Why Can’t Yale Law Students Count?

After asking the question of one of the new (well, newish at this point) lawyers from the law school transparency movement, I learned that the scambloggers are pretty much done, having gotten tired of whining about how the law failed them and taken the assistant manager job at Dairy Queen.

It’s not that they haven’t made some headway. Fewer kids are applying to law school, and classes in some schools are smaller because of it.  Deans are pretending they can produce “practice-ready” lawyers, even though no one wants them because, well, it’s nonsense.  And even the ABA, always the last to know, is beginning to notice. Heck, they formed a committee, and plan to put on a play in a few years.

But then President Obama stuck his nose into the mess with what appeared to be a half-baked idea of reducing law school to two years. Oh boy. In a Washington Post op-ed, Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman undertook yeoman’s duty of explaining why that was a horrible idea.

U.S. law is in the midst of an intellectual revolution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes saw it coming more than a century ago: “For the rational study of the law the blackletter man [who focuses on existing legal rules] may be the man of the present, but the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics.”

If students are to engage with these opinions, they can’t merely repeat the black-letter  rules announced by judges. They must confront fundamental issues: When do free markets fail the test of economic efficiency? When should efficiency be trumped by justice? When do impressive-looking statistics amount to fancy ways of lying?

Great questions, but for one rather troubling problem: isn’t this what students were supposed to be doing in undergrad?

Yale, for example, offers courses on the use and abuse of statistics, the implications of behavioral and financial economics for regulation, the significance of social psychology in the criminal justice system, the potential of political science in designing better decision-making institutions and the ways different contemporary theories of justice constrain the use of cost-benefit analysis.

So what Ackerman is saying is that the students admitted to Yale Law School, with their bachelor’s degrees in art appreciation and women’s studies, can’t count?

This isn’t a new concept, that law is a tool that is applied to all manner of life, and consequently requires lawyers to have a working knowledge of a great many fields of endeavor.  We need to know literature and philosophy. We need to know computer science and quantum physics. We need to know statistics and economics.  We even need to know something about birthin’ babies. We need it all.

But the grand rounds of a liberal education isn’t why people pay lawprofs the big bucks. And frankly, you guys aren’t exactly qualified to teach it, if that was the sort of thing that law students ought to learn. As painful a pill as this may be to swallow, lawprofs aren’t necessarily economics experts, even though you likely think you’re just as good as, say, an economics professor.

It is frivolous to suppose that these lawyers would pick up the key skills on the job. Social science and statistics require systematic training, not a crash course in response to particular problems.

It’s frivolous to suppose that these lawyers would learn these skills, plus the hundred other courses of study, in law school. These are the things one expects law students to bring with them on day one, a working knowledge of the many and varied disciplines that a lawyer needs in his briefcase.

So the question is whether Ackerman is complaining that undergraduate education is so woefully inadequate as to allow students to graduate without a working knowledge of the subjects needed to survive in modern society, or whether Yale Law School admits a bunch of idiot savants, too smart for their own good and yet incapable of doing the basic work demanded of them as lawyers.

Then again, since so many Yale Law grads end up as lawprofs, maybe Ackerman overstates the problem?



17 comments on “Why Can’t Yale Law Students Count?

  1. BL1Y

    Here’s a completely radical idea that I’m sure will never be adopted: Pre-Law programs.

    It works for pre-med. I can’t imagine how bad our doctors would be if they spent the first few years of med school doing freshman level biochem. The whole point of “higher” education is that it’s supposed to build on what came before it. If med school students were doing freshmen level work, it wouldn’t be higher, it’d be parallel.

    But, that’s what we get in law school, and it’s why many people describe it as more like a second BA than a graduate degree. Classes like Law and Economics or Corporate Finance are on the level of an undergraduate class. Maybe not freshman level, but not as sophisticated as a senior level class (no one’s required to have 4 econ courses under their belt before taking Law and Econ).

    The simple lack of uniformity in law students’ undergrad educations severely limits what law schools can teach. They’d be a lot better off if they required a certain number of econ classes, American legal history, poli sci, etc, or if there was a substantive entrance exam similar to the MCAT.

    Of course, law schools would quickly close up shop if they weren’t able to sell degrees to every misguided English major.

