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Monday, May 23, 2005

Which of your law school classes have been relevant to your practice?

Since we're talking about law schools, let's hop to another oft-discussed topic.  How relevant is law school to your practice? 

I'd like to get comments from some of our readers, and find out:

a.  What kind of law they practice, and how long they've practiced.

b.  How much of their law school training has been relevant to their practice.

c.  How much of their own practice is based on their law school training.

d.  Which classes they use always, often, sometimes, occasionally, or never.  We'll define often as 2-4 times a week, sometimes as 1-4 times a month, occasionally as once every 2 to 6 months. 

e.  What class might law school have offered that would be relevant to their practice.

Here are my own results:

a.  My practice is about 80% securities regulation, and also includes a little bit of general corporate work, and work on general tort, antitrust, and trusts & estates matters.  I've been in practice for three years.

b.  About 20% of my law school training has been relevant to my practice.

c.  About 10-15% of my practice is based on what I learned in law school.

d.  Classes as they relate to  my job:
Classes I use always:  None.
Classes I use often:  None
Classes I use sometimes:  Civil procedure, Securities Regulation, Corporations, Legal Writing
Classes I use occasionally:  Torts, Contracts, Tax, Trusts & Estates, Antitrust.
Classes I use never:  The rest (incl. Con Law, Crim Law, Evidence, Property, seminars, etc.)

e.  Most useful possible class:  A real "Procedure for practitioners" class that covered discovery issues in depth (including privilege, relevance, and objections), subpoenas, depositions (including class, merits, 30(b)(6), third-party, etc) and interrogatories, pretrial schedules and motions, and general motion-practice-for-dummies topics (discovery, stays, scheduling, 12(b)(6), summary judgment, protective orders, settlement, basic strategy of a brief, and so forth). 

I could have used that class, pretty much every single day for the past three years. 

Posted by Kaimi Wenger on May 23, 2005 at 11:11 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Gawd! I wander off to argue in the Fourth Circuit for a couple of cases and when I come back, there's all these interesting posts to comment on. So suffice it to say that I use civil procedure & con law all the time in my civil rights practice, and very little of the rest.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | May 25, 2005 3:53:33 PM

I think that will depend on what the class you are teaching happens to be. Some classes, an eye towards how it is used in practice is invaluable, especially when we are talking about specialized courses that are not bar exam topics. The big picture courses have some combination of general instruction and application, though one professor at my law school was known for making all of his crim law classes jurisdiction specific and taught from a compilation of our state's cases only. That was very helpful to the people who were geared to practice in the area immediately.
Short answer - Yes, to an extent. Make certain that the students learn the necessary analytic tools for the class subject-matter, and beyond that you may spice it up with actual, practical application. IMHO.

Posted by: Joel | May 24, 2005 11:41:22 AM

Wow, lots of interesting thoughts here in the comments -- thanks everyone.

First, let me say that this is not intended to be part of some long-term, "law school is useless and ought to all be scrapped" project. There are enough folks already on that bandwagon, and I don't really intend to join them.

And I'll agree with the general consensus that "learning to think like a lawyer" and "learning to pay attention to details" are useful skills that I use every day in practice, and that probably came together out of the sum of several classes, many of them 1L core courses.

And, of course, professor Froomkin is right that law schools generally church out generalists. Law school grads may not be masters of securities or admin or real estate or labor law, but they're generalists and can probably work towards any of those specializations. Law school graduates are stem cells, in a sense, ready to be shaped into kidneys or arteries or toes or eyeballs as appropriate.

And of course, there is the never-ending debate on whether law school should be more like a graduate academic program or more like a technical school, and the benefits and drawbacks of each of the sides on that longstanding debate.

Granting all of that, I still think that 20% use of law school substantive knowledge is a pretty low hit rate. (And I don't think that my own experience is all that unusual.) It's something that I just thought about a few days ago, as I was thinking of how to prepare my own courses.

But let me throw the question out to you, commenters. Should I be interested in how my students will use the things that I teach (if at all) in practice?

Posted by: Kaimi | May 23, 2005 5:56:48 PM

Anyone who is going to say that their first year writing class was not one of the most important classes of lawschool? We each got a different name for it, but it started the entire path of legal writing for all of us and the manipulation, synthesis, and construction of verbal ideas is what all of us do in the law.

Posted by: Joel | May 23, 2005 5:30:52 PM


If the main value of law school is in learning general legal reasoning, and you can get that general legal reasoning skill from any legal class, then what's wrong with law school students trying to focus on the classes that will possibly have some relevence in their practices? Every argument that's been made above seems to note that all (or nearly all) legal classes involve this general legal reasoning skill (or at least, that the degree to which they involve this skill varies more by professor than by subject matter), so by chosing classes based on their practicality, students will, at the worst, lose nothing by doing so, and, at best, gain a small amount of knowledge that may be useful to them later.

