Monday, November 21, 2011

The Skills Thing

Jim has provided an excerpt from Sunday's NYT front page article on Law Schools. The article make some good points on the topic of legal scholarship. On the other hand, the article's whining about preparing students to practice law made me consider getting off the "more skills" bandwagon.

I was struck by a collective law firm sense of entitlement. This sense of entitlement seems to equate the bottom line interests of small and large firms with what law schools should be doing. Public law schools already provide a huge human capital subsidy to private law firms. (I've never understood why this started other than to subsidize the class of people who had property to protect.) Now the firms have their hands out asking for more. Closely related is the tendency for some law schools now to offer classes on "law firm management." Exactly why a public school should teach a law student to operate his or her business and not the manager of a laundromat is not clear to me.

There is another problem with the "skills" thing. Most of the people I know who talk about skills and even teach one version or another have not practiced law, practiced a very short period of time or practiced it 20 years ago or more. In fact, a 45 year old with twenty years of recent experience typically falls to the bottom of lists of possible hires.

I am also not sure I know what the word "skills" means. My fear is that to the extent the desire for more skills is voiced by those in law teaching it may have a self-referential component. If you are into mediation, guess what skill might mean to you. Same for arbitration, collaborative law and so on. And I sense there is an ideological element here as well.

Maybe public law schools should eliminate skills altogether or offer them at an enhanced level of tuition. After all, these highly "skilled" graduates would save law firms so much money they almost certainly would offer higher salaries to graduates that would off set the extra tuition. Of course, it is just possible the firms prefer to stay on the dole.


Anonymous Vladimir said...

Indeed, Jeff. Why would a law school want to teach students how to file merger forms, or how to do the nitty-gritty of settling cases?
Time is finite. It seems to me a school's job is to teach that which employers are largely incapable of teaching -- and that's the big picture, in which daily practice is situated. Far better, in other words, to teach students to think broadly about the role of mergers in society, and about the pros and cons of settlement and the potential future trajectories of litigation. Otherwise, who will have the capacity to stand up for or against business-as-usual in the legal world, 10 years out in practice?

In short, I think you have it exactly right, and not only because there is something obnoxious about subsidizing private business firms. Law schools should teach more theory (and that includes economics, sociology, philosophy, and history) and less practice, since otherwise lawyers will have minimal grasp of the perspectives they really need to understand what they do reflectively. A law school's job is not to get a student "ready for day one," but to produce citizen-statesmen who have the capacity to lead the bench and bar in the public interest.

11/21/2011 8:33 PM  

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