What Law School Was Like

Yesterday, when I should have been working on a myriad of tasks piled high on my desk, I took time out for about an hour to take part of an LSAT, Law School Admission Test, practice test on-line.  My son, who is half way through his junior year at the University of Illinois, and who wants to be an attorney in spite of my warnings, has begun preparation for taking the LSAT next year.  Go here to read, or if you are a masochist take, parts of an LSAT sample test.  After an hour or so of this I was overjoyed at the fact that I am a third of a century beyond having to take the LSAT!  When I took the LSAT for the first time in the fall of 1979 I bombed it, which is unsurprising since I had done almost no prep for it.  I took it again and jumped a hundred points, the test used a different grading scale back then, which was not supposed to be possible.  I assume that I must have learned something from the first attempt to take the test.  All I recall is that after my second attempt I was certain that I probably had done far worse than my first attempt.  This trip down memory lane has caused me to recall some aspects of law school that I have not thought much about, or repressed, lo these three decades.  Here are some of them.

1.  Law School Taught Me Little About Being a Lawyer-  Considering that I spent three years of my life doing it, it is astounding to me how little I learned in law school about actually being a lawyer.  Actually it is not astounding.  Most law school professors have very little experience in being attorneys.  Take them out of their little niche of knowledge as to the law and most of them have little to impart, except moth-eaten stories about their halcyon days as young clerks to Justices so and so.  I often heard them say that they assumed that we could find our way to the court-house door.  Well sure, but what to do after I got there took me, literally, five years of trial and error, and a rugged five years it was for me and my clients.  There is something wrong about a system of professional education that teaches you little about the profession.

2.  Moot court-the exception-The only class in law school where I learned something about the nuts and bolts of the profession was moot court which was run by actual attorneys and judges.  That gave me an inkling that law school and the practice of law were like comparing a movie about flying to actual flying.

3.  The first year-Most law students regard their first year as a hellish experience and mine certainly was.  I routinely stayed up until 1:00 AM reading cases.  The boredom and tedium were unbelievable.  Classroom was somewhat better, as I enjoyed the Socratic method at least by those professors able enough to do it well.  Alas that was not the case with most of my professors, quite a few of whom who would ask a few perfunctory questions and then lecture non-stop.  However, some were quite good at it.  The standout for me was Wayne LaFave who taught Criminal Procedure.  Although I didn’t think at the time I would do any criminal law, I took every course he taught, a fortuitous event since I did end up doing a fair amount of criminal defense and he was the go to expert in the field of search and seizure.  Professor LaFave has retired from full-time teaching and I regret that my son will not be able to have the same experience that I did.  His class my first year was a bright spot in a bleak landscape.

4.  Social Life-What’s That?-My undergrad girlfriend went off to SIU to go to law school.  She did not really want to go to law school and she flunked out.  That was probably fortunate for me, as a first year law student had little time for socializing if they were not going to flunk out.  I dated little in my first year or my second year.  In my third year I met my wife and the rest has been a happy thirty years for me.  Some law students dated each other which I always thought was a mistake.  The last thing I wanted to think or talk about on a date was the law, and law students, like lawyers, will usually talk about the law when they get together.

5.  High School Redux-  The University of Illinois had a first year class of 200 divided into three sections.  With such a small group it was hard not to get to know them fairly well, from interaction in class and in the law school library, our home away from home.  I was amused how High School stereotypes were still alive and well in law school, with some students being jocks,  others brains, others popular, etc.  It was reassuring in a way that such traces of humanity could survive even the law school experience.

6.  Debt-I recall being worried about the amount of debt that I was incurring going to law school.  When I graduated in 1982 I owed the vast sum of $7,000.00, with no debt from my undergraduate years.  Most law students today are graduating owing 100K along with whatever debt they accumulated as undergrads.  This can’t go on, and as a result I think the three-year law school experience that I went through may be entering its last decade or so, with it being replaced with undergrad legal education followed by some sort of apprenticeship.

7.  Revenge of the History Nerds-I thought that the first year subjects were geared towards students with a business background.  Second year we finally had Constitutional Law where I got the second highest grade in my class.  This was without reading the casebook since I had read most of the seminal constitutional cases years before as an undergrad.  I think this is what many history and political science majors think law school will be like.  It was not, at least for me, except in Con Law.  I tip my hat to Professor Ralph Reisner who taught the course, we called him Reasonable Ralph, and who gave me a nice letter of recommendation.  Con Law, the brightest star in my law school firmament.  Alas, Professor Reisner is also retired so my son cannot have him for Con Law.