Posted by: Jeff V. | May 23, 2005 5:16:37 PM

The most useful classes to me, during my brief stint in practice and clerking, were ones that taught me how to think. Rarely did knowing a substantive body of law provide particular help, as I could readily gain what knowledge I needed by looking at a treatise. I worked on many a judicial opinion and wrote numerous memos about areas of law that I never took a class in at law school. I do not believe that these turned out any worse than the things I wrote where I had taken a class on the subject.

I doubt that many successful practitioners would say that it was the substantive body of legal doctrine in classes that best shaped their skills. My guess is that they would say it was particular professors who had an influence on them.

Thus, for me, when asked what courses most influenced me, it wouldn't be based on the doctrine covered; rather, it would be based on the professor. If the professor is good, I think that a course on practically any topic can be useful. If the professor is bad, even core courses will be unhelpful.

Posted by: Daniel Solove | May 23, 2005 4:30:44 PM

I agree with Professor Froomkin, and would like to offer a comment on (or expansion of)his third point. I think much of what we learn in law school we almost immediately take for granted. So, we didn't learn much in Securities Regulation class that will be directly helpful in resolving a specific Securities Reg client matter? Perhaps true. But think about explaining what you're doing on that client matter to a non-lawyer family member (set aside concerns of confidentiality for now). In fact, pick your smartest non-lawyer family member for this hypothetical conversation. You are likely to have to discuss the matter and the underlying issues at such a general level that it's almost meaningless and the family member is likely to walk away from the conversation with a fundamental misunderstanding of the matter nonetheless. Have the same conversation with an average attorney who doesn't work in Secrities Regulation and the level of depth you can reach in that conversation without sacrificing understanding, I think, will be notably different. That's due in no small part to the basic training on legal thinking/legal reasoning that we got in every law school course, regardless of the course's purported subject matter. I might not have used Property much in my federal employment discrimination practice, but I certainly used the analytical, reasoning, and argumentation skills that my property professor helped me develop. I may not know anything in detail about particular theories of liability in medical malpractice claims, but my general knowledge of tort law and civil procedure will allow me to hang with my trial lawyer friend's explanation of her recent case much longer than our non-lawyer friends. Law school gave me the base knowledge to be able to go specialize in almost any sub-specialty of law that my heart would desire. For instance, I was able to work in three vastly different practice areas within a big firm in just 18 months. (Obviously, I didn't stay long enough to develop any sort of expertise in any of them, but I could have.)

That being said, the fact that the first time my fingers ever touched a copy of the FRCP occurred my second week in practice after I stared blankly at my supervisor as though she were speaking a unkown tongue when she said "we need to notice a 30(b)(6)," may suggest that my CivPro prof tipped the balance a bit too much toward away from anything that hinted of the practical.

Posted by: JP | May 23, 2005 4:29:55 PM

Froomkin, I think you read too much into a simple question. And if you're not reading too much into this question, and the author is interested in reshaping legal academia to be more practical, then I agree with him. As an incoming 0L, I'd like to hear more praticing lawyers (and government lawyers and academics) answer this question.

Posted by: Jeff V. | May 23, 2005 3:42:28 PM

I do think this is a question that is either misguided or at least all to open to misunderstanding, as it implies, or will be read to imply, that a major goal of law school ought to be to try to be directly relevant to practice specializations and sub-specializations. I think, with the possible exception of basic litigation skills which cut across a wide swath of practice types, this is an error.

First, students go do a myriad of different things. There's no way to offer them all. (And, students go on to do things they didn't plan to do and wouldn't have chosen to take classes in; life is unpredictable.)

Second, the needs of a case or matter, at least any interesting ones, are almost always more specific than any course could be. In most cases a law school course relevant to a sub-specialty (say, construction arbitration) will still only scratch the surface of what you need to actually do a case; it saves you maybe 3 weeks of your learning curve.

Then, third, there's problem that so much is connected to everything else: property law is the basis of the criminal law of theft; the constitution overshadows most domestic law; administrative law shapers the practice of most federal agencies, and so on.

But fourth, and most important, the question misreads what law school ought to be trying to do, and what it's for: it is teaching a method and a cast of thought (and, in some cases, how to spot issues that the client doesn't even know are there -- even if they are issues that require a referral to another lawyer!). In that sense almost EVERY law course is relevant to the enterprise of learning the language and reflexes of the law.

Posted by: Michael Froomkin | May 23, 2005 3:36:06 PM

Interesting topic. I am an opinions attorney for the State Attorney General drafting advisory opinions on legal questions posed by state officials. I've been doing this for about 6 months and was clerking for the State Supreme Court before that.
It is hard to say which classes are really the most useful or most often used because there is no real limitation to the kinds of questions asked. I make regular use of my ConLaw and CrimLaw knowledge. I have also, however, had questions daling with property, contracts, taxation, parlimentary procedure vis-a-vis cstauttory construction, and other questions. The least useful classes as far as what I am doing now are probably Evidence, Public International Law, and Decedent's Estates.
I am, however, in an odd niche of our legal community.

Posted by: Joel | May 23, 2005 1:24:08 PM

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