Think First, Sell Your Non-Essential Body Organs Later

People are always asking me, "Knowing what you know now -- that being that the universe is completely out of legal jobs -- would you have still gone to law school?" In truth, no one really ever asks me that, but I believe a healthy imagination will help me live longer and be able to do headstands well into my 70s. So in this post I will answer the question that nobody is asking. For the sake of headstands.

First, if you're thinking of going to law school, or know someone who is, ask yourself or your friend these three questions: 1) Do you disagree with virtually everything that anyone else ever says, as well as most of the things they think and feel? 2) In group settings, do you struggle to wait your turn to speak and instead find yourself blurting out your opinion all the time? When you're required on pain of death to raise your hand before you speak, do you stretch it high above your head, using your thigh, back, and abdomen muscles to push it higher than would otherwise be possible, all the while unconsciously saying "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!"? (That's actually two questions, but law students don't have to count very well). 3) Do you believe that you know almost all of what God knows?

If you can answer each of these questions affirmatively, you'd probably be a decent law student, and, later, a decent lawyer (I've never been a lawyer, so I don't really know what makes a good lawyer, but not knowing something isn't exactly the best reason to not act like you do. Just ask Michele Bachmann). I jest, of course. Not about Michele Bachmann, who is a cretin, but about the characteristics of law students. True, a very small handful of my classmates come close to fitting the stereotype, but the vast majority are interesting and intelligent and grounded human beings.

And this is the best element of law school: associating with gifted classmates and professors for three years. Odds are, I keep hoping, that at least a smidgen of somebody's intellect will rub off on me. A second boon, in my estimation, is that a law degree is versatile. There is some intellectual debate on this, with some insisting that JDs are only truly valuable for practicing law, while others believe the degree handy in other analytically-based fields. I tend toward the second opinion, with an important qualification I sketch below. Because society generally values (at the same time it mocks) law degrees, and because I believe that the types of people with whom we form bonds of friendship and professional association are critical in both professional and personal development, I don't regret returning to school for a JD.

All I really need in life: Shannon and this purple-ish umbrella. That's all I need.
That said, there is at least a qualification or two I think it important to add. First, a law degree is not versatile if you incurred $150K-$200K in debt to obtain it. If you're in your mid-20s or, worse, your 30s, and you're crushed beneath that size of debt, there are only two things you can do: 1) take the highest-paying job at the least humane law firm you can find, or 2) sell all non-essential body organs on the black market, so that you're just a beating heart and a brain stem in a large Tupperware container that your mom carries around in a plastic Target bag. Only having two options is the opposite of versatility. I'm fortunate to have saved a lot of money prior to law school, to have a spouse with a pretty kick-butt from-home job, to attend a mind-bogglingly cheap law school, and to have renters who pay almost all of our mortgage. Without any one of these elements, I think I'd really regret getting a law degree at this moment in history.

Second, it's a little frustrating that law school is the only graduate program I can think of that doesn't actually prepare its students to function in their field. Business school and MPA/MPP programs ensure from day one that students are marketable and equipped with the skills necessary to contribute in the private or public sectors. PhD programs teach students how to plum the depths of a topic's literature, write, network, and act like a total snob (though not always to teach... disturbing). Law school, by contrast, doesn't really focus so much on teaching law students how to be attorneys -- if individual students learn it, it's because they affirmatively sought out clinical courses and summer training alongside real attorneys. This type of practical instruction is peripheral to law school's time-honored and completely outdated core: teaching students really old case law that hasn't been in effect for, at best, decades, and teaching students current law for jurisdictions in which most students won't practice. I won't say this is utterly useless, because it seems true that when a recent law school graduate studies for a particular state's bar, at least he or she knows the vocabulary of criminal or contracts law, as well as the very basic contours of the foundational bodies of law, from which many jurisdictions' modern law has grown. Still, though, a little modernity and innovation in legal education would be nice.

Moreover, it seems that legal education is pedagogically unsound. Now, I'm not a pedagogue. I'm not completely sure what that even means. But it seems that everyone, including Michele Bachmann, knows that people learn best when given feedback. Do parents sit silently by for four months, watching their kids do anything and everything they want, then at the end of those four months beat those children senseless for all the things they failed to learn and therefore did incorrectly during that time span? Only in trailer parks does this happen. Yet this is legal pedagogy. Grades typically rest on one exam, administered at the end of the semester. It seems that in a profession full of allegedly smart people, we could improve on this formula?

I suspect one reason legal education and the legal profession remain mired in less effective practices is that -- my third point -- legal education, like the practice of law, is a business. And US News and World Report is the CEO, the prison foreman, the pimp, whatever you want to call it. The system is fairly simple -- I don't think I'm oversimplifying, though I'm not the brightest bulb so I could be wrong. US News tells large law firms which schools are best. Large law firms select top students from the best law schools, thus bolstering the firms' image as home for the best and brightest (and of course top students go to large law firms because that's where the money is).

But the system needs a mechanism to identify the top students, and that creaky old mechanism has been for decades and remains, for most core law school courses, a semester of Socratic questioning followed by a single exam. Whether or not this mechanism accurately or effectively identifies the best and brightest students isn't really what's important; what's important is that the legal profession either believes it does or is simply too risk averse to accept an alternate mechanism for fear of losing track of who's who in the hierarchy of law students and thus suffering the indignity of large law firms inadvertently hiring idiots. So legal education's poor pedagogy (man, I hope that word means what I think it does or even KFC won't hire me) perpetuates itself, because if a non-elite law school changes its mode of education and student assessment, employers could balk at hiring that school's students -- how will employers know, after all, who's smart and who's not if students' GPAs aren't based on single exams, the way it's been for so long? And if employers balk at hiring from this non-elite law school, students might balk at enrolling. And if students balk at enrolling, who will pay tuition? It's a business.

I could go on, but I've made my point. In my view, there are serious flaws with the landscape and functioning of legal education, but I'm nevertheless satisfied with my choice to engage it, because I'm both an idiot and a masochist, and, more seriously, because my wife and I prepared well financially and chose an affordable law school so that I'll finish next year with virtually no debt. This will make my JD vastly more versatile than it would otherwise be.

Those considering law school should think it through really, really carefully. Only tribes in the Amazon jungle don't know that the legal job market is severely constricted, and that law schools nevertheless continue to pump into that constricted market more and more graduates each year. It's not a pretty scene. To get more specific, I really question whether it's a good idea for students to move directly from an undergraduate education -- with all its associated debt -- to law school without working for a couple years at least. I just don't see very much that's smart about that, unless someone knows that they would sooner die than not be an attorney, and that he or she is willing to pay off debt well into his or her golden years to achieve that goal. I think that's really stupid, but whatever. Out of the 12 people who will read this, I'm guessing that at least a third will think I'm really stupid, so it's all relative in the end I guess.