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/)