Studying Engineering and Studying Law:
I enrolled in law school after engineering graduate school, and people occasionally ask me if I have advice for engineering graduates planning to study law. I get questions like, "Is studying engineering good preparation for law school?" Or, "How should I make the transition from engineering to law?" I thought it might be worth blogging about this, as my answers hinge in part on something that should be of broad interest to readers: the differences between how engineers and lawyers look at the world.

  I tend to think engineering education provides a pretty good background for law school, but that there are some pitfalls to keep in mind. Engineers tend to have two possible advantages over other entering law students. First, engineers usually have a very high tolerance for pain. It takes a lot of time and energy to "get" law school, and former engineers are used to facing that kind of challenge. (If you survived diffies, civ pro is nothin'.) Second, studying engineering trains students to think logically, step by step, and that kind of logical thinking can sometimes help students see relationships more easily than students with some other backgrounds.

  I mentioned a pitfall, however, and that pitfall is that the nature of law and engineering are profoundly different in a very important way: Engineers study nature, while lawyers study something man-made. The goal of engineering education is to understand how the world works so we can design useful tools that help manipulate it. Engineering education focuses on describing that world using mathematical equations and relationships that the world follows. There's an objective truth that can be and has been proven by experiment: either the beam will bend .2479 inches under the stress load X or it won't. After a few years of engineering education, engineers sometimes think that the world always works this way. If you can only figure out the underlying principle that the world follows, the thinking goes, you can model that world and calculate the correct answer.

  Law isn't like that. Law is man-made, and has all the uncertainty and open texture of any human endeavor. Roughly speaking, legal systems are made when a bunch of people get together and agree to form a set of rules for making rules. They write down those rules, and then enough people respect that agreement that they start to see themselves bound by it. The people in the institutions set up by the agreement start issuing new rules, and they write those down, too. So whereas in engineering, the "laws" come from nature, in the law we have man-made rules devised under man-made rules for making those rules.

  Why does this matter? For a student, I think it's different for two reasons. First, studying law means studying the man-made process of how law is generated. You read the actual opinions that made the law, and you see human beings making choices about what the law will become. This opens up a really important normative dimension of legal edication. If the law is man-made, you're going to be interested in why they made the choices they made as well as whether they made the best choice. Rules can change, so your opinion about the rules actually sorta matters.

  This is totally foreign to an engineer. When you study Newton's Laws in Physics, you don't imagine Newton pondering whether F should equal MA, or perhaps MA squared, or maybe it should be Pi/M. There's no point in voicing your opinion as to whether force should equal mass times acceleration. Nature is nature, and that's just how it is. Law is different; at bottom, it's the collective product of human opinion.

  Second, you need to learn to deal with ambiguity. Engineering offers certainty, at least subject to assumptions; if an equation describes how the world works, then it describes how the world actually works. You have certainty in the equation. But man-made processes are very different. Those rules are bound to have some areas of certainty and other areas of uncertainty, and you need to get used to it. You need to know how to identify when something is (or is not) uncertain and why, and to know the typical arguments for how that uncertainty could be resolved if someone (such as a judge) must resolve it.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Engineering and Law Comment Thread:
  2. Studying Engineering and Studying Law:
I'm both an engineer and a lawyer (I chose my moniker in my excitement shortly after passing the bar exam, but ironically my main *occupation* is still in engineering.)

I do have to respectfully disagree with some of Professor Kerr's points (at least in emphasis, if not necessarily in substance). While I'd agree that *natural* science is concerned predominantly with "what is," I would suggest that *engineering* is also eminently concerned with what man can *create* (albeit while utilizing and applying the "what is" part). In my experiences at least, many meetings, seminars, etc. often do involve philosophical or "subjective" types of discussions regarding everything from what kinds of problems we should seek to solve, to how "best" to approach solving them, to even what general direction in which to nudge the field/subfield. I believe much of today's technology is in fact the way it is because of strategic judgements and choices that engineers make at the research, conception, and design stages of product/process development. (I sometimes wonder whether the law-fact dichotomy in legal study might be somewhat analogous to the relationship between these and the underlying principles of math and science.)