8.  Let Me Out of Here!-By 1982 I had been at the University of Illinois since 1975 and after seven years I was anxious to escape living in a shoe box sized dorm room and having as my most expensive possession my old beaten up black and white portable tv. I had the feeling that life was passing me by and I wanted to get on with it.  After 30 years I can say that I have had overall an enjoyable career and I am not sorry that I went to law school.  However, anyone who is considering it should think long and hard and, unlike me,  gain some practical knowledge beforehand about what lawyers actually do on a daily basis  before signing away three  years of their life and a hundred grand.  You have been warned!

21 Responses to What Law School Was Like

  • In Scotland, intrants for the Faculty of Advocates, in addition to a law degree and Diploma in Legal Practice, must have worked for 21 consecutive months in a solicitor’s office as a trainee. They must then spend 8-9 months as a “devil,” working with a practising advocate (a “devilmaster”), as well as attending a number of practical skills training courses (seminars and small workshops. Senior judges regularly preside at moots)

    The practical training is very important, as every advocate is a sole practitioner, firms or partnerships between advocates being strictly forbidden. Once admitted, they are on their own, although, in my experience, colleagues are very generous with their advice.

    As for Law School, it had changed little since the 18th century Scottish judge, Lord Kames, observed, ““Law, like geography, is taught as if it were a collection of facts merely: the memory is employed to the full, rarely the judgment.”

    It was pleasing to recall that the Chairs of Civil and Scots Law at Edinburgh University were established by the Town Council and paid for out of the Beer Tax; to which law students, in my day, contributed lavishly.

  • Let’s be honest: it’s not that law students have no time to date, it’s that the rest of us don’t want to be around them. Five or ten years down the road, when you’re through the bar exam, we may hang out with you for the free legal advice. And if it seems like you’re going to make a decent living , you can find a spouse. But you’re always on probation with us. The club of non-lawyers is more exclusive than the club of lawyers.

    I’ve heard it said about medical school that it takes 45 minutes to train someone to remove an appendix without complications, and the rest of the 4 years for when there are complications. Is law school similar? A person could be taught how to go through the (I guess literal) motions easily, but needs to be grounded in all the other possibilities for those rare exception cases?

  • “Let’s be honest: it’s not that law students have no time to date, it’s that the rest of us don’t want to be around them.”

    I deeply resent that remark Pinky especially since in many cases it is true! :)

    “Is law school similar?”

    Not remotely. In law school they train you to “think like a lawyer” which translates into thinking like an appellate judge, something almost all of us will never be. As for learning how to do things: preparing a bankruptcy petition, arguing a motion to suppress, doing a real estate closing, drafting a motion for reconsideration, taking a dep, and thousands of other things, attorneys largely learn through on the job training by copying what other attorneys are doing. First law school to get the JD. Then monkee see, monkey do, to learn how to do something with the JD.

  • “I was anxious to escape living in a shoe box sized dorm room”

    Funny, a small two man room in the barracks felt like a mansion after five years living aboard ship sharing a berthing compartment with eighty other guys.

  • Pinky

    The great difference between Law School and practice is that, in Law School, subjects are studied and examined in isolation, Obligation, Property, Trusts & Succession, Commercial Law, Private International Law, Evidence and so on, whereas, in practice, an individual case may engage all of them, mixed and blended together. Disentangling and identifying the strands is usually the first task.

  • I guess it’s for my many sins: I often provide accountung and business policies/practices advice to our llegal department.

    Our attorneys are a great bunch.

    I asked one of our legal eagles what was the most important concept he learned in law school. He answered, that the first response to any issue/question is two words, “It depends.”

    In public accounting it’s, “Whatever the client wants.”

  • Then monkee see, monkey do, to learn how to do something with the JD.

    John VanVoorhis, one of the most prominent appellate judges in my home town, was admitted to the bar in 1919 after reading law in his father’s office. His father told him he was theoretical enough in his inclinations and wanted him to learn law “through the soles of my shoes”. What you seem to be saying is that law schools are most adept at… employing law professors.

  • I exaggerate a bit Art, but not much. The law is largely a matter of learning how to draft documents, how to advocate effectively in court, for the minority of attorneys who appear in court, and how to deal with clients. Law school gives an attorney grounding in basic legal theory, and gets him familiar with the vocabulary of the law, but everything else he picks up largely through copying documents and copying what other attorneys do. Eventually most attorneys develop their own style but that takes a while. I truly believe that one year of law school would be sufficient with a two year apprenticeship, followed by passing the bar exam and being approved to practice by a panel of two attorneys and a judge who have observed the prospective attorney during the two year apprenticeship.

