Paul L. Caron

Monday, November 18, 2013

Clark: Law School as Liberal Education

LiberalSherman J. Clark (Michigan), Law School as Liberal Education, 63 J. Legal Educ. 235 (2013):

The president of a liberal arts college, if asked why college is worthwhile, would be able to respond on several levels. He or she would certainly say something about the value of the degree as a credential to help students get a job or get into graduate school. In addition, he or she would likely emphasize the professional value of the skills and capacities developed through a liberal education, which can help students succeed at work or in graduate school. More deeply, however, we would expect that he or she would have something to say about the intrinsic value of the education and experience itself — why a thoughtful person might want to go to college, apart from the work it might help one get or do.

I believe that something similar can be said about law school. The legal academy and profession are confronting difficult questions about the value of legal education — about whether and how law school is worthwhile. Most of this conversation appropriately focuses on the commercial and professional value of a legal education because that is the main reason people go to law school — to qualify and prepare for careers. Here, I hope to add to the conversation by considering a set of ways in which law school, like a liberal arts undergraduate education, may be valuable to a thoughtful person apart from its instrumental value in qualifying and preparing one for work. How might legal education help one to thrive, to live a full and satisfying and meaningful life?

I recognize that framing the question in this way may create some skepticism. Indeed, vague talk about liberal education in the face of concrete realities, such as escalating tuition and unclear job prospects, warrants skepticism. Moreover, thinking about law school and thriving requires a willingness to think about what it means to thrive: Who are we to say what it might mean for any given person to live a full and satisfying life? But if we are to be thoughtful about the impact of law school on the quality of lives, we must be willing to think at least tentatively about what makes for quality in life. All we can do — indeed, what I think we have an obligation to do — is to try to be as thoughtful as we can about the ways in which legal education also may be valuable education for life, even if not every student will appreciate that deeper value, and even if it proves more difficult to describe than its more obvious professional benefits.

Wall Street Journal, What is Law School For? Michigan Professor Offers Provocative Answer:

Like the college graduates they’re straining to attract, many law schools are stuck at bewildering crossroads. They’re both asking similar questions: What should we be? What can we offer? What’s our goal?

University of Michigan law professor Sherman J. Clark thinks law schools have more to offer students than merely professional training and hands-on experience.

In a new paper appearing in the Journal of Legal Education, Mr. Clark suggest another reason why a thoughtful person might take a chance on a legal education. Law schools, he says, give students tools of inquiry that will ultimately help them lead a richer and more meaningful life.

Legal Education | Permalink


Law school can be a liberal education. Think of all the plausible but ultimately unpersuasive arguments one must sift through. Fine training for much of life.

Posted by: john rooney | Nov 18, 2013 4:24:58 AM

Law School has little to do with a liberal education. STEM and economics are a part of a liberal education, but sophistication in science, math and econ is so lacking among law-school students as to appear to be disqualifiers. Look at SCOTUS: only Breyer has shown any erudition in STEM. Foreign language skills are also lacking.

In my law-school class only 5 of 135 had a science or math concentration, and I'm including an architect.

Posted by: Jimbino | Nov 18, 2013 6:44:13 AM

Getting a library card is a much cheaper (and probably as effective) way of obtaining "tools of inquiry" than three years of law school.

Posted by: Jobs | Nov 18, 2013 7:20:13 AM

Good Lord. The author has confused a part with the whole.

The subjects of the liberal arts in antiquity and the middle ages were: grammar (Latin), rhetoric, dialectic (logical argument), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (trigonometry, the telescope having not been invented), and music.

A program in a modern American law school will provide partial non systematic training in rhetoric and dialectic, and that is all. The education in both of those subjects is so partial and unsystematic as to be a tremendous waste of time and money if the student does not desire or need a license to practice law.

A more modern approach to liberal arts as exemplified by the curricula of universities such as Columbia and Chicago, includes not just the formal subjects of the ancient liberal arts but introduction to the physical, biological, and social sciences, and the foundational works of western civilization (Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, etc.). Needless to say, three years in law school covers none of those subjects.

If a student is not educated in the liberal arts when he starts law school, he won't be when he finishes, but he will be impoverished. In a word, don't do it.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Nov 18, 2013 8:36:00 AM

Done right, law school can definitely be a liberal arts education. In many years of teaching courses like contracts and legal history, I constantly brought in elements of art, music, architecture, philosophy, economics, and of course history. All of those elements fit into the subjects and enhanced the learning, while teaching the students about those other areas. The key is "done right": teaching law as a mere matter of rules obviously wouldn't enhance one's understanding of the liberal arts.

Posted by: Dennis | Nov 18, 2013 8:36:08 AM

Even if we assume that law school provides the "it's good for you" Clark claims, is it ethical to charge folks so much for those benefits? Is it ethical to claim other benefits?

Posted by: Andy Freeman | Nov 18, 2013 11:06:00 AM

Some components of law school (such as the strict curve that many of us enforce) cut against personal development and thriving. I agree, however, that law school offers a wonderful liberal education. For that reason, I have suggested moving the first 1-1/2 years of our curriculum into the undergraduate curriculum as a law major. Seven years of liberal education is a lot for students to purchase. Four years of a liberal education, with a focus on law, followed by a 2-year JD program for those who choose to practice, would address multiple needs. I explore these ideas further at

Posted by: Deborah Merritt | Nov 18, 2013 2:17:15 PM

He's kidding, right? Where is the evidence for this? Depression rates skyrocket in law school, hitting 30% within the first year, 40-50% by the end of law school. Anxiety goes up. Drinking as a coping behavior goes up. Etc., etc., etc. Multiple studies over the last 25 years. Depression rates stay high for lawyers, as do rates of alienation and anxiety. Preparation for life??? And, from Elizabeth Mertz' research (The Language of Law School), the curriculum and pedagogy actually work to disconnect students from their values. Lots of luck selling three years of expensive and personally-destructive education as "preparation for life"!

Posted by: Dave Shearon | Nov 18, 2013 4:37:09 PM

Law school could provide a liberal education, but rarely does. Far too few law professors are really educated in the history of the law, political philosophy and the political history behind the development of the common law tradition, intellectual history, or any of the humanities to convey much of those bodies of knowledge to law students, whose undergraduate backgrounds in these areas are woefully inadequate. When professors at a T10 law school confuse Hobbes and Locke (getting them backwards!), don't know who Pollock and Maitland are, haven't read Montesquieu or deToqueville (let alone the Founders), can't write a clear English sentence, write articles based on a dinner conversation misunderstanding of Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness (without bothering to actually read Whitehead, which was cheerfully admitted to an inquiring student who had), etc., etc., it's a lost cause. The bulk of them are technicians, the sort of folks whom H. L. Mencken (of whom they've not heard) derided as having "no more actual sagacity ... than it takes to operate a taxicab or fry a pan of fish"

Most law professors would like you to think them theorists, but anyone who's done graduate level work in any of the humanities would find the notion risible.

Posted by: CatoRenasci | Nov 18, 2013 6:15:00 PM

Dear Sherman,



PS: Come on, man.

Posted by: No, breh | Nov 18, 2013 9:46:58 PM