As an aside, I have noticed an interesting contrast in how people's minds seem to process technical/quantitative information vs. the more abstract/qualitative concepts of law. I'm not sure whether either is "harder" per se, because I've met people in *both* fields who cannot seem to grasp the other's type of reasoning nearly as well as their own. (Then again, it could largely be a matter of acclimation -- in which case the point about having proven one's general mental toughness is very apt!)

One might suspect the notion of *physicality* is a major (perhaps even defining) distinction, but indeed many fields of engineering -- systems/optimization, (some) industrial engineering and operational logistics, mathematical modeling, etc. -- can seem more conceptual than concrete (although still quantitatively analytical). Granted, their *implications* are typically physical, but then again so are the law's. In these cases, I tend to think of "legal reasoning" and "mathematical logic" as providing somewhat comparable foundations for man's creativity...

Perhaps on a more normative level, I do think that the disparity probably *shouldn't* be nearly as dichotomized as it often is -- because, at least from a more originalist/formalist perspective, I'd like to see more of the "what is" getting asked than the "what can we make it." (This is different for policymakers, of course, where boundless creativity can often be a virtue.) This also gets into linguistic philosophies, of course (and by the way, some of my friends in computer science tell me of some pretty fascinating cross-disciplinary work going on between CS and linguistics.)

Finally (and perhaps this might be a difference between the study and the practice?), I would also observe that there can indeed be considerable "uncertainty" and "ambiguity" in engineering as well (much to our frequent frustration!); it just tends to take somewhat different forms, and have different implications...
6.8.2007 1:07pm
Jason Wojciechowski (mail) (www):
There's a whole lot of philosophy of science going on in this post, somewhat inadvertently. Is the natural world really all that certain?
6.8.2007 1:21pm
Cory Olson (mail):
I sent this on to my fiancee, a structural engineer. She thought it had a lot of good points.

As she put it....

It also explains a little why I don't have much to talk about when I get home from work. You can go on and on about cases because the law is constantly changing and evolving, and there is no right answer, only what you can make a good argument for. Whereas, I sit at my desk and design buildings, in a repetitive manner. Now, each one is a little different, but I approach each store in the same way, there is only one way to design a beam or a column. And while the codes I need to follow do change over time, the differences are slight, and the methodology remains pretty much the same. So, if you have heard about my day once, you have heard about them all to some extent.
6.8.2007 2:24pm
skyywise (mail):
As a current former engineer in law school, I will throughly agree that the "pain" of an engineering degree makes law school nothing new. Intense sure, but nothing that can't be handled. Other pitfalls that I would note (ones I have personally discovered) are that an engineering degree generally does not at all prepare one for 1) essay exams or 2) the grading methodology of law school.

Having entire grade rests on one exam is significantly different because there is no feedback to refine one's approach to taking the tests. An engineer might have had an entire class grade be based on a project, a compiler or device design or something, but there would be steps along the way to figure out what they were doing wrong. Not so in law school; one set of tests, one set of grades. You get to show your improvement the next semester in different classes.

Also, the essay exam (jokes about an engineer's ability to write coherently put aside) is the application of what Orin mentioned above regarding subjectivity. One can usually see the most likely correct path of argumentation, and then completely forget to argue in the alternative. Why would you argue about something that's probably not even within an order of magnitude of the correct answer? However, it becomes necessary to "show your work" and to repeatedly but briefly "state the negative" in order to score maximum points. An analogy: in physics, as long as my units were consistent and correct by the time I got to the end of the problem, I knew I was right and the actual numbers didn't really matter, they were happenstance. In law school, those numbers are facts of the pattern, and you have to spell out just why that number (fact) is associated with that unit (rule/law).
6.8.2007 3:00pm
Well from the tone of this post, my presumption is that Mr. Kerr has never practiced engineering. Engineering is applied science, at root, so no matter how many degrees you might stack up, there's only one way to claim the title of "engineer", and it ain't ever gonna originate from the classroom. My father had a 6th grade education from the deep backwoods of Nova Scotia, and he was as solid a hydraulics and equipment engineer as you'll come across.