  • Great article. I attended law school at roughly the same time that you did. After law school I “practiced” law for about 2 years and then said the hell with this and got on with my life. I strongly agree with your point #1 – law school teaches little about being a lawyer; and also your point about law school needs to go towards an apprentice system. After all, prior to the “professional” education system and the consequent licensing powers of the states, many so-called professionals – lawyers, doctors, dentists, teachers, nurses, realtors, even beauticians, and the myriad of other licensed “professionals” – became proficient through a much more sensible system that included some very basic education and then an apprenticeship. The whole licensing system, which includes the the “continuing education” racket, is designed to limit entry and participation in the industry, hold fees/prices high, exclude competition, and line the pockets of lazy and/or incompetent practitioners.
    I had been out of college a few years, had been in the military, and had traveled and worked around the world a few years before going back to law school. My experience was a little different in some respects – I sharpened my pool skills at the local pub and perfected the art of cramming. But I can really relate with a lot of your article.

  • I truly believe that one year of law school would be sufficient with a two year apprenticeship, followed by passing the bar exam and being approved to practice by a panel of two attorneys and a judge who have observed the prospective attorney during the two year apprenticeship.

    Sounds great. Maybe we could replace the B.A. degree for aspirant lawyers with a two-year certificate program (covering courses in philosophy, Anglo-American institutional history, criminology, social psychology, political theory, rhetoric, accounting, finance, and insurance). The fewer professors we employ, the better.

  • “The whole licensing system, which includes the the “continuing education” racket, is designed to limit entry and participation in the industry, hold fees/prices high, exclude competition, and line the pockets of lazy and/or incompetent practitioners.”

    Certainly that is how it tends to work out in regard to the law.

  • The sort of rent-seeking that can be derived from occupational licensure you can see readily, but in terms of time lost and talent wasted in the pursuit of labor market signaling (not to mention expense), the baccalaureate degree cannot be topped.

  • Art Deco

    Providing the right of audience is restricted to those who demonstrate the requisite degree of competence (to prevent court time being wasted and expenses inflated) I do not see why the rest of legal practice should be subject to licensing at all.

  • I couldn’t agree more. My experience at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Georgia from 1988 – 1991 sounds remarkably similar to yours. After 20 years I have now been a prosecutor, a criminal defense lawyer, a private practice lawyer and a judge. As a part time trial court judge in the lower courts, law school prepared me more for that role than for any other. I remember a classmate during our senior year asking “When are they going to teach us how to sue somebody?” They never did.

  • “I remember a classmate during our senior year asking “When are they going to teach us how to sue somebody?” They never did.”

    It is an odd experience Mark when you think about it. I remember thinking when I was going through it that I seemed to be learning almost nothing about what an attorney actually did on a day to day basis. The senior partner at the firm I worked for when I first got out of law school bluntly told me that for their first three years new attorneys were only a “damn nuisance”. Sadly, I quickly realized he was right.

  • I have to agree with most of the article and the comments. Some law professors are better than others and it was always helpful when they could speak English. The Constitutional Law courses were rewarding for a history/poly sci nerd like me. the Business courses made you ill.
    Fortunately, I got an interesting job with a prosecutor’s office and tried my first case about 6 weeks after I started. that is where you get a real legal education .

  • Don

    I was thinking of going to Law School. Took the LSAT and did pretty well. I also figured out that while the subject seemed interesting I would hate the actual work of being a a lawyer and went to other things.

    You have my respect for taking a tough profession.

  • “I also figured out that while the subject seemed interesting I would hate the actual work of being a a lawyer and went to other things.”

    If only about 25% of the attorneys I have encountered Hank, who truly hate being attorneys, had possessed your wisdom!

  • Providing the right of audience is restricted to those who demonstrate the requisite degree of competence (to prevent court time being wasted and expenses inflated) I do not see why the rest of legal practice should be subject to licensing at all.

    We do not have a distinction between solicitors and barristers in this country; prosecutors are public employees (modally of county governments) and seldom if ever do any other sort of work while so employed; rank-and-file attorneys are the ones most likely to mix transactional and trial work.

    The problem you get with occupational licensure and certification in this country is not that there are screens but that the screens are stupid. This is most grossly manifest in schoolteaching. Sometimes the whole occupation as constituted is stupid (social work and library administration), sometimes the occupation as constituted seems an odd artifact derived from social conditions that do not quite obtain anymore (optometry, podiatry), and sometimes the occupation is not constituted but fragmented between several licensed occupations (as is the case with psychotherapy, which is within the book of four or five licensing boards commonly).

    Believe me, when I needed an engineer to inspect a building on the property here, I checked the register maintained by the New York Secretary of State.

    Libertarians sometimes cite figures that such and such a percentage of jobs in this country require an occupational license. Those figures are factoids.

  • One does wonder if in this country we could have a junior grade of practitioners in the realm of legal services, as they do in Japan. I would be most pleased if those mega-law firms were busted up as well.

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .