The latest micro-storm to hit the legal blogosphere started simply enough with Gideon’s nearly harmless post on “10 things I didn’t learn in law school.” I thought the worst item was #5:
That law review leads to document review. If you want to do real work, take a clinic or something.
That’s a case where the priorities of law school actually hurt your chances in the real world. Everything else was the routine sort of on-the-job stuff that’s really hard to teach in school. Nothing controversial there, or so I thought.
Professor David Papke at the Marquette University Law School would doubtless disagree with me:
With the exception of item #10, I thought the list was cynical to a fault. Too many lawyers have a sad bitterness and mean anti-intellectualism about them. Maybe living in debt and working in the context of hierarchy and bureaucracy produces those attitudes. I wish somehow that lawyers could remember law school as a demanding but enriching academic experience.
Well, they’ll remember it that way if you run your law school right, but I digress.
(To digress some more, trench lawyers like Gideon or Scott or Mark may seem anti-intellectual compared to a tenured university professor, but considering that their jobs routinely involve getting into verbal knife fights, they’re a pretty thoughtful bunch of guys. I think of them like the Doc Holiday character from the movie Tombstone: Educated and articulate, but if the need arises, they can put an opponent in the ground.)
Papke gets things going with this comment:
We don’t want law school to be lawyer-training school. When we cave in to demands of that sort from the ABA and assorted study commissions, we actually invite alienation among law students and lawyers. Legal education should appreciate the depth of the legal discourse and explore its rich complexities. It should operate on a graduate-school level and graduate people truly learned in the law.
Scott Greenfield takes issue in a post is subtitled “Training Lawyers is Beneath Us”:
Imagine, the dirtiness of a law school teaching law students how to practice law. Disgusting. Revolting. How beneath the dignity of such a distinguished scholar.
I think I understand what Scott means, but I can’t help wondering if he’s expecting too much from law school. Is it even possible for academia to teach the things that Gideon is talking about? Or would a better subtitle for Scott’s post be “Training Lawyers is Beyond Us”?
I don’t know anything about lawyering, so I’m going out on a limb here, but based on my own experience as a Computer Science graduate and software developer, I don’t think universities can teach a lot of practical job skills.
When I got my CS degrees, I learned a lot of foundational computer science like data structures, analysis of algorithms, discrete structures, and language theory. I also learned some more practical subjects such as computer graphics, database design, networking protocols, and a smattering of computer languages.
What I didn’t learn, however, were the practical skills of a working programmer. Things like:
Working with a team of engineers, software developers, and contract lawyers to write a 300-page proposal for a $5,000,000 project.
Gathering software requirements from end users who aren’t sure what the software should do—or disagree about the requirements they are sure of—but absolutely know it has to be finished by the third quarter.
Breaking down a large software project into parts that can be built by team members and then integrated into a working system.
The Iron Triangle of project management: Schedule, budget, scope. Pick any two.
Creating a directory tree to hold all the parts of a software system and writing scripts to build the whole system on demand.
Using tools to track and manage bug reports, change requests, and the code itself.
Deciding when to freeze requirements, tools, and changes to make a release deadline.
Staging code changes into a working production environment.
Remembering to keep copies of every development tool you use, so the that you can find them all again when the software suddenly need maintenance five years later.
Integrating the latest hot technology into a 250,000-line code base that began life a quarter century ago.
Providing support, over the phone, to a $1000/day technician at a customer site nine timezones away.
There are a couple of these items that have been added to Computer Science curriculums since I was at school, but most of this stuff cannot realistically be taught in a classroom. You learn a lot of this stuff simply by doing it—find a professor who’s running a software project, join a team doing open source development, get a job.
I imagine the same thing is true for law school. There’s lots of stuff it can never teach you, and it’s unrealistic to expect it to do so.
Finally, when Papke writes about the pressure to “cave in to demands of that sort from the ABA and assorted study commissions” it sounds a lot like a problem faced by many Computer Science departments: The companies that hire graduating students want universities to teach them the latest hot technology, whatever it is.
In other words, they want the schools to function as their training department. But there are better ways to meet that kind of short-term need than with a university curriculum.
It is here that I think Scott and Gideon should be careful what they wish for, because if law schools become more responsive to the needs of practicing lawyers, they won’t be responding to the needs of criminal lawyers and other solo practitioners. They’ll be responding to the needs of Biglaw, and they’ll be grinding out students who are experts at document review, business law, and probably, these days, bankruptcy.