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Should Law School Be More Than Just a 'Sorting Mechanism' for Potential Employers?

Houseman-thumb-320x160 A lively discussion is underway at The Volokh Conspiracy blog on the issue of whether law schools hire the wrong type of people to be professors by overemphasizing "elite academic credentials at the expense of practical knowledge and experience." More broadly, the debate there is over whether law school should be a "trade school" or rather a place of scholarship where students gain academic and theoretical insights about the law.

The post by Jonathan Adler cites a new paper by Georgetown adjunct professor Brent Newton who asks:

Could [a typical law school] professor whose primary scholarly interest is criminal law and procedure effectively prosecute or represent a criminal defendant at a felony trial? Could such a professor who writes law review articles about the First Amendment effectively represent a client in a civil rights litigation? Could such a professor whose expertise is securities regulation effectively represent a client or the government in an S.E.C. enforcement action? Imagine such professors being first-chair counsel in a complex civil or criminal litigation who must interview potential witnesses, take depositions and engage in electronic discovery, file and respond to summary judgment motions, conduct voir dire, present the testimony of an expert witness, cross-examine (and impeach) hostile witnesses, and make closing arguments to a jury.

Newton clearly thinks not, and adds: “How can we expect law students to become competent practitioners if the core of full-time law faculties, notwithstanding their scholarly prowess, do not themselves possess even the basic skills required to practice the type of law about which they teach and write?”

The post also cites to some provocative thoughts by Professor Stephen Bainbridge, who takes Newton's argument to the next level (and then some) in this post on his blog. Prof. Bainbridge says that as far as he can tell, these days law schools hiring professors focus almost solely on qualifications that do not have a "goddamn thing to do with the practice of law" such as "having a PhD" or "having multiple publications, even if they demonstrate the author's utter lack of doctrinal knowledge or inability to do basic legal research." 

Adler ends by stating:

As Bainbridge notes, the question today is whether the collapsed legal market will cause law schools to reevaluate their priorities and recommit themselves to preparing students for the practice of law (as opposed to providing little more than a sorting mechanism for potential employers).

The debate continues in the comments to the post. "Chris" comments:

the idea that law schools should be truly liberal academic institution is part of the problem. Law is a trade and I think that vast majority of people who enter law school are interested in learning to practice that trade.... If people want to write law review articles, they should charge their audience for them. It should not be subsidized by a trade school. I don’t see plumbers paying other non-practicing plumbers to write about how critical race theory effects piping.

Commenter "frankcross" disagrees, however:

This relies on a silly presumption. Most political science professors wouldn’t make good politicians. Most economists may not be good businessmen. And natural scientists who study botany would make lousy plants. There is no necessary reason why a person who studies and teaches something necessarily must be good at doing that thing.

Posted by Bruce Carton on August 27, 2010 at 11:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)


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