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November 26, 2004

Five by Five - Jeremy Blachman

The third spot in our Law Student Five by Five is held down by Jeremy Blachman, author of the eponymous Jeremy's Blog.  Jeremy is a 3L at Harvard who is not going to work for a law firm.  Here are his five answers to our question, "What five things would you change about legal education?"

1. Okay, I’m going to start off bold. I think law schools ought to exert some collective energy to get the law firms off the campus until the third year of law school.  

In a way, I feel like legal education is caught between two paradigms, and hasn’t figured out how to reconcile them. On the one hand, in a lot of ways, law school provides a very liberal arts-like education, with a lot of talk about legal theories and ways to think about the law, and very little comparative emphasis on the actual practice of law. On the other hand, from the moment you get to law school, you find yourself showered with information about law firms and how to get a job at one, and pulled toward this vocational emphasis. I think this creates a real inconsistency in trying to make sense of what the heck the point of law school is. Is the point to get a legal education, or is the point to get a law firm job? I think they’re pretending it’s the former, but really it’s just a cover for the latter. 

At least here at Harvard, from the moment we arrive on campus 1L year, we’re invited to law firm receptions, information sessions, resume workshops, interview training, dress code seminars, job fairs, and handed printouts of 50-slide PowerPoint presentations on the process. We learn more about how to get hired by a law firm than what lawyers at law firms actually do. We learn more about the difference between cotton fiber resume paper and white linen resume paper than about the difference between corporate practice, litigation, and whatever the heck lawyers do if they don’t work at firms. We learn more about what to wear to an interview than why we should be thinking about going. So a few people get law firm jobs 1L summer, and the rest cry about how they didn’t. And then before school even starts 2L year, we’ve got resume deadlines and lists of firms to select and interviews to start preparing for.

2L fall meant half-filled classes while people flew out to visit law firms, and much more talk about the Vault rankings than about the merits of whatever we were supposed to be learning in class. By Thanksgiving of 2L year – less than halfway through law school – pretty much everyone has a law firm job lined up for the following summer, and since the firms can’t risk getting a bad reputation on campus by deciding not to give some of their summers full-time offers, everyone knows they’re set with a full-time job after law school, if that’s what they’re looking for. And the next year-and-eight-months is spent with one foot out the door.

As soon as the recruiting process was over, the collective energy of my law school class collapsed. Law school doesn’t matter anymore. Our grades don’t matter, our attendance doesn’t matter, the reading doesn’t matter, and learning doesn’t matter. Part of the problem is that classes just aren’t that engaging (see #3), but part of the problem is that if the point was to get a job, you’re done. Having your post-graduation outcome set for you less than halfway through school is stupid. It undercuts the whole point of being here for three years.

The presence of law firm recruiting on campus largely changes law school from an educational experience to a job mill. But I don’t know what the answer is. Obviously, there are lots of students who are here expressly to get a law firm job, or at least that’s one of the reasons they’re here. And that’s completely fair. So I don’t think we can or should necessarily forbid students to seek out firm jobs, or law firms to seek out students. But there ought to be some way to postpone the process a bit. In the broader sense, law schools need to decide their mission: are they trying to train lawyers for firm jobs, or is the purpose more high-minded than that? If they’re just training people to work for law firms, the education we get matches up poorly (see #2). But if the goal is something more, the presence of law firm recruiting and the emphasis given to it from the very start of 1L year is desperately hurting.

2. And now, the flip side of #1. If law schools are trying to train their students to be practicing attorneys, no one has told the people writing the curriculum.

It seems like the energies here are largely spent on this theoretical education, reading old English cases, figuring out where the law comes from, trying to understand the reasoning behind different legal regimes. All interesting and valuable stuff, for sure. But then the practical aspects of what lawyers actually do are shoved off, at least here, into a pass/fail “legal writing” class taught by “instructors” and given no respect at all.

