Legal Training as a Failure of Higher Education

March 17, 2013

It occurred to me that I had never, or at least not for a long time, checked to see whether there might be blogs and websites by and for ex-lawyers.  A search reminded me that one can be an ex-lawyer (or a “former” lawyer) in at least two distinct senses:  a person, still practicing law, might be the former attorney for a particular client; or s/he might be someone who is no longer practicing law for any clients.  I was interested in the latter sense of the term.

That search led directly to a handful of sites.  One, The Ex-Lawyers Club, turned out to be a blog by someone who quit the law and then decided to return to it.  Another, Above the Law, seemed to be a general-purpose legal profession site with the occasional post on the process of leaving the legal profession.  Beyond The Pinstripe described itself as being “set up in order to help struggling lawyers find what they really want to do.”  That site and others (e.g., More To Law) seemed to offer services for a fee, in addition to whatever free information one might glean from their pages.  There were many more hits in the search; I just explored the first screenful or two.

An Interesting Exchange

The world of the ex-attorney became more vivid when I found a blog post congratulating an ex-lawyer “on quitting his job at a prestigious Wall Street law firm so that he and his wife can pursue their dream of being scuba instructors somewhere in paradise.”  What made it vivid was one of the blogger’s remarks about working in such firms:

I found the work wholly unrewarding and discovered that large law firms are where douchebags who are intelligent but are devoid of creativity or personality go to roost (no disrespect to the group of big firm friends reading this, i’m not talking about you).

One person responding to that post said this:

Some Douche Bags have other responsibilities that don’t allow for them to quit their unrewarding legal jobs and so they find other ways to express their creativity or personality. Still other Douche Bags are somehow able to find some reward to the job. And even other Douche Bags can sometimes adequately express their creativity or personality at their job even though it’s a big firm. Just because your experience wasn’t all you’d hoped, doesn’t mean you should be using such a broad brush to paint such an insulting picture. You’re pursuing your dreams and everybody is proud of you, and we all like reading about it and rooting for you, but you don’t need to take a dump on everybody you left behind.

The blogger’s reply:

I’m sorry, but my experience at W & S and followup experience as a completely different type of lawyer led me to a very distinct conclusion: big law firm jobs are about, first and foremost, MONEY.  I think I am friendly with a grand total of one or two people who earnestly love working at a big firm.  But literally 90% of my colleagues were obsessed with their salary and bonus situations. They spent their days on a precursor to modern message boards that was known as “Angry Associates” (i think?) and talked of almost nothing else. I think many of these people lacked personality, and the others had the personality beaten out of them by the awful work, so all they had left to talk about was money.

I could go on forever on this topic, but I will stop short here for now. I do apologize for being a little bit harsh. Trust me when I say this: (or maybe you already know, Mr./Ms. Anonymous) douchebag is a favorite term of mine and shouldn’t sting so terribly coming from me.

I do thank you for rooting for me and reading the website.

Failure of Career Direction

This exchange provoked several thoughts.  Some appeared in the book I published in 1991, Take the Bar and Beat Me.  The first such thought was that, as I had discovered in the 1980s, for many students law school is a bait-and-switch operation that tries to attract intelligent, educated people into a profession that turns out to be very different, in practice, from how it seemed before and even during law school.

In other words, we have these disgruntled, alienated, unhappy lawyers – especially, it seems, in the Wall Street firms, which are supposed to offer the best career opportunities – because law schools and the legal profession essentially deceive them as to what they are getting into.  They thought they were going to be on a fast track to the stars, and instead they found themselves engaged in incredibly boring, unpleasant, and frequently sociopathic pursuits, just because somebody could afford to pay their employer for their time.  Lawyers are often called whores because they will serve any paying client, but they can find themselves in the role of the whore in another sense:  they are being bought, not merely to perform, but to do so in extremely degrading ways, if that is what the client desires.

So that is one way in which legal education is a failure of higher education:  it is a diversion of talent, often achieved through misrepresentation and nondisclosure of legal career realities.  Law schools are generally much more concerned with getting the applicants than with making sure of their career success.  The tuition is paid up front; there is no satisfaction-based bonus or commission.  Bright, hardworking students who could have gone into careers in which they would thrive for decades, making potentially important contributions to society, can instead find themselves at a loss, five or ten years down the line, when they quit, are passed over for partnership, or otherwise reach the day of reckoning.

