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.