Law Students and Young Lawyers

What’s Law School Have to Do With It

Few lawyers would disagree with the statement that “law school does not teach you what you have to know to be able to practice law.” I imagine that the general public would find that to be surprising. It is called “law school” after all.

Law schools say that they teach us how to think a certain way, as summed up by the fictional Charles W. Kingfield Jr. in the movie ‘The Paper Chase’.  He said: “You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I sometimes wonder whether I would have been better off with a skull full of mush, but that is a whole other story.

We all know what the law schools say about this: “It is not our job to teach you how to practice; law degrees are useful for many things other than the practice of law; yada, yada, yada.”

And we know what the Law Society says about this: practically nothing.

Those of you who work for law firms know what their attitude is, which is pretty much that you have to focus on what you need to know to produce billings, and you will somehow magically absorb the rest of it over time.

I needed surgery once. The night before the surgery I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat worrying that medical schools have the same attitude to training doctors that law schools have about training lawyers. (Okay, I made that up but if I had thought about it before going to bed, there would have been no chance of falling asleep.)

I will not live long enough to figure out how to fix this problem, so I will simply try to entertain you with my favourite anecdote which illustrates the gap between what law school teaches us and what we need to know about how to practice law. It concerns an articling student who did some research for me and wrote a long memo explaining his findings. In the first paragraph he advised me that the Supreme Court of Canada had decided an almost identical case a few years before and he briefly summarized the decision.

I had my answer and I was ready to stop reading, but there remained many more pages to go through. In the remaining pages he explained why the Supreme Court of Canada was wrong, and what the law should be. He seemed quite surprised when I told him that I was going to rely on the Supreme Court’s decision, regardless of his personal views about the correctness of the decision. As I think back to how I was taught in law school, I can understand why he thought that I would be interested in his personal musings about whether the Supreme Court knew what they were doing.

Law schools will begin to be useful when they figure out that the vast majority of their students have no one to teach them how to practice law and that it is up to them to do it.

I am certain that I will now be hearing from the law schools saying that things have changed and they now offer more practical courses. I will believe it when I see law students graduating with the skills to practice law and a clue as to what they have to do to succeed in the profession.

3 replies on “What’s Law School Have to Do With It”

Maybe law schools could do a module on “introduction to legal practice”. They could teach things like:

1) “shorter is better” i.e. client emails should be at most one page long

2) the value of executive summaries

3) the client is not impressed by use of Latin (save it for the judge)

4) telephone skills 101 (you get a waiver if you can evidence relevant prior work experience eg working in a call centre)

5) there are only ever 3 answers to client questions – yes, no, and “we’ll need to look into it further”

All valid lessons, but I expect that it would take well more than a module to start graduating lawyers who can serve clients competently as soon as they are qualified. More like another year or perhaps cut out some of non-core subjects and replace them with things like: (1) actual statutory provisions and case law that you have to know to avoid being negligent; (2) everyday challenges in ethics that you will face; (3) negotiation; (4) how to deal with bullies; (5) seeing the forest from the trees; (6) simple communication 101; (7) Strategy. I bet I could come up with a whole bunch more, but you get the idea.

Yes, quite. I would have gladly traded in my criminal law module for something like this! And also, I was half-joking when I suggested a single module would suffice. But then, perhaps it’s a good thing because better law school training of