I’m catching up on my RSS feeds after a week of course prep and reading papers. Carolyn Elefant had a long post last week titled Should Law School Teach Skills?–a title that might provoke “duh?s” from non-lawyers. She draws from a number of sources (including Ann Althouse’s 2/20 NY Times Op/Ed piece and Jame’s Maule’s chock-full-of-links blog post), asking significant questions about the nature and purpose of legal education. I won’t attempt to restate all of her points. Their essence is that law schools teach too much about how to think like a lawyer and not enough about how to practice law. Learning how to practice law requires learning how and why clients respond to legal requirements, how to acquire, talk to, and maintain clients, how legal ethics shape a lawyer’s advice, how to run a law practice, and other practical skills. Her post, and sources from which she draws, explore the proper balance in legal education between theory and practice.
Much of what she says resonates with me. I graduated from law school with a strong sense of law as a profession, and an inadequate sense of the practice of law as a service industry. I entered law school with three years’ paralegal experience doing prisoners’ rights and legal services work and knew something about representing a client’s interests. Three years, one house, a marriage, and one child later I entered corporate practice knowing virtually nothing about the business of law. Having attended Northeastern University School of Law I had worked four different co-op jobs, a total of twelve months’ time researching and writing briefs and motions, and had that experience advantage over many other recent grads, but my education in the practice of law only began in earnest as a young associate in a large Boston firm. If I could make one change in the curriculum I’d require that each law student take a course in financial accounting, a position that would make the 25-year-old One-L David Randall weep over my failed idealism. I didn’t know then that the ability to understand a balance sheet and income statement is critical on both sides of the aisle.
I’m less critical of my law school experience than many of my lawyer friends. Since its reincarnation in the early 1970s Northeastern Law School has always attracted students who question the nature and purpose of legal education, and in my years (1978-1981) we discussed the social implications of our cases at great length. NUSL’s corporate law offerings were thin in those days, a situation which I understand the school has addressed over the years, and I took little advantage of what the school had to offer because I had negative interest in corporate law practice until a third-year big-firm coop. Three years’ experience in the legal writing and practice course, the last two as a TA during which we created a new problem that the school used for the next decade, gave me great confidence in my ability to find, analyze, write about, and argue the law. What I needed, and what more law grads need today, is training in translating issue-spotting ability into dollars-and-sense advice.