The only inexplicable aspect of the process was that economic theory (which is, after all, what economics students were supposed to know) served almost no function in an investment bank. The bankers used economics as a sort of standardized test of general intelligence.
- Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker
I’m rarely accused of being naïve, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened during my job hunt. I’m interviewing at every transaction firm within driving distance and I find myself selling my B.A. more than my J.D. because apparently my J.D. is worth even less than I previously thought.
“What makes you stand out from our other applicants?”
“I don’t become catatonic when I see an equation with more letters than numbers.”
“And how has law school prepared you for this job?”
“I’ve taken numerous classes dealing with corporate law and transactions, and while I can’t say I’m an expert in any field, I think I know enough to be dangerous.”
“Your law school classes don’t matter. If we hire you we assume you don’t know anything, and we’ll train you as we see fit.”
Spectacular! Will someone please remind me why I’m dropping six-figures on an education that’s seemingly irrelevant? Your law school classes don’t matter. This is what I’m being told time after time. If the classes don’t matter, then the only purpose of a J.D. that I can see, as far as getting a job at a law firm, is that of a badge that declares I’m not a complete idiot. A J.D. is nothing more than an indicator of general intelligence.
The sad thing is this description is not solely held by law schools. Sometimes it feels like my entire education has been nothing more than a series of stepping stones: elementary school to middle school to high school to college to law school. To what end? Certainly nothing substantive as law firms openly admit that they expect me not to know anything. So what’s the value in my education? Ever since the fourth grade I’ve had teachers telling me the main purpose of my education was to teach me critical thinking skills. Yet I’ve learned more about critical thinking from watching RedLetterMedia reviews than in the first 12 years of my schooling. Testing dates and names are not going to teach kids how to think critically. It teaches them nothing more than how to memorize useless knowledge. And don’t kid yourself, that’s what much of law school is—useless knowledge. I’ve tried making a promissory estoppel argument to a judge. It’s nothing if not useless.
On a micro level this isn’t necessarily a problem. Those who want to learn will find ways, and the internet has made that easier, e.g., free lectures from Yale on YouTube. On a macro level though the system won’t change, and indeed has no desire or incentive to, until we decide as a society that we care more about substance than form, quality over quantity. The current system cares more about graduation rates than the competency of the graduates. Maybe that will change once brick and mortar schools are replaced by online ones. We’ll see. I wouldn’t put money on it.
As for me, I have one year left. I’ll keep taking classes I’m interested in (it just so happens most of the classes I’m interested in are related to transaction law). I’ll maintain my GPA. The dirty little not-so-secret is that law school as-is is merely a stepping stone, or maybe prison is a more apropos analogy. I just need to do my three years so I can move on with my life and hopefully start something real. But first I need that degree which declares I’ve passed another standardized test of general intelligence.
I’ve seen this reaction to law school many times before, so I’m familiar with the common responses. Top of the list is that law school isn’t about learning the law, but learning a way of thinking. “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.”
That’s what she said.
Despite all the talk about how brilliant law school training is, if you scored above 160 on the LSAT, then law school isn't going to improve your critical thinking very much. Law school will train you a bit in thinking about identifying and balancing concerns in policy analysis. Forcing you to think about both side's interests is one thing law school does well. Other than that, all it does is put into your hands a small number of relevant legal facts that will better inform your opinions - that's not how to think, it's what to think.
Law school's purported primary function is to teach you how to think like a lawyer, but you will probably go your whole three years without a professor putting "Thinking like a lawyer" on the syllabus.
You won't receive a formal lesson on how to construct and destruct arguments. You'll spend time actually doing these tasks, but there won't be any real analysis of what's going on when you handle arguments. Law school is like learning to analyze and write poetry without ever studying scansion or classic poetic forms. It's all surface level thinking.
If you want to learn how to "think like a lawyer," that is, if you want to develop actual critical thinking skills, the place to do that is in an undergraduate analytical philosophy department (not that fake continental nonsense) that offers at least one class in formal logic. That's where you develop the skill of thinking, at a fraction of the price, and with better electives, better parties, and better sexual encounter.