It takes a thick skin to be a legal educator these days, as anyone who reads newspapers or law blogs can attest. Law schools seem to have become everyone’s favorite whipping boy. I briefly questioned claims about the supposedly declining value of a JD in my recent state-of-the-school letter. A still more persistent criticism, however, has been that we’re not properly preparing students for practice, and I’d like to respond to that complaint as well. Many critics seem bothered by the fact that faculty do scholarship, as if that’s a waste of time and money. It’s a disturbing (not to mention misplaced) critique but only indirectly related to whether law schools provide an adequate education. It needs a reply, which I will offer in the next issue’s letter. Right now, I want to focus on professional education.
The most striking thing about the criticisms is that, so far as I can tell, the complaints come mostly from people who have little idea what law schools today actually do: people who assume that we still look like we did 20 or 30 years ago (when they were law students). We don’t. On the contrary, the professional education law students get today is far superior to the one I got in the early 1980s, which really did look like what the commentators are criticizing: three years of large Socratic classes with only an occasional academic seminar for relief. But law schools have been growing beyond that for years.
It is true that tenured and tenure-track faculty still teach a broad array of doctrinal classes in the traditional way. We do so because it remains as efficient and effective a method as anyone has found to teach the overarching theoretical structure of a field. Faculty also teach courses and seminars of a more academic nature, on everything from legal history to interpretive theory to the relationship of law to disciplines like economics, philosophy, sociology, and psychology.