Law school hasn’t provided a particularly good sense of what lawyers do on the job, or how to actually practice law. We learn how to think about the law, but I took contracts and don’t know how to write one. I took civil procedure and don’t know how to file a lawsuit. I didn’t take evidence, and no one’s making me. Even after spending a summer at a law firm, I’m still not entirely sure what lawyers do. And lawyers who don’t work at law firms? Are there any? What do they do?

I think law school does a relatively poor job of introducing us to the range of careers that lawyers have, and what the day-to-day practice of law in a variety of settings is like. I have heard the excuse given that you can only learn these things on the job, and law school’s role is just to provide a foundation. That’s fine, but a little more emphasis on the practical side of things – especially if we’re going to have to decide our career paths before we’re even halfway through – would be nice, and not just as part of a pass/fail class designed not to be taken seriously.

3. These problems are all interrelated to some degree. The timing of the recruiting process making more than half of law school feel irrelevant wouldn’t be such a big deal if classes were engaging for their own sake.

I expected the quality of teaching at law school to be a great deal better than it has been. I can’t help but think that for a good number of professors, the teaching is secondary – as far as why they got hired, and as far as what they spend their time on once they’re on the faculty – to publishing papers. It’s great to be taught by top-notch scholars; it would be even better if they could actually teach. I have had some absolutely brilliant professors; having them has made me see how good a law school class could be, and has made me disappointed with the rest of my professors, who haven’t even come close. Part of it is that they don’t seem like they’ve prepared for class, they haven’t read the materials, they haven’t thought about what they’re going to say before they start talking, or they just aren’t particularly engaging and dynamic speakers able to convey knowledge in a compelling way.

I would change the tenure process. I would include a real teaching evaluation, and not just rubber-stamp candidates based on their research and publications. I would incorporate salary incentives for excellent teaching (I realize measurement is difficult, although, really, can’t you tell within five minutes of sitting in a classroom whether this is a professor who is truly competent or not?). I would demand excellence. I don’t think excellence in the classroom is currently demanded. I wish that would change.

4. Of course, good teaching would be easier if the materials professors were working with were stronger. Casebooks are awfully boring. 

I have no problem with the case method as a foundation, although I haven’t really thought through the alternatives. I have no problem with the Socratic method. I think the Socratic method done well is really quite excellent. The Socratic method done badly is dreadful.  But so is a terrible lecture.

The problem, I think, is that we don’t see enough materials in law school about how the law relates to the broader society, and to people’s lives. Some of the most interesting readings I’ve been assigned have been newspaper and magazine articles, television news program transcripts, and books written for ‘normal’ people. I think the cases we read can be supplemented with outside materials. The law is important in everyone’s life. If we practice law, we will be dealing with how the law plays a role in people’s everyday lives. Law school, especially in the reading materials we get assigned, pays relatively little attention to this. I think that’s a mistake.

5. Finally, I don’t think legal education does a very good job of fitting all of the pieces together. 

I have a fine understanding of the isolated areas of law I’ve taken in classes in – I know some contract law, some constitutional law, etc. I have no idea how they all come together in one big legal system. I have no idea if there’s any relationship between our torts regime and our criminal law regime; between our tax law and our constitutional law. Maybe these links don’t exist. Or maybe if I sat down and thought about it for a while, I could come up with something. But I don’t know where I would even look to find a discussion of these macro-issues, what class I would take, or whether they’re even important. We have a legal system, but what we learn are fragments of it, and I don’t know that we ever see how it all fits together to create a rule of law. This seems like a gap in the education. I might be wrong.

I haven’t touched on other areas where legal education could improve –its use of technology, lack of focus (at least in the U.S.) on issues of international and transnational law, the unchanged-for-generations 1L curriculum, the high cost of education leading people to take the law firm route in greater numbers than might otherwise, the student-run legal journals, and more issues I’m sure I’m not even thinking of. But, for me, I think my five are the areas where I’d most like to see change, and feel like change would have the most impact on legal education overall.


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