“What Are We Doing Here?”

Pictured: Aristophanes. Source: Wikimedia.
Pictured: Aristophanes. Source: Wikimedia.

What are we doing here, exactly? What is the purpose law school? I have posed these questions to a few professors, and I have received different answers.

A common answer is that law school prepares students to be practicing attorneys. We are here to learn the nitty-gritty of the practice of law. That is why, for example, John Marshall offers so many clinics where students can get hands-on experience. That is why the school now requires “experience credits” to graduate. We do not see the words “Practice Ready” plastered all over the place for nothing.

Another answer is that law school prepares students for the bar exam. Some, if not all, professors write their own exams with the bar exam in mind. Although passing the bar exam is a prerequisite for practicing law, learning how to do well at one is not the same as learning how to do well at the other. The bar exam, out of necessity, is almost wholly divorced from legal practice. When has a client ever met with an attorney, laid out his predicament, offered four possible solutions, and demanded an answer in under a minute?

The case of Anna Alaburda, working its way through California’s state courts, presents another related answer: the purpose of law school is to get a job. Ms. Alaburda graduated from The Thomas Jefferson Law School in San Diego with honors in 2008, and has yet to find fulltime employment as an attorney. She is now going to trial in her case against Thomas Jefferson for misleading her into believing that if she paid her tuition and passed her tests, she would be on the fast track to a high-paying job as a lawyer. There is no doubt that her case will be followed closely by educators around the country.

Like passing the bar exam, getting a job is distinguishable from becoming “practice ready.” Securing employment is a distinct skill from succeeding at that employment. That said, there is obviously significant overlap.

This focus on legal education as a means to the end of get- ting money is nothing new. In one of the oldest extant comedic plays, The Clouds, Aristophanes depicts the foundations of legal education. An education in law is the study of how to make the weaker argument prevail over the stronger. And why would one be interested in overthrowing justice?  “[T]o win law-suits, whether they be just or not.” Evidently this skill would primarily be used to get out of paying just debts; “I want to be able to turn bad law-suits to my own ad- vantage and to slip through the fingers of my creditors,” says an aspiring student in Act 2.

The Chorus (a Greek dramatic device similar to a narrator) sings to Socrates’s student that “Clients will be everlastingly besieging your door in crowds, burning to get at you, to explain their business to you and to consult you about their suits, which, in return for your ability, will bring you in great sums.” The ability to act as an advocate for hire is what makes law school worth the effort.

But The Clouds is a parody of inquiry and education. And so, I think, is the idea that law school can be reduced to bar prep or job training. It goes without saying that one of the purposes of law school is to prepare students for the practice of law, but law school should also prepare students to approach life analytically. Socrates may have produced students who were successful lawyers, but that was secondary to producing students who were excellent thinkers and voracious learners. Maybe all of us should focus more on the Socratic Method; and just maybe we will achieve Socratic results.

By Jake Crabbs

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