Paul L. Caron

Monday, July 1, 2019

Reimagining Legal Education: Why Shouldn’t Law Schools Be Run As Trade Schools?

City Journal: Reimagining Legal Education: Why Shouldn’t Law Schools Be Run As Trade Schools?, by Mark Pulliam (Law & Liberty; Retired Partner, Latham & Watkins):

The prevailing way of training lawyers—three years of postgraduate study, using Socratic techniques and the case method—has a relatively recent pedigree. Well into the nineteenth century, most American lawyers learned their craft as Abraham Lincoln did, studying the law as de facto apprentices under the tutelage of practicing lawyers. Remnants of this tradition survived into the twentieth century. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who also served as solicitor general, attorney general, and chief American prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials, was one of the most accomplished lawyers of his era. But Jackson only attended law school for one year. He passed the bar in 1913 after studying under a lawyer—his uncle—in upstate New York.

Today, the legal realm would greet Jackson’s education with disdain. Elite law schools, staffed with highly paid faculty lacking any meaningful experience in the profession, equate the practical model with a trade apprenticeship—just a lengthy bar-review course. But why are bar-review courses even necessary for students who just finished a three-year course of study in the law? Isn’t learning about the practice of law the raison d’être of legal education? The open secret is that elite law schools don’t see their mission as teaching the nuts and bolts of regular legal work. Tenured faculty leave the real training to the lesser caste of clinical instructors and adjuncts, postgraduation cram courses, and on-the-job training by law firms.

Professors at the nation’s leading law schools enjoy a light teaching load, allowing plenty of time for conducting research and writing scholarly articles for student-edited law reviews. Not surprisingly, legal scholarship is largely irrelevant to the needs of legal consumers like clients and practitioners. The current model of high and rising tuition, mounting student debt loads, poor skills training, uneven (and uncertain) job placement, and an increasingly politicized professoriate thus perpetuates itself.

Many law school graduates struggle to find suitable employment, even as some portions of the country face a shortage of lawyers. Despite paying lip service to the need for reform, most law schools maintain the status quo. Potential “disruptors,” such as the independent, Catholic-oriented Ave Maria School of Law, and a small number of for-profit schools, have failed to produce superior results, such as lower tuition or higher bar-pass rates. Overall, legal education is doing a poor job, and the American Bar Association’s gatekeeping accreditation requirements hamper much-needed reforms.

On a recent trip to Knoxville, I discovered an unusual school that offers a sharp contrast to the prevailing model—Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law. ...

LMU’s law school may not have the reputation of its Tennessee counterparts (which include the nationally ranked Vanderbilt), or a superior model to more typical schools. But LMU demonstrates how an alternative approach can deliver impressive results at a considerably lower cost. The practice of law mainly consists of helping ordinary people solve their legal problems, such as family-law disputes, defending criminal charges, or creating a will. Lawyering is in many respects a trade—like being a plumber, electrician, mechanic, or welder. LMU’s law school acknowledges this reality.

In fact, law schools should function as trade schools, and focus more on practical training. The Ivory Tower ethos so common in academia often loses sight of the essential mission of legal education. Elite law schools could learn some useful lessons from LMU.

More here.

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink


@What? I expect what you describe is not caused by acting like a trade school, but is rather a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lower tier or non-accredited schools don't get the same applicant pool to choose from, nor do they have the same alumni networks. Those are far more likely to impact bar passage, dropout rates, and the like.
Law is a trade, but it isn't fashionable to say that, particularly on pricey law school campuses.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Jul 3, 2019 4:40:37 AM


The national unemployment rate for law school grads last year ten months after graduation was well over twice the national U3 rate. ALL law schools are risky, whether from an employment standpoint, a bar passage standpoint, or a cost standpoint (Columbia Law will crack the $100,000 barrier next fall). Of course if law school grads actually knew how to draft a(ny) form, find a client, appear in court, etc. then the lack of opportunities for them wouldn't be so devastating, now would it? Then again, if law schools are going to teach how to practice law and not just garden-variety critical analysis, I mean how to "think like a lawyer," [UN sardonically genuflects solemnly to this most noble yet undefinable concept], then they would necessarily have to stop hiring newbie prawfs who have, at best, two years' legal experience under their belts and were maybe once only two people removed from actual client contact at their 1,000+ lawyer firm. I know that would make Chris Columbus Langdell's ghost weep with elitist impotence, but it's far past time for some traditions to be dispensed with.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 2, 2019 8:53:31 PM

We are fortunate in the US that medical schools have not taken the same "not a trade school" approach to education.

Posted by: Tom Sharbaugh | Jul 2, 2019 3:46:07 AM

Some law schools are run as trade schools. Like all those non-ABA approved law schools in California whose students frequently fail or drop out of law school, whose graduate rarely pass the bar exam, and whose bar passers aren't exactly setting the legal world on fire.

Duncan Memorial University’s Lincoln School of Law until recently had a greater than 20% drop out / fail out rate:

Trade schools might be less expensive, but they are also riskier. It's fine to have options and vareity, but you get what you pay for.

Posted by: What? | Jul 1, 2019 3:17:37 PM

I applaud the op-ed, but note that the hiring proclivities of law firms like the author's Latham and Watkins are another piece of the puzzle: if they adamantly refuse to hire anyone from a *worse* law school than, say, Michigan, then how will legal education reform ever be successful? He's already implicitly acknowledge that education reform will not be a top-down process, after all.

And what's that about there being an entry for "Lathaming" in the Urban Dictionary?

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 1, 2019 1:20:02 PM

Love it. You mean train people to practice law as opposed to saving the world?

Posted by: Dale W. Spradling PhD, CPA | Jul 1, 2019 12:05:33 PM