You have to do it... but then what is it that we do? Tough to explain comprehensively, because we do whatever it takes. It's sorta like how Doug Moe used to introduce his motion offense to new players he'd brought over to the Denver Nuggets. He eventually found it unproductive trying to sit down and "explain" it to them, so he told 'em to sit on the sidelines for a while and watch, then go out and try to fit in. I found that same thing as I got into engineering. I tried to discover the answer... then figured out that there IS no "answer". You're resolving problems... and you do whatever it takes... with whoever... whenever... however... staying connected to the technical/legal/ethical network... but advancing the process.

And that's really the essence of it... application. You're DOING. Sure, there's an essential tool kit required, but remember, tools are just a tool, and their application is the key. It's like Lee Trevino used to say about fancy-pants golf clubs: "It ain't the arrow... it's the indian." You can fill your academic toolkit to overflowing... and absent applied usage... you'll never be an engineer.

I think this is part of why most folks including Mr. Kerr are unaware of what engineers are/do. When they think "engineer"... they reflexively think of the toolkit, F = MA and Newtonian physics and all the rest. Yes, those tools are important, but we didn't invent them... they were handed to us, we just picked up those tools and that legacy (Sound familiar, couselors?). And tools are only useful as long as they're validated in use. Classical physics was the beat all and end all... until some smart folks discovered them falling apart in the realm of subatomic particles... and time started bending (and always had been, presumably. Silly us... puny humans... for ever discounting such a possibility... and let this serve as warning to the "scientists"... with whom we uneasily serve alongside... and come to think of it... the lawyers too, with whom we serve equally uneasily, oftentimes).

Yes, there is much ambiguity involved... that's the whole point in any profession. Any stooge can do the unambiguous. But to apply a disciplined process to that ambiguity... to build a link to reconnect the forever chain... in a positive, efficient and productive manner... there's the trick. There is no "answer". There is solid process... and that's the best you can hope for in nearly anything in my experience.

It is a judicious application of tools that partially describes engineering. But in my experience, the use of that toolkit is less than 5% of what we do. As for the rest, well, you'll have to come out and watch sometime. =-;)

I may have some more comments later, but for now... engineers rule and lawyers drool!
6.8.2007 3:20pm
jimbino (mail):
The engineer who studies law needs to be aware that:
1. In law school, profs have the unassailable right to grade you on your looks, your sex, your dress and your ass-kissing. In engineering, the guy who scored the highest was clearly the best.
2. They actually let women into law school; in fact, you should not be shocked to find them sitting to the right and to the left of you. This could never happen in engineering, which shares with math and hard science a rule that women can make up 5% of the class, at most, except in grad school and beyond, where there aren't any.
3. You will have to work harder than all those women do for the grades and law review assignments, because you'll now have to compete in terms of looks, sexy dress, and sleeping with the profs.
4. In compensation, you will actually get to meet women and for the first time in your life have the opportunity to share with them your interests; this will prepare you well for the day you get involved in family law, or when one divorces you, keeps the house and takes the kids and charges you with abusing them. It will also help you expand your interests previously limited to Laws of Nature and the Grand Unified Field Theory into more important things like baby talk, clothing, makeup, pets, stretch-marks and opera.
5. You are trying to master something that, in contrast to science and math, not only will be of no use to you on the moon or in Brazil, but that they won't let you use in Louisiana or even the next state.
6. In law school, you will eventually come to abandon all the rules you started with and end up a Republican Neo-con in a three-piece suit just loose enough to allow you to bend over.
7. You will come to give up the silly notion that if you do something new and good for mankind, the world will beat a path to your door. You will come to appreciate how important it is to dress nice, talk fake, kiss ass and get to know the right people and contribute to the right judges' election campaigns.
8. You will learn new ways of talking, like "While the accident was working, did you have the opportunity to observe the individual exiting the vehicle?"
6.8.2007 5:02pm
andy (mail) (www):

First, studying law means studying the man-made process of how law is generated. You read the actual opinions that made the law.

small quibble: do the legislatures get any say in the making of the law, or is 'law' found only in judicial opinions? :)

i enjoyed your post.
6.8.2007 6:19pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
2. They actually let women into law school; in fact, you should not be shocked to find them sitting to the right and to the left of you. This could never happen in engineering, which shares with math and hard science a rule that women can make up 5% of the class, at most, except in grad school and beyond, where there aren't any.