Failure of Contribution to the University

Another thought emerging from the foregoing exchange is that the law school, being largely walled off from the rest of the university, withholds valuable contributions from the ambiance of higher education generally.  Some of these potential contributions appear in a response to another blog post, where the writer is advising a lawyer who is considering looking for work outside the legal profession:

[L]awyers . . . need a certain amount of thinking time to work well. Outside the legal sphere, it’s far more damaging – a potential career killer.  Efficiency is valued over completeness; thoughtfulness is often seen as self-indulgence. . . .  [Y]ou’ll be particularly surprised how comparatively few people in corporations or financial firms seem to consider the ethical ramifications of their work.  You’ll be stunned at how few people have any idea what the law is, or how it works.  You’ll wonder why MBAs, engineers, etc. are so focused on “how”, and why they don’t seem to dwell as much on “why.”

Law – particularly law school, as distinct from the more cynical practice environments encountered by most legal practitioners – is a place where a person can be encouraged to mix ethical questioning with real-world concerns.  There is, in addition, a culture of civil disputation that does not exist in many university departments:  in law school, it may be considered normal and even desirable, not only to express dissenting views but actually to do so deliberately, as Devil’s Advocate for the less popular perspective.  Whatever the roots of the university may have been, much of today’s academia is no longer socialized into any such questioning mentality; there are often substantial pressures in favor of groupthink.

My own experience suggests that university departments – indeed, entire academic disciplines – can be substantially insulated from thoughtful, practical questioning as to what they are doing and why they are doing it.  The law school’s bizarre cloistering of many of the university’s smartest, most assertive, and/or most idealistic graduates also deprives the university community of input from those who might be most likely to challenge injustices in the university’s treatment of its students (and sometimes, for that matter, its faculty).  Referring, again, to my own experience, this deprivation operates at multiple levels, including the university’s internal justice policies, its potential for corruption of public dispute resolution processes, and its cronyism in partnership with supposed higher educational watchdogs.

Failure of Public Service

Law school typically constitutes a failure of higher education in another important regard.  The primary purpose of a public university is to serve the public.  The public is only tangentially served, and is often dramatically disserved, when departments within universities turn instead to the service of privileged social strata.  In this regard, law schools are the worst components in all of academia.  Nowhere else has there been such an enormous misdirection of effort, talent, law, custom – indeed, nowhere else has there been such a tragic attack upon the very foundations of society – for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful.  Billions upon billions of dollars, and countless millions of lives, are put to purposes that substantially disserve the people.

This is done under the cover of the university, supposedly for the public good.  We live in an era when law school graduates cannot get jobs because their educations (in terms of both cost and the topics studied) have been so terribly skewed toward a shrinking number of overpaid corporate law firm positions, and away from actual needs experienced by the vast majority of citizens.  People are out there crying, and dying, because law students are selected and trained for purposes of the corporate legal destruction of adversaries.

Failure of Civic Spirit

Law, as debated in the foregoing exchange, is nothing so much as self-indulgence.  The blogger quoted above insists upon his right to engage in name-calling, within a profession geared toward ad hominem attacks and every other kind of trickery, for the purpose of winning at all costs.  Law school, in other words, has itself been corrupted by the demands of practice.  Judges are often the people who directly or indirectly decide lawyers’ career success and, unfortunately, judges enjoy enormous latitude (and a considerable propensity) for self-indulgence, even if that entails ignorance, insensitivity, bias, and cronyism.  There are too few controls on the ways in which a judge may abuse justice, and the public, to suit what s/he considers most pleasant or convenient.  The arrangement fostered by law schools is, in other words, one in which the public is expected to serve judges, not vice versa.

So the blogger, having been trained not to value people’s feelings and needs, or otherwise to understand empathy, decides it is normal and appropriate to describe big-firm lawyers as “douchebags.”  This appears to be a shorthand way of saying that he does not like them; he clarifies that he does not mean the term to apply to anyone who is a friend to him.  This individual may have entered law school with clarity of mind – with, that is, the ability to understand that discussion is not advanced by distribution of irrelevant insults.

As the foregoing respondents indicate, many lawyers have become shackled into the system.  To call them whores would not be irrelevant and might not even be insulting:  their responses suggest that some have indeed sold themselves (perhaps more thoroughly than anticipated) through a gradual succession of student loans, social expectations, marriage, mortgage, divorce, and other financial impositions.  It would have been desirable for law school to have enhanced that blogger’s ability (and inclination) to identify issues and articulate workable solutions to such a situation.  The notion that he (and many others) should proceed by gratuitously alienating people does seem to suggest a failure of legal education, and of the university that approves it.

Failure of Substantive Education

At one point, some years ago, I decided to look into the possibility of joining the Peace Corps.  I called their number and spoke with one of their representatives.  I was trying to get a handle on how I might be useful – on how my training and experience might translate into a Peace Corps assignment.  I explained to the lady that I had a law degree from Columbia, and experience in a Wall Street law firm and also in certain financial settings.  She listened patiently, and finally asked, “OK, but can you do anything?”  Her question befuddled me at the moment.  Afterwards, I found it pretty funny.  She was asking, I guess, whether I could farm or teach or do something that people outside of a certain privileged sector of the American economy might actually need.  And the answer was that, yeah, I probably could, but I would have to reach back, to my high school and college years, to claim experience of that kind.

Of course, we do not send people to law school in order to become farmers or teachers.  But that does not mean they should be utterly walled off from the rest of the world.  I did find it amusing, years later, when I discovered that my Columbia law degree did not suffice to exempt me from the requirement of taking an undergraduate course in American government, before I would be qualified to teach social studies in a high school.  I may have filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, but I guess that did not mean I actually knew anything about it.  We seemed to have, in that regard, a rather profound disconnect between people who know things and those who teach things.  It could have been preferable that educators and lawyers were not quite so isolated from each other – that, for example, someone who scored 800 on the LSAT would be suspected of having sufficient language competence to teach middle school English.  Sadly, professional exchanges between these vocations will not often occur, not when lawyers earn five or ten times what teachers earn.  In the present arrangement, lawyers’ exorbitant compensation generally prevents kids (and even college students) from gaining any substantial educational exposure to a lawyer’s perspectives.

Whatever the possibilities for cross-disciplinary interaction that might appeal to lawyers considering a career change, it does seem that at least lawyers might be educated in basic matters that can contribute to career success.  For instance, one thread complains of a number of deficiencies that evidently plague ex-attorneys seeking positions in higher education administration, including computer illiteracy, a tendency to dominate discussion, inability to use data, a privileged attitude, self-promotion, and a willingness to distort realities in order to “win.”  Not to grant total credence to every complaint, but some of these maladies were identified in my book, a generation ago – and in sources, cited in that book, from generations before that.

It would be one thing if these concerns mattered only for ex-lawyers who find themselves puzzled at their unwelcome in life after law.  The problem is that lawyers, in their own practice, are plagued – and plague others – by dint of these selfsame educational failings.  Judges, who are overwhelmingly lawyers, must often decide matters that require competence in the use of numbers and research.  Judges who lack such competence rarely recuse themselves.  In those infrequent situations where funding permits, they may call upon an expert.  Even at that, they are rarely familiar with the scholarly literature of the things they are judging, and they don’t usually have time to pick it up on the fly.  Typically, they just go by the seat of their pants.  And that’s how our world is supposed to progress.

More broadly, because of their pivotal role in achieving justice and promoting a good society, lawyers should not be commonly viewed as functional illiterates who seek to manipulate, distort, distract from the truth, self-aggrandize, or otherwise behave reprehensibly.  In other words, if your knowledge and character do not justify the power you enjoy, then you should not have it.  You certainly should not be influencing the course of people’s lives.

In all of these regards, the university severely fails its educational mission by allowing the law school to just sail along on its merry way.  What is presently perceived as a crisis in law school enrollment is actually a blessing, if it pressures people to get the law schools in line with what society needs from its lawyers.  One can hope, that is, for more pressures leading toward reform.

At present, the university is not resolving the ways in which law school constitutes a failure of higher education.  That should change.

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