On the New York Times and Legal Education
Much has already been written about David Segal’s article in the N.Y. Times, What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering. I join the strong critiques of this piece in condemning it as a lousy piece of journalism — more of a one-sided hack job, riddled with errors. It belongs on the op-ed page of a trashy paper.
Segal seems to believe that if law professors just wrote less theoretical scholarship and if law schools taught more skills, then suddenly, the legal market would become a bonanza once again for law students. The problem with this argument is that a theoretical education and scholarship by faculty does not seem to have much connection to a student’s success in the job market. If this were the case, then nobody would hire Yale Law School graduates.
But Yale Law School graduates are doing quite well in the legal marketplace, which demonstrates that despite all the grumblings we hear about too much theory being taught, legal employers are not behaving consistently with what they are saying.
I also think Segal’s article paints a very false picture of legal education — there’s a lot of theory, but there’s also a lot of practical skills taught too as well as practical scholarship and law professors very involved in legal practice and policymaking. One needs only to look at the many law professors who took leaves of absence from their law schools to work in government. Countless members of my faculty have submitted briefs and argued cases.
Beyond this point, theory is not an irrelevant waste of time. It is essential to practice. True, there are lawyers out there who are nothing but glorified mechanics, but the best lawyers are often ones who think deeply, who are interested in legal scholarship and ideas,. It is easy and glib to just brush aside all legal scholarship as “irrelevant theory” but this seems to be just an excuse for laziness. There are a lot of great scholarly pieces out there. With anything, there’s a lot of bad stuff too. I could readily find many practicing lawyers who aren’t very good. That doesn’t mean that all aren’t good. A member of the profession would say: “Take a closer look and consider the best practitioners before you rush to judgment.” The same holds true for legal scholarship. It is far too easy to make glib generalizations and find one piece with an obscure title to illustrate the point.
There are certainly problems with legal education. But when the thoughtful points being raised by Brian Tamanaha and others are misunderstood by ill-informed hacks, the discussion devolves into irrelevancies, and there isn’t a productive conversation about how to solve legal education’s problems. There has been a lot of criticism of legal education of late, and although some of it is justified, it is important to note that a law school education actually is a good thing for many people. There are a number of unfortunate cases where students would have been better off without having gone to law school. But we shouldn’t forget that there are also many success stories — students who went to law school and got the jobs they wanted. Students should be given a more realistic picture going into law school — there’s no guaranteed pot of gold at the end — but there are students for whom law school is not a good investment. It is a problem to entice students to law school when it isn’t a good investment, but it is also a problem to dissuade students for whom law school is a good investment.