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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Case for Law School Part III

This is the third in a three-part series in defense of law school. One more really important reason to go to law school:

3. A Law degree is a tangible skill for people who lack other tangible skills. Now don’t get me wrong, lawyers don’t cure cancer, or fix broken bones or even cars, we don’t build amazing things, and we certainly don’t invent things. So we really lack important tangible skills that make the world run. That is unfortunate. We need people out there building and creating and fixing tangible things. But there are a lot of people who realized (or are realizing) as they go through wood shop and physics or sewing or cooking class that their skills may not be tangible in nature. Or they don’t like the lifestyle that one of the jobs with a tangible skill provides them. So they decide they want a white collar office job. This would put these individuals in the same category of white collar paper/email shufflers as business people, academics, and most office jobs (you name it: HR, advertising, public relations, marketing, sales, etc.)—however I would argue that lawyers are well placed in this cohort as they have a tangible skill. It hasn’t always been this way before law schools existed and state bars limited who could practice law, but the way it is now, you need a law degree and to pass the bar to practice law.

And a law degree (and passing the bar) provides a student with a tangible skill with which to make money and/or help people. Lawyers are often necessary to help with serious family and custody disputes, immigration problems, tax, trusts, estates, criminal matters, personal injury disputes, contracts, business mergers and so on and so on. The skills to practice these areas of law obviously require more training after law school, but the basis starts at law school. And if a student is willing to work hard and go out there and serve the underprivileged, there are PLENTY of jobs out there. Most jurisdictions have lists for lawyers to sign up who are willing to take cases at reduced rates. This is also available at the federal level. Immigration and criminal cases are always more plentiful than lawyers to help process them and represent defendants in court.

 In this past year, lawyers rallied all across the country to help those who were affected by the Trump immigration ban. Many lawyers are still engaged in volunteer efforts towards this cause. And doesn’t that feel great to be able to do more—something tangible—than just complain on facebook, or cry into your pillow, or write your Congressperson to complain about policies you feel are unjust or constitutional? In other words, there is plenty of legal work to go around and plenty of good to do with it if you have the desire. The tangible skill of law can also help you make a great living. You may not be as rich as if you invent something really useful (like this exercise board I saw on Shark tank that made me rethink my entire life) but there will be work for you if you are willing to work hard and a pretty good income relatively.

Having a skill is not something I really thought about when I was graduating college. I had majored in a social science and hoped for a PhD in political science and to teach after. And although that would have been fascinating, it would not have provided me with skills to be able to represent many criminal defendants and some big companies throughout my career. This is not something students may think about when they are considering what to do after their undergrad, so I put it out there for consideration as a huge bonus to a law degree.

There are plenty more than three reasons to go to law school—I’d love to hear others from you all—but these are my most important three.

Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on August 10, 2017 at 01:18 PM | Permalink


Since you talked about how law school trains people to be such great writers and form arguments in your previous post, I'll note the absurdity that appears at the start of this post: "A Law degree is a tangible skill for people who lack other tangible skills."

A degree is not a skill, it's a credential. A skill is an ability to do something. A degree is a piece of fancy paper you hang on your wall.

The goofiness of this error aside, the idea behind it is just plainly not true. Law school does not grant people tangible skills. It provides some theoretical background of arguable value which could be helpful in later acquiring skills, but a fresh law graduate really doesn't have tangible skills. The students, schools, and profession all expect skills to be gained on the job. It's actual legal practice that gives you the skills, not law school.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 10, 2017 3:47:56 PM

Geez, Derek. Overstate your case much?

This series of posts is not particularly well-written. Fine. You're right, and you've made your point.

You're also right that a degree is not a "tangible skill." It's unfortunate Professor Baradaran Baughman framed her argument that way.

But to say that law school "does not grant people tangible skills" seems silly--exaggerated for effect at best, intentionally tendentious at worst. We get that you didn't love law school. Perhaps you feel you didn't learn very much there. Okay. But lots of folks did learn things in law school, and a bunch still do. Some even pick up a "tangible skill" or two.

Posted by: Marcus Neff | Aug 10, 2017 4:11:07 PM


Of course people learn things in law school, but posts like this lauding the benefits of law school need to be very precise when describing what is learned. You can get a great theoretical background and understand many of the principles that go into legal decision making, but that's quite different from having a tangible skill, just as you could spend years studying anatomy and biochemistry and that would be quite different from being able to perform an appendectomy.

It's far more accurate to say that a law degree (and bar passage) provides entry into a profession where you can then acquire useful and profitable skills.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 10, 2017 4:32:02 PM

Maybe I can offer some mildly more constructive comments.

1. I'm genuinely at a loss as to what you mean by "tangible" and "tangible skill." Since you equate the degree itself with tangible skill, by tangible skill do you mean a tangible honorific that gives employers the *impression* that its holder has useful skills? Or do you think that all law-school graduates have some baseline of practical legal skills?

2. I do have to agree with Derek that law school doesn't provide its attendees with tangible skills (to the extent I understand the phrase) so much as a background and set of techniques that prepares them to acquire skills. Law school graduates *may* be able to write a credible memo upon graduation, but not a pleading, motion, brief, or opinion without some additional practical experience and tutelage, and they almost certainly can't begin to take a deposition or draft a contract/instrument/will/statute merely by virtue of having attended law school.

