Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong With Law Professors

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From Paul Campos' Don't Go to Law School (Unless):
It's not merely that it's common for a law professor to have never tried a case, or negotiated a deal, or drafted a real-life version of the sorts of documents he's discussing in a Contracts, or Corporations, or Wills and Trusts class - it's that legal academics almost never know anything about the business side of legal practice. The two most important practical skills that any lawyer working in private practice must possess are the ability to acquire clients, and to get them to pay their bills, which happen to be two things that most legal academics have never done in their lives.
Rule of thumb: The more you know about any specific kind of "vocational" education, the less vocational it looks.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Kenneth A. Regas writes:

There is an entire suite of skills required of one who would open a professional practice, be it dentistry, medicine, law, engineering, marketing, accounting, or what have you. It would be unwise for the faculties of these disciplines to devote much precious class time to these skills since they are not unique to the profession and are not required for the performance of professional, as opposed to commercial, duties.

That said, I believe that law is notorious for how much of the profession is not taught, such as how to interview witnesses or to select a jury. I posit that many other professions are taught in a properly vocational fashion. Physicians, for example, get very hands-on training. My engineering education at San Jose State University was certainly quite hands-on. My nephews, newly minted mechanical engineers from other institutions, seem to have been trained similarly.


John writes:
Rule of thumb: The more you know about any specific kind of "vocational" education, the less vocational it looks.

With law, this is very much an intentional thing. Most law professors hate the idea that law school is seen by many (including many students) as merely a trade school. There are some (rather small) changes, but this attitude can still be seen in the relatively low value assigned to legal writing and clinical professors and in the focus on academic pedigree and publishing over actual legal experience when hiring.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Although I was in law school a quarter-century ago - and despite the fact that the law school that I attended (the University of Virginia) was then, as it is today, among the best-grounded in law-and-economics scholarship - the impression I got from many (although not most) of my classes, and from most of my fellow students, was that law school is or ought to be about social engineering. In this way, law school is less about studying what is as it is about abstractly designing plans to transform society into what legal scholars fancy that it ought to be.

Some of my professors - and most of my fellow students - knew absolutely nothing of economics. And yet they itched madly to alter, overrule, or "correct" the economy as their uninformed notions prompted them. (Not surprisingly, the professors and students who knew most about economics were the least likely of their peers to wish to engineer the economy or society.) I can only imagine how much worse in this way are law schools whose faculties are less informed by economics than is the faculty at the University of Virginia.

With some exceptions - the most outstanding of which is the law school at George Mason University - law schools today feature far too much training in the impossible dark alchemy of social engineering.

Ernest writes:

Looking back at my law school experience it is quite amazing that most of the courses that are offered have little relevance to what lawyers actually do for work and the things that are most relevant aren’t taught at all. Consider this: it is possible and in fact, many people do graduate law school without having read The Constitution, drafting a will, actually going to court, or interacting with a client.

As far as law schools being schools of social engineering, that is largely true. Law students typically come from liberal arts and humanities backgrounds. Students of others disciplines generally have better employment prospects and see less of a need to attend law school. Liberal arts and humanities students tend to be left wing. Liberal arts and humanities students are frequently under-employed or unemployed. Hence, they are attracted to law because it can serve two purposes: a) a high income and b) an opportunity to impose their designs on society. In order to become a law professor, one first must be a law student therefore law professor are drawn from this very pool of social engineers. The law schools that have resisted this left leaning bias tend to be schools that combine economics with the study of the law. But such schools are rare.

Mark Brophy writes:

Kenneth Regas says, "There is an entire suite of skills required of one who would open a professional practice.... It would be unwise for the faculties of these disciplines to devote much precious class time to these skills."

Those skills are as important as reading, writing, and economics and ought to be taught. There are many junk courses that students take that should be dropped. Vast amounts of precious class time are wasted in college. It's one of the most inefficient industries, as Bryan Caplan points out in his posts on the signaling theory of education. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out for good reasons. More people should follow their example.

Ak Mike writes:

Let me sound a note of dissent. First, I'll point out that physicians are not emitted from medical school ready to set up a practice, in fact it is (I believe) legally required that they serve a residence for one or more years before they can become licensed. Also, I suspect that engineering school does not teach anything about client relations, marketing, accounting, and so forth.

Second, I'll point out that today it is normal for most law schools to require clinical courses, and courses in legal writing.

Finally, I don't think the job of law schools should be to produce people who are ready to be independent practitioners when they walk out. It is hard enough to inculcate what can only be acquired in a school setting: basic legal principles, legal reasoning; how to analyze, understand, and apply legal materials such as decisions, statutes, regulations. While some trial tactics etc. do get taught in school, such things are better taught, and more efficiently, in practice.

From an economic standpoint it makes far more sense for a three year school to be followed by a few more in a kind of high-level apprenticeship (like a physician's residency) in which the young lawyer adds value to the economy and gets paid; rather than expand the school to five years to cover less well the practical side of lawyering.

ThomasH writes:


"Social engineering" -- trying to nudge the universe in a better (by our lights) direction -- must be pretty much a reason anyone studies law or economics, or most other social sciences. I of course agree that social engineers in other disciplines would be better off if they understood the way economists think about trade-offs, and equilibrium, and incentives. Many economists could better understand those things too. :)

Abhijit Nagaraj writes:

Law schools have a comparative advantage in teaching students to "think like lawyers" -- extract legal doctrine from cases and statutes, apply the law to a set of facts, anticipate counterarguments, and so on. Pretty much everything else--client management, billing, writing professional emails--can be taught more efficiently in a practice setting. This is why you see so many arguments for reducing law school to two years. Everyone recognizes that there's some value in law school, but that there's way too much of it.

-Rising 3L at a fancy law school

GU writes:

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