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December 7, 2006

reader brainstorm: Law School teaches you to [verb] like a lawyer

In 2002, Dean Nancy Rapoport of the University of Houston Law Center critiqued the commonplace that law schools should teach students to "think like lawyers." "No one expects a doctor to 'think' like a doctor when she leaves medical school. We expect her to be a doctor."1 More recently, Dean Stephen Friedman of Pace University riffed off this quote to argue for more practice-oriented education. "I believe that for most students and most law schools, the raison d'etre of legal educational is to educate and train students to be effective new lawyers, not to teach them how to "think like a lawyer" or to give them substantive expertise or skills training."2

Deans Rapoport and Friedman make compelling cases, but I seek more clarity on the meaning of the verb "to be" in the sentence, "Law schools should teach students to be effective lawyers."

Therefore, this Mad Libs post invites readers to consider what other verbs might better describe your own mission as teachers in the formula, "Law school teaches students to ____ like lawyers." Here are a few possibilities for getting started:

  • Law school teaches students to write like lawyers.
  • Law school teaches students to behave ethically like lawyers.
  • Law school teaches students to manage a practice [...like lawyers?]

- Gene Koo (who wishes to shamelessly plug Legal Education in a Networked World, happening tonight in real time)

1 Nancy B. Rapoport, Is "Thinking Like a Lawyer" Really What We Want to Teach?, 1 J. of the Assoc. of Legal Writing Directors 91, 92 (2002).

2 Stephen J. Friedman, Why Can't Law Students Be More Lilke Lawyers?, 37 U. Tol. L. Rev. 81 (2005).

December 7, 2006 in Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink


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I'd like to say "solve problems like lawyers,"but it is probably more accurate to say "examine the world like lawyers."

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 7, 2006 3:25:36 PM

We use "thinking like a lawyer" as a phrase to describe the analytical thinking skills lawyers routinely use to solve problems, sort through facts to determine those that are important and those that are not, develop creative solutions to novel problems, define and identify issues, and to understand the various perspectives that may be present in any given problem, case, or situation. In addition to "thinking like a lawyer" we need to teach students to "do like a lawyer." This shorthand phrase encompasses the ethical and behavioral standards to which all lawyers should adhere, as well as the skills and abilities to put the critical thinking skills to actual use in solving real problems for real clients. The ability to "think like a lawyer" without the ability to "do like a lawyer," and vice versa, means the person really isn't a lawyer. Obviously, devloping the thinking, as well as the doing part, is a life-long endeavor. Law schools cannot do either completely and shouldn't be expected to. They should, however, begin the process in both areas and set reasonable goals for students to achieve in both areas before handing them a diploma.

Posted by: W.A. Woodruff | Dec 7, 2006 5:45:54 PM

The notion that doctors are doctors when they graduate is a touch absurd. First, doctors go to school for 4 years, the fourth of which is heavy clinical rotation.

Doctors also spend at least 3 more years as residents at a pittance salary where they actually learn how to be doctors.

I think it would be GREAT if law schools made students stick around and pay tuition to do free work for clients full time. It would be even better if we could make them work for a third or less of their market salary for three more years while they learn practice skills.

I doubt that idea would go over very well with the student population.

Instead, the first three years of medical school teaches doctors to "think like doctors" - that is, they learn anatomy, ethics, techniques, etc. Different skills, but not that different from law school.

Given that most practice skills are learned on the job, I don't think it is a terrible thing to give law students the thinking, analyzing, and researching skills they need to know how to begin to confront any new issue they might face in their first or fiftieth year of practice. Let the law firms subsidize low productivity training on specific practice skills.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 7, 2006 9:02:52 PM

@ Anon: Fair point, and the same one I was given recently by an educator at Harvard Medical School -- that is, HMS's explicit goal is to prepare students for your residency, not full practice.

As far as the residency requirement is concerned, isn't this what Stanford is now proposing to do with the 2L/3L years?

Re: letting the law firms subsidize "low productivity training." As far as training on skills that are actually "low productivity," I don't doubt that law practice settings are best at handling these. They are the immediate beneficiaries and have every incentive to do it right. Furthermore, these very context-specific skills morph so rapidly, and turn on such specific details, that attempting to provide them in law schools seems futile. Many of the firms we've spoken with have said as much. Of course, these are often the biggest, richest firms that can afford to throw a few dollars at training -- when you look at Pace's study of mid-sized firms, you see quite a bit more reluctance to take on these responsibilities.

What concerns me more is whether law graduates are failing to receive "high productivity training" from school or employer.

Posted by: Gene Koo | Dec 8, 2006 10:41:46 AM

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