3. Even if I'm wrong about that, the more fundamental flaw in this argument for law school is that it assumes there's some set of people who don't have any non-legal "tangible skills" and can't or won't acquire them, but who are able to acquire the tangible skill of layering, which they somehow know they'll be able to acquire before attending law school. Now, I do think there are people like that; I think I'm probably one of them. There are some things I could do besides law, I suppose, but none nearly as well or with nearly as much enthusiasm. So yes, if you like the law and think you can do law well and there isn't much else at which you are or could become very skilled, attend law school by all means. But that's a pretty trivial and tautological insight, like saying that some people should go to chef school because some people have no skills outside of cooking. Sure; people who can only earn money doing one thing or are only willing to do that thing should probably do that thing unless they don't care about or need money.

That said, I don't think there are many people who can do law pretty well, and somehow can tell they can before going to law school, but lack skills in pretty much anything else. Most good lawyers have substantial analytic abilities and could do a number of things with them. On the other hand, if someone doesn't have them, it's unlikely that law school will make them into a good lawyer, or that they'll be given the opportunity to be one. It may help them become a passably competent and modestly successful lawyer, but most people can at least be competent at all sorts of things, some of which pay better for mere competence. Many a struggling law-school graduate with a winning personality but shaky legal skills or a diploma from a lesser school could probably do much better as an insurance agent. The vast majority of lawyers in America would earn more money and enjoy a higher quality of life if they owned and operated a Chick-fil-A franchise. When you're in college, you don't have many occasions to see if you have the skills to sell insurance or chicken sandwiches, but you do write papers and occasionally encounter legal materials (and LSAT prep materials) and have experiences that lead you to think you could do law. This can be misleading.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Aug 10, 2017 9:09:45 PM

"and we certainly don’t invent things"

things that aren't in the constitution that were invented by lawyers that have kept americans free:

-racial desegregation
-no moments-of-silence in schools
-no excessive-force by police
-the exclusionary rule
-the miranda warning
-government duty to disclose evidence
-freedom from abortion-controls (Akron, overruled in Casey)
-innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (comes from French bill of rights, not U.S)
-right to marry
-freedom of contract

Posted by: the inventor and the invented | Aug 10, 2017 9:43:21 PM

"It's far more accurate to say that a law degree (and bar passage) provides entry into a profession where you can then acquire useful and profitable skills." While I think there is a fair and obvious point there, I think it's overstated. It depends on whether you think what Robert Reich once called "symbolic analysis," which he saw as the modern post-industrial growth area of the American economy, is a "skill," and a valuable one at that. Where I would doubtless agree with Derek is that law school is far from the only place to learn it, one can question how *much* of law school teaches it and how *well* compared to other educational programs or jobs and whether it should do more or less of it, and although symbolic analysis is arguably a useful and profitable skill that can enhance one's success in various fields, it has to cash out in specific ways, jobs, and career paths, for which a credential is often needed as a starting point. I *would* say that learning "symbolic analysis" is a skill and a useful one and that law school in and of itself contributes to learning it, but I wouldn't consider it a necessary or sufficient reason to advise someone to attend law school.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 11, 2017 8:50:15 AM

The basic nature of academic inquiry is the development of a hypothesis and an objective consideration of the evidence supporting both the hypothesis and the null hypothesis. The problem with this series, and many others like it, is the foregone conclusion of the rightness of the hypothesis and the irrelevance of the null hypothesis.

And I mean that to apply to both sides of the argument. The "burn all the law schools" crowd ignores evidence that undermines their claims (e.g. disregarding the fact that there are plenty of quality JD-preferred jobs out there that should count towards employment scores); and those who steadfastly defend the status quo do the same (e.g. universally counting JD-preferred jobs towards employment scores despite the multitude of non-optimal outcomes).

Some day, I'd like to see the academy do what the academy ought to do: stop defending the foregone conclusion and instead actually attempt a rational and objective analysis that takes into consideration one's own confirmation biases.

Posted by: LawProf | Aug 11, 2017 8:51:47 AM

And then Paul goes and demonstrates exactly what I suggested the academy ought to do.

So, let me edit the last sentence in my 8:51 comment to say: "I'd like to see the academy do more of what the academy ought to do:...."

Posted by: LawProf | Aug 11, 2017 8:56:42 AM


I think the "useful and profitable skill" description maybe misses the mark when it comes to talking about how recent graduates interact with the job market. Conversations about the value of a legal education tend to discuss the skills in very broad terms, like "reading" and "thinking." But, employers tend to look for very specific skills like "reading form THX-1138 filings" or "analyzing contracts under rule T-65(B)." A company looking for Rule T-65(B) analysis isn't going to put much stock in an applicant's ability to conduct Erie Doctrine analysis.

The skills law school gives are maybe better described as meta-skills. They're skills that will help you to acquire the more specific skills employers tend to look for, and skills that will help you in the long term with your jobs. But, they're generally not skills you can put to immediate use to start paying your rent and student loans.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 12, 2017 8:46:54 AM

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