What the NYT Article on Law Schools Gets Right

While there’s a lot worth criticizing in David Segal’s NYT article about law professors and law schools — Matt Bodie covers a lot of good ground in this post at Prawfs — there’s an underlying point that I think is both important and correct: Law professors, at especially the “top” law schools, are becoming less connected to the legal profession. As a result, over time, they are less likely to know — and therefore less able to teach — the perspective an experienced lawyer would bring to legal problems.

Richard Posner made this point nicely in his 2007 essay celebrating the life of his late colleague Bernard Meltzer. Posner begins by describing the professional identities of law professors before the 1960s:

Law professors used to identify primarily with the legal profession and secondarily with the university. . . . Law professors in that earlier era were hired after a few years of practice, on the basis of evidence (heavily weighted by performance as a law student) of possessing superlative skills of legal analysis. A law professor was expected to be a superb lawyer and to see his primary role as instructing generations of law students so that they would become good, and some of them superb, lawyers—instructing them by precept but also by example, by being a role model; and the role was that of a practicing lawyer.

That all changes starting in the 1960s, Posner argues: Now law professors identify academics first, and with the legal profession second or not at all. Posner argues that this switch has real costs to students, as law professors who identified with the legal profession served as role models for students who were trying to master the craft of lawyering:

Even at the most intellectually ambitious of the modern law schools, a large majority of students will become and remain practicing lawyers; and there is a good deal more to the practice of law than economics, or philosophy, or feminism, or theories of race. There is the knack of reading cases and statutes creatively, there is a largish body of basic legal concepts that every practicing lawyer should internalize, there is a bag of rhetorical tricks to be acquired along with a professional demeanor, a procedural system to be mastered, a subtle sense (“judgment”) of just how far one can go in stretching the limits of established legal doctrines to be absorbed.

Posner then argues that while you wouldn’t want every law professor to be completely oriented to the profession, law schools should strive for balance between the profession-oriented legal academics and the university-oriented legal academics.

[The practical lawyer’s sense] cannot be the entirety of the modern lawyer’s professional equipment, and their inculcation cannot be the entirety of a first-rate modern legal education, because the law has become too deeply interfused with the methods and insights of other fields—and the law schools are still lagging badly in attempting to overcome the shameful aversion of most law students to statistics, math, science, and technology. Maybe at the law schools that have the brightest students only a third of the instruction should be in the traditional mold. But to reach that level the law schools will have to start hiring teachers who identify more strongly with the practicing profession than they do with academia.

I don’t know what the right balance is, but I do think that students are best served when their classes are taught by professors with a mix of approaches.