Law School Discussion

The Problem with American Law Schools and How To Fix It

The Problem with American Law Schools and How To Fix It
« on: January 05, 2006, 02:17:18 PM »

"Everything will change. The only question is growing up or decaying."
--Nikki Giovanni

Dear Dean,

If you read any one thing I write in my three years in law school, please take time to read this. Below I explain: the problem with the juris doctor program as a reflection of the problems our society experiences and the solution for students and professors.

1. Enlightenment and legal education via boot camp methods what's the basis?

We do not fix our own problems: In 1993 an AALS report on the rampant drug and alcohol abuse at American law schools shocked the legal community. It shouldn't have. A 1999 study in Notre Dame Magazine found that "lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, hostility, paranoia, social alienation and isolation, obsessive-compulsiveness, and interpersonal sensitivity at alarming rates." Excessively long hours continue to harm our families and quality of life. We harm our communities when we work ourselves like mules, disallowing engagement in society. When an attorney abandons law they do so as a rebirth of their human spirit. Those who endure often become embittered, humorless, or turn to destructive law school coping mechanisms ("We know [law school] is where they start," said New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye. "This is the last bastion before they begin in the legal profession."):

    One group of researchers found that the rate of alcoholism among lawyers is double the rate of alcoholism among adults generally, while another group of researchers estimated that 26 percent of lawyers had used cocaine at least once C twice the rate of the general population. One out of three lawyers suffers from clinical depression, alcoholism or drug abuse. Not surprisingly, a preliminary study indicates that lawyers commit suicide and think about committing suicide more often than nonlawyers. [Notre Dame Magazine, Autumn 1999]

In 2003 a follow-up to the 1993 report found no improvement and noted that law school faculty are not immune from the problems of substance abuse. In 2005 a Dean told me in her office that change takes time. How much time do we need?

How we learn has no bearing on how we practice. If law school mirrored legal practice then six partners would oversee 100 first year associates, give them general instruction for six separate transactions or cases, and expect if they do not understand they will ask every question necessary to complete an assignment correctly. Only when the partner, the client and all opposing counsel meet to close the deal would the first year associate's work be fully reviewed. If he or she did one thing incorrectly the wrong name on a filed UCC, for instance the deal would not close. The junior attorney would be asked to leave. Business transactions would slow to a crawl.

This is how law school operates. There are no "senior associates" involved. My theories for this "boot camp" martyr mentality are unimportant, though note the US alone requires a three year program at crushing cost to educate aspiring attorneys. In most other countries law is an undergraduate program, followed by a bar-type test and apprenticeship.

End-of-course review sessions are more accurately "Q&A's." Professors expect students to prepare to pepper them with questions germane to the main themes of the course. Students expect the professor to prepare a broad overview of their year-long course, with hints as to what is important. Q&A's are inefficient and frustrating for everyone involved.

2. Time to fight the inertia: an easy fix

America keeps crashing the same car: we never fix problems (racism, disaster preparation, destroyed cities, etc.). Our attorneys will argue for major changes in laws to benefit a client or society, yet we fight tooth and nail efforts to fix our own problems, despite evidence of where this road to ruin leads. "I had to suffer, so should you," is the mentality of many alum. Despite their discontented careers, unpleasant memories, and all evidence to the contrary, they cling to the delusion it helps our careers and characters. It does not. Ask any third year associate.

Without doubt, students need to be tested more. Only then will grades accurately reflect abilities. Staggered exams evidence improvement and alert students of problems before it is too late.

Three exams (25%, 25%, 50%) will be required for three-credit classes and above. One exam per course produces extreme anxiety; a cold at the wrong time will send an over-stressed student over the edge. Multiple tests inspire motivation, incentivize continuous preparation, mitigate procrastination, and therefore better educates students. Star performers will continue to shine. Multiple exams expose topical weaknesses and strengths which may or may not be important to an employer's hiring needs. We will provide records of all exams (not only finals) for use in interviews.

Professors also are stressed and grading more exams is anathema. We should follow other graduate schools and institute legal teaching assistant programs. The 3L year's usefulness is questionable but here to say. Let's make it substantive: those planning academic careers will benefit enormously from teaching assistant positions. So will professors: under their tutelage and close supervision TAs will grade the first two exams. Professors always grade the weighty final. 3L TAs will fill the role of senior associates; they are less intimidating and will provide great insight. They can also conduct comprehensive review sessions. If ABA rules prohibit any of this, we must convince them of the import to change tout suite.

Interestingly, lawyer-bashing caught fire in our culture only since the civil rights era, when lawyers greatly (and controversially) improved our democracy with cases that brought the Bill of Rights to the citizens of the several states (something that should have happened once John Bingham wrote the 14th Amendment with that intent). Those rightfully-won battles sadly remain unpopular, and will come under attack. Judge Alito's criticism of Reynolds v. Sims is proof. So-called Originalists on the Supreme Court vote most to overturn legislative acts.

Only lawyers are trained and educated in history and rhetoric to combat the distortions and lies (often crafted by our own) that are ruining America's public discourse. Outside the office our free time is focused on neglected families; there is no time to contribute honest and principled arguments to important issues facing the country. We work too many weekends: we are victimized by long hours and extraordinary debt. Law students excited about 2L summer jobs are sheltered from the reality that they jumped out of the pan of law school unhappiness and into the law firm fire of exhaustion. We could tolerate law firm culture longer if we didn't emerge miserable from an emotionally devastating education program that inaccurately measured ability and warped our self-worth.

We would enhance our reputation and firms will love that our more accurate grades aid their recruitment goals. The stakes are too high to continue on this pointless road to ruin. You have the power to help effect a small change with enormous and immediate benefits. We must stop unnecessarily beating our country's most talented and driven.