think like a lawyer, but not how to do anything lawyers actually do. Perhaps the best solution is to simply return to the days of apprenticing.

  • Tom P.

    I feel like I learned a lot in law school, and that what I learned was valuable and enriched my life on numerous levels. However, I could have gotten so much more out of it if I had been properly prepped about what to expect, how to approach it, and what to extract from it.

    Unfortunately, I used the same methodology that brought me success in college and simply superimposed it onto law school. Simply put – I brought a knife to a gun fight. That approach made for a difficult transition, increased frustration, and worst of all, missed opportunities. And now I have to play catch up and make up for time wasted or not maximized. That’s not to say who is to blame– maybe me, in part or in full.

    Also, I second the notion of apprenticeships.

  • There is some value to a law school education. I don’t think there needed to be 3 years of schooling (read tuition and loans) to pass that value on. I learned how to think like a lawyer in my first year. Legal writing and moot court and mock trial were certainly helpful. Legal writing would have been much more helpful if they would have taught me how to write a client affidavit and proposed Judgment and Decree. I tend to do those much more than briefs and memorandums.

    I am fairly confident that I could have passed the bar with a good bar review course after my first year and a half of law school. I am not at all confident that I could have passed with only a bar review course.

    I would not suggest apprenticeships, but I think mentorships should be a mandatory part of any law school education.

  • shg

    So much cynicism these days. The concept of a lawyer as both thinker and doer has been lost in the quest for a decent paying job and reasonably comfortable lifestyle. Law isn’t air conditioning repair, but at the same time, law isn’t philosophy. An ability to think, to reason, to analyze, in substantial depth, is needed of a competent lawyer. Sadly, many never become competent lawyers in the sense of a learned professional. You can fix an air conditioner, but you don’t comprehend how one works or can be improved.

    I’ve read a great deal about to improve law school, make it less expensive, make it more efficient, turn out lawyer more ready to practice. Most of it is premised on a zero sum game, and wholly contradictory. Much of what’s wrong with law school today is what’s wrong with law students and law professors, all of whom are out for their own immediate self-interest and gratification while trying desperately to rationalize it based on altruistic values. It’s a total load of horseshit.

    Being a lawyer is hard work. Being a good lawyer is even harder work. Being a great lawyer is extremely hard, and few achieve it. Without law school, none would achieve it. The problem is no one knows who will end up being great at the point where we enter school. For the rest, it’s a waste of time and you would do better selling used cars.

  • As I noted on Twitter, I am deeply suspect of people who claim that something has no value whatsoever. True, law school may be overpriced and much of it may be irrelevant, but if someone can’t pick some value out of it, I have doubts about their ability as a lawyer to pick harmful error out of a 1000 page transcript or to figure out how to make a deal go through when a situation looks hopeless. Resourcefulness is an important attribute of being a lawyer.

    Of course, being resourceful doesn’t answer the larger question of whether law school can be replaced by a bar exam. Here, I would say no – law school does teach analytical skills and writing that are invaluable. Again, you don’t have to spend $200k to get these skills, but I do think that it takes 1-2 years for them to attach. The ability to write persuasively makes an enormous difference that is often overlooked.

    • shg

      To what end do you specify that you “noted on twitter”? Would your comment be less meaningful without it?

  • JML

    As the old saw goes, it’s Law School, not Lawyer School. But I really think a lot of what law school is has to do with what people are willing to extract from it.

    For me, the analytical skills, the writing skills, the sheer intake of knowledge, the intellectual rigor that I was exposed to and drew knowledge from far outstrips anything I could ever get in a Bar Review course. And as someone who uses the skills and abilities I developed in law school daily, but for whom the bar exam has become increasingly less relevant, there’s just no comparison.

    Bar review courses are a cram-down, where they try to impart enough information to recall subject matter you put aside after 1L because you never had any interest in those as practice areas, impart enough information for you to survive subjects you never took, and carry you through the test. For most people, the training they received in law school is critical to effectively utilizing the bar review course, I think. Much of how BarBri proceeds as I recall presumes certain exposure to legal thinking…and getting that mindset doesn’t come quickly.

  • Scott Matthews

    If I could ‘fix’ law school, I would put the bar-review first. Make it the first week or two of each course. One thing that law-school courses did poorly in a lot of cases was organize their information, the very best component of the bar-review courses. We just dived into a long series or torts or contracts issues. If I would have had the overview first, the time spent reading cases would have been much more productive.

    As far as law school generally, without that pressure there is no way I would have gotten through so much material, or understood it in such depth. It is certainly true that law school doesn’t teach you how to practice, but you have to practice a long time to absorb the subtleties, and the interconnections between so many areas of law, that you get from coursework. It takes both.

  • rob

    Nice Herman Cain quote. Why isn’t law school only a year? Take contracts torts civ pro crim etc and then prep for the bar. Who needs secured transactions or admiralty unless you practice those areas. If you do practice those areas pick up a book and figure it out. 3 years is excessive.

  • Kevin

    I don’t understand this business of having to take a course to learn what you were supposed to learn in the courses you already took. I just looked over my law school notes and passed the bar the first time.

    Nevertheless, I do think that the student who pays attention and attends practice clinics offered by many of the law schools these days is well prepared to practice law.

  • Sue Hung

    Remember it used to be that you were an apprentice and the lawyer you worked with would recommend you to the bar to practice. I think that if law school was more like a clinical trial advocacy program then this would teach you to be a lawyer more than anything else. The classes are just a way to figure out what subject matter you might like to pursue and it provides foundational understanding but you will always have to research the law to make sure your understanding is current. I agree that the Writing Class helped me get to the point and understand how to do a brief so that was one class I don’t regret. However to be frank, I felt that after the 1st year, the law school was just playing with my money. My real life experience is the key and networking with your classmates is important down the career road.

  • Mark

    The Socratic method is basically worthless. Ask any law student if they would want that versus a lecture format. Nobody else cares what another student thinks in class or even on an exam for that matter. Legal writing is not an expression of your opinion, it is supporting arguments with authority and stated facts. Law school essays are not expository writing, so it doesn’t matter what another student thinks about the law. Since the final exam in any law school course does not test things such as “What did this case say?” or “Is insanity a good idea?”, any instruction method that focuses upon such concepts is irrelevant and a waste of time. If the course does not provide what the relevant law is, factual examples, and/or exam analysis strategy, get out of it as fast as you can. Even if you can self study the law hoping to gain an advantage over other passive learners, you are still at a disadvantage in such a course because you have no idea what the professor is looking for on the final exam, much less on the bar exam.