You know this is getting pretty damn old and tiresome. While not approaching parity, women probably make up a quarter to a third of undergraduate engineering classes (and the hard sciences) nowadays. Not only that, their attractiveness is on the same distribution curve as all other majors.
6.8.2007 6:53pm
jimbino (mail):
JR Thomas,

You think it's tiresome! I've spent decades in the hard sciences and math and would really like to live in a world that had some women. Do yourself a favor: Google "Dearth of women in science" and check on the situation in the USSA, England and Germany, for example, before continuing with the anecdotes and speculation.
6.8.2007 8:44pm
For a bunch of statistics, see here:

Table 11 looks at the percentage of undergrad degrees awarded to women for various fields in science and engineering. Table 18 does the same for master's degrees, and Table 25 for doctoral degrees. Among the categories used in that study, "engineering" has the lowest percentage of women, followed by "mathematics and computer science" and then "physical sciences".
6.9.2007 11:00am
Tom R:

This reminds me of one simple illustration I used to use to show first-year students the difference between the "interpretative" and the "creative" views of judging:

"In 1930, Clyde W Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto. Also, in 1930, William Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury was published. What's the difference? If Tombaugh hadn't discovered Pluto, it would still be there, in exactly the same form, waiting to be found by someone else. But if Faulkner had never written The Sound and the Fury, it would never exist, and the chance of someone else happening to write the same story by accident is infinitesimally tiny (even if you had a million monkeys with a million typewriters). That shows how different legal scholars view judge-made law: is it waiting there to be discovered, or do judges have to create it?"

The problem with this neat little dichotomy, which served me so well through so many daunting first-year tutorials, is that on 24 August 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reclassified Pluto as a "dwarf planet", rather than a "planet" proper.

So even if the piece of rock is still in the same place in the solar system, what you categorise it as is still a matter of human judgment. Moreover, as far as "creative" w"rks is concerned, the fact that someone at Disney created The Lion King - ex nihilo, without ever having heard of Kimba the White Lion (and who would accuse Disney of falsehood?) - shows that the chance of random, uncoordinated but near-exact replicability is much higher than I had assumed a priori
6.9.2007 11:13pm
George Seldes (mail) (www):
The hardest thing about studying law after engineering and engineering management degrees was finding that an entire massive and expensive industry had managed to

(a) avoid thinking of itself as an industry or its processes as amenable to study as processes;

(b) avoid doing any self-examination around quality of outcomes;

(c) preferred to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over rather than identify the root causes and correct them; and

(d) use incomprehensible jargon and passive constructions to hint at procedures in between jokes about how poorly engineers write.

The work by the Innocence Project is a terrific example; they have done yeoman's work identifying the special causes for wrongful convictions; any engineering firm would be incorporating that kind of knowledge into its processes. In the law, we simply keep on sending people to prison or extracting extortionate plea bargains from them on the basis of un-videotaped confessions, biased lineups, bad cross-racial "witness IDs," and other issues that Sheck et al. have laid out as process flaws.

Essentially our legal system is Detroit -- we hear there's a better way of doing business, but we're really not interested in exerting ourselves much to find it, and besides, we're pretty comfortable with the way things are, and ...
6.14.2007 6:11am
ElizabethN (mail):
I have a PhD in engineering and a JD. My biggest pitfall in law school was that the exams are so different. As stated above, having your entire grade depend on an exam that you take at the end of the year is totally foreign to engineering education. And the way you're supposed to answer the questions is also different. On my CivPro exam, I interpreted the phrase "state your assumptions" the same way I would have on a physics exam - if the professor inadvertently didn't make something in the question clear, assume a reasonable value, say that you assumed it, and move on. On a law school exam, that phrase means, "whenever a fact isn't stated, solve the problem for every possible value of that fact" - and it's guaran-damn-teed that the professor will have intentionally left out some facts that matter.

The biggest advantage was that I couldn't be thrown by hostile Socratic professors. I've been worked over by a group of three during my qualifying exams, where the object is to rapidly determine everything I don't know, so that any correct answer is met by escalating to a much more difficult problem. One professor asking me to discuss a case that I've recently read is a cakewalk by comparison.
6.20.2007 8:46pm