One of the main benefits of law school is learning how to "think like a lawyer". The benefit of learning this magical thinking is ostensibly worth the $120,000-$180,000 spent by law grads over three years. Professors claim that their hide the ball, hazing methods instill this important skill in the heads of all 1L's. But what does "thinking like a lawyer really entail? And more importantly: is learning "how to think like a lawyer" worth the money?
It is worth explaining exactly what "thinking like a lawyer" means. An article by our friends at Above the Law does a good job of introducing the concept. The ATL article points to an article by Lisa Mazzie at Marquette that gives the following examples of "thinking like a lawyer":
- Make “distinctions that do not make a difference to most people”
- See “ambiguity where others see things as crystal clear”
- Look at “issues from all sides” without stating your own position
- Artfully manipulate facts to “persuasively argue any point”
- Are “far more adept at analysis than decision”
As I've alluded to in the past, I now work in a non-law job that I am very happy doing. Part of my job is ensuring regulatory compliance of the products we create. I have the misfortune of dealing with clients' in-house and outside counsel from time to time. Let me break down what I see from lawyers, dealing with them as an outside observer. Many attorneys bring up points that are de minimis or outright wrongheaded. They look for exotic or uncommon ways to interpret regulations whose plain meaning is apparent to everyone else. This is usually done in service of risk minimization. The problem is that any business employing people who have even a modicum of common sense take potential lawsuits into account and evaluate the risks before acting. My company already has a process to consider and quantify potential risks and then choose a course of action based on deep analysis. The lawyers then jump in at the 11th hour to gum up the works with inane nonsense. In one of the most galling examples, we have a client whose in-house counsel is so "careful" that he has caused them to miss an important regulatory deadline three years running.
One of the glaring drawbacks to "thinking like a lawyer" is that most lawyers have no sense of how their opinions affect the business at hand. In another case, we had a client whose lawyer must have gone to a CLE. She then sent a note to our client team and asked us to add language in their product disclosures addressing an issue that literally no one else in the last twenty years has thought fit to address. When asked by the client team why the lawyer felt the disclosure should be added, she said that if an extremely unlikely and remote chain of events occurred, she wanted to be sure that client would be protected. I guess a lawyer is supposed to think of all the possible risks. But, the great lawyers have the ability to consider all of the factors in a situation; the average lawyer thinks of each matter as being in a vacuum and does not have any qualms in giving directly contradictory advice about the next matter presented. Temperance and awareness are not taught in law schools. Additionally, there is no incentive to think practically and effectively when coming up with unlikely scenarios adds an extra $500 per hour to the clients' bill for the month.
"Thinking like a lawyer" is a concept that has some utility to the stereotypical law student. The stereotypical law student is a liberal arts graduate who goes to law school because she doesn't know what else to do. A person who makes the decision to go to law school without having a clear and articulable goal of what he wants to accomplish is going to benefit from learning some critical thinking skills. However, law schools, like most of what they do, only give law students partial training. Law students are taught to question everything and look at an issue from all sides (these points are debatable). But, law schools do not teach students to apply these skills practically. When students get out into the job market, the billable hour system encourages attorneys to continue thinking inefficiently and impractically. New lawyers do eventually need to develop the ability to apply practicality to fact patterns. But just like with learning how to actually practice law, law schools leave these tasks to employers.
Learning how to "think like a lawyer" is not worth it. The current price of law school is a high price to pay to learn how to think critically. Undergraduates without any idea of what the next step in their lives will be are better served by entering the job market and maturing a bit. The law schools' value proposition is falling apart when even the slightest scrutiny is applied. We have seen that law schools are trying to integrate "practice readiness" into curriculums; these are half measures that do not address the base issue. Law school is a trade school with an elite veneer draped over it. Schools need to get over their intellectual pretensions and confront reality. But we all know that professors and administrators will hang on to the status quo until it's too late. All we need to do is get some popcorn ready and watch the spectacle unfold.
Note: edited for grammar and clarity
Note: edited for grammar and clarity