This week 1Ls at Cornell and other law schools begin their legal studies. Still other schools may have started already or will soon. Here I'd like to dispense a bit of advice to the entering 1Ls about how to understand the adventure on which they are embarking.
First, let me plug some of my older work. Here you can find a 2001 essay on the Socratic method and thinking like a lawyer, in which I argue that there is nothing especially distinctive about legal thinking. Here you can find a mostly tongue-in-cheek summary of the first-year curriculumn. And here you can find a 2005 essay, written on the occasion of the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, summarizing my own subject, constitutional law, in a bit more detail.
Now onto a new observation. (New to my writing, that is. I have made these points in welcoming sessions to 1Ls before, and it's quite possible others have said similar things). I want to address the question of what it is, exactly, that you're doing in law school. I don't mean WHY are you here. That's easy. The job market stinks, and you figure that if you hide out in law school then in three years things will have turned around and you'll have a valuable credential. I mean instead to ask what you should aim to get out of a legal education.
Law schools are professional schools. As such, their primary educational mission is to begin to train you in the practice of law. I say "begin" because much of the nitty-gritty of legal practice can only be learned through doing. Various experiential law school courses--simulations, externships, and clinics--give some hands-on experience, but the bar continues to complain that students graduate from law school with only a bare inkling of what they're supposed to do as lawyers. There is some merit to this complaint, but I also think it is overstated. In my experience with my former students (many of them by now partners at top firms, or well established in government or public interest law), as well as my ongoing experience as a lawyer--I moonlight for pro bono as well as paying clients--people who excelled in legal reasoning while law students become excellent lawyers, almost regardless of the courses they took.
Nor are top grades or a degree from a high-prestige law school essential to becoming a good lawyer. Anyone who pays attention in law school can become a first-rate lawyer (though not everyone will.) Moreover, there are lots of different ways to be a successful lawyer. For example, I knew a trial lawyer who was outstanding before a jury but was a poor writer. He succeeded by teaming up with an excellent writer who was shy.
Although teaching reasoning and other legal skills is part of the primary mission of legal education, I have long regarded it as having an important secondary mission: Most law schools are located within universities because the study of law is an important part of a full liberal education. (This is also true of stand-alone law schools.) Law students who regard their legal education as a continuation of their undergraduate (or in some cases, graduate) studies will be doubly rewarded. First, they will end up enjoying their three years in law school, seeing in those years the opportunity to engage fundamental questions about the organization and regulation of virtually all aspects of life. And second, as a result, they will likely do better strictly along the practical dimension. Those who find the study of law interesting in the way that they previously found literature, biology, or history interesting will pay closer attention, work harder, and learn more than those who see their legal education simply as a matter of punching the clock for three years until they earn their credential.
Welcome aboard. Now work hard and have fun!
Posted by Mike Dorf