      1. BL1Y

        The change could potentially come from the undergrad institutions themselves. With more emphasis on the real world applicability of undergrad degrees, programs such as history, poli sci, and English are going to suffer.

        It would make sense for professors in struggling humanities programs to make their field of study more relevant, and that could very well be a pre-law program (name it something like Law, Economics, and Public Policy).

        This is essentially what happened in my undergrad program. The philosophy department was struggling, so it created a philosophy of law focus to lure the pre-law students.

        Law schools will probably have no official prerequisites, but if there’s an advantage to pre-law kids either in admissions or in their law school performance, it could become the norm.

        1. SHG Post author

          I take no issue with the study of classical humanities, even though it may not lead directly to a job. Then again, I believe we should all have a well-rounded classical education, which is of great value in teaching us to think, to understand and to appreciate the world around us. Putting a professional degree price tag on it to get kids to learn smells of catering to the lowest common denominator, because the Slackoisie can’t grasp the point of learning unless there is a payback in it for them.

          But by the time one gets to law school, one ought to have sufficient breath of education, regardless of degree, that the law school need not provide a Mulligan on basic undergrad stuff. Except women’s studies, of course, which never made any sense.

          1. BL1Y

            I think the Slackoisie do generally appreciate the role of the humanities and learning for the sake of learning rather than to be an efficient corporate cog. It’s more likely their parents who are going to question the value of an art history degree or taking classes on poetry or ancient Greek history. The students fleeing to STEM programs are doing so not because they don’t value a well-rounded classical education, but because the rest of the world doesn’t.

            1. SHG Post author

              I don’t think reading Cliff Notes and the Wikipedia synopsis qualifies as an appreciation of learning for its own sake.

          2. BL1Y

            I agree with you that the students of the 1960s and 70s who gave Cliff’s Notes their start did not appreciate learning for its own sake, but I hardly see how that’s relevant.

    1. Nick

      Pre-law programs do exist, and they don’t do a great job. Plus, you get a fairly useless degree if you decide after 4 years that law school is not for you.

      Perhaps instead law schools should actually pay attention to the courses listed on transcripts rather than just the GPA number. A person taking bio-chem or advanced level courses might be a better fit than someone taking underwater basket weaving. However, that could hurt their US News ranking, and we can’t have that.

  2. Steven Warshawsky

    I heard this same spiel when I was in law school and participated in an “experimental” section designed to integrate philosophy and economics and political science into the study of law. The problem then (which I didn’t know) and now (which I do) is that, while these subjects may make studying law more interesting, they have very little to do with the day to day practice of law. As any lawyer who works in trial and appellate courts across the country quickly learns, judges love black letter law and expect lawyers to know it, use it, and structure their arguments around it. Yes, there is room for “policy” arguments, but 99 percent of cases (in civil litigation, anyway) turn on the application of those black letter rules so loathed by law professors. Whether couched in terms of “legal realism” or “radical” theory, this notion that black letter law is not real heart of lawyering is deeply misguided and destructive to a sound legal education.

  3. jill mcmahon

    Growing up in a family of lawyers, I spent a lot of time helping out around the firm in the 1980s (case research, title searches, service of process,etc). I was an academic scientist for awhile, but then circumstances brought me back to the family firm. I have not really followed the law school debate except to notice that the economy is terrible for lawyers (new and old) and others. Have they considered shortening class time (maybe 2 yrs) and requiring apprenticeships so that “newbies” can get some hands on experience?

    1. SHG Post author

      Have they considered shortening class time (maybe 2 yrs) and requiring apprenticeships so that “newbies” can get some hands on experience?

      You’re way, way, way behind the curve. You can either do a whole lot of reading or leave it alone.

  4. jill mcmahon

    Can’t tell if you’re cranky or being sarcastic. The idea of apprenticeships has been tossed around recently.
    From a learning perspective, it seems useful to me. Implementing it when law schools will not want to give up tuition and practicing lawyers can barely (or not) meet current payrolls, seems unlikely, however.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not being cranky or sarcastic, and frankly, your assumption that the problem can’t possibly be you is rather disturbing. I’ve written numerous posts on the issue and there has been a great deal of discussion. Just because you suddenly noticed the issues doesn’t mean the rest of us haven’t been engaged in discussion for a long time, or that the rest of us should go back to square one for your sake.

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