Friday, July 24, 2009

The Insanity of How We Educate and Train Lawyers

Imagine if you will the following scenario. Joe decides to become a doctor. After college he spends four years being educated at the IU Medical School. The professors teaching Joe how to practice medicine have graduated from medical school but have never been doctors themselves nor have they ever sat foot in a hospital or clinic as a medical professional.

During Joe's training in medical school he doesn't specialize in any particular area. He is not required to undergo any sort of residency or apprenticeship with an experienced doctor. Instead his profession grants him a general medical license that he can use on Day 1 to do anything from giving a tetanus shot to the most complicated surgery.

How confident would you be in having that doctor do your open heart surgery? My guess is not very. Yet the above described scenario is how we train lawyers in this country.

People don't realize it but many, if not most, law school professors have never passed the bar to become licensed attorneys themselves and fewer still have ever practiced law. They are purely academics, bringing little in the way of practical experience to their classes. The supposed reason for this approach is that law school should be about teaching one how to "think like a lawyer." (I'm pretty sure the 3 years of law school leave plenty of time to teach one how to think like a lawyer and also provide practical experience.) Every year law schools across the country graduate people who don't have the first clue on how to practice law.

Once you pass the bar in Indiana, like most states, you are awarded a general law license that gives you the right to handle anything from the simplest divorce to the most complicated federal tax law matter. There is no requirement that you spend time under another attorney's tutelage to get some direction on how to be a lawyer. Remember you are also not given any practical experience in law school. In law, you learn how to be a lawyer on the job, often making mistakes that hopefully does not rise to the level of malpractice. When I complained in previous blog posts about the problem with a lack of litigation experience at City Legal, this is why. I know the mistakes young attorneys make. I made plenty of them.

As I enter my 22nd year in the practice of law, there is nothing I would like more to see than a complete overhaul of the way we educate attorneys in this country. Virtually every lawyer I talk to agrees that it would be more productive to spend those three year getting practical legal experience rather than spend the time in classrooms being taught by professors who have never sat foot in a courtroom. How do we change the status quo? I wish I knew. I do know that the medical profession's model of training doctors, with real doctors teaching the future doctors, the residency requirement and specialization, is a model that works, and one we in the legal profession would be wise to adopt.

See also: Lies, Damn Lies and Law School Employment Statistics; The Sordid Truth Behind the Numbers (Wednesday, April 22, 2009)


Doug said...

Mainly, I remember being taught how to read appellate court decisions; which has surprisingly little to do with the day-to-day practice of law.

In retrospect, I'm surprised at how little statutory law was discussed.

Paul K. Ogden said...

You know, Doug, I can't remember statutory law ever being discussed in law school. That is unbelievable since it consumes so much of the work we do as attorneys. Fortunately I had worked at the State Senate and knew how the Indiana Code was setup up - Title, Article, Chapter, Section. I still cring when attorneys say Indiana Code Section 30-20-10-5, for example. No, the #5 is the "section.

Claudia Beck Treacy said...

One fine lawyer I knew, quit in frustration after years of frustration. He went through at least three law firms where it was the rule to not follow the Rule of Law, before he went it alone. Sure, he was an idealist who demanded integrity from those in his profession.

What happened to him? He is a lawyer turned actor (that is what most lawyers do anyway. Acting is easier on the conscience, than lying.)and moved far away from Indianapolis.

Two other lawyers who left "lawyering' to go into other endeavors far removed from the law as they could go, had been assistant prosecutors.

I used to own a video store years ago. These guys would come into my store quite often. Their tales of corruption in that office, in an all out effort to get a conviction at any price, astonished me. The day they came in to tell me they had quit will remain in my own memory.

You see, all during undergraduate school, my goal was to become a lawyer. My early career path was legal related and did require me to take courses in civil law.

Life has its ways of getting in the path of our dreams....but then again, maybe it does not. There is a force out there which knows what is best for each of us. Like the three attorneys I mentioned, I would have ending up a quitter myself.

Another thought: perhaps there is not an "apprentice-type situation for law students, because there is not a sufficient supply of trustworthy, honest lawyers to pair the law students with. Better future lawyers learn about the law in principle, rather than from an attorney who might teach them how to "practice" not to follow the rules and the codes/statutes.

How many Indiana attorneys are familiar with I.C. 1-1-2-1, The Hierarchy of the Law? From my limited experience, I may have only discovered one.

James Milles said...

No statutory law?!? How long ago were you folks in law school?

Anonymous said...

Here's a funny story on the subject.

I had a coworker "Bob" whose family background was engineering. The coworker was an engineer, his brothers were engineers, and so were his father, uncles, and others. Bob was married to an accountant, whose entire family were lawyers. Her brother was a lawyer, her father, uncle, and even grandfather.

Bob would come back to work after holiday breaks or vacations with some of the funniest stories ever regarding family interactions. In Bobs background, everything had a process, a methodology, or a defined purpose with an expected outcome, whether it was planning for meals, road trips (and expected stops), fixing a car, household maintenance, etc.

On the other hand, with his inlaws everything was either negotiable, debatable, or subject to broad interpretaion - given the correct circumstances or rationale. It was inevitable that every time the two families met, there were serious differences of opinion on even the most mundane and simple matters in life.

To me, this is the foundation that explains why law school is what it is today. Law school isn't about the nitty gritty of learning mundane tasks and procedures. It's an introduction to logic, persuasion, rationale, and critical thinking. Sure, it would be nice to learn about different standard filing procedures, but that's what internships and clerking positions are for. The key is to walk out the door and understand how to work through the law, regardless of the procedure or framework that you're presented.

Claudia Beck Treacy said...


What an insightful analogy and hypothesis.

american patriot said...

I think California has a "reading the law" method that bypasses traditional schooling, the lead singer for the group Fish did this to get his law degree and become an activist.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Jim, I was there 3 years. I don't recall ever talking about statutory law. We certainly weren't told how to look up the law. That's probably because the profs had no idea.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Shorebreak, most lawyers don't go through internships or clerking experiences. They're just dumped straight out into the legal profession.

You're never going to convince me that learning practical experience in law school wouldn't be helpful. I have yet to run across an attorney who thought law school adequately prepared them for the practice of law.

Unknown said...

For this to happen, the ABA, the legal education industry, and the biglaw masters they serve (15-18% of the overall legal profession) would have to care about someone other than themselves.

In other words, fat chance. Is it any wonder that ABA membership and law school applications are down? People are starting to figure out that law school is an unacceptable gamble. You wouldn't take those odds in a casino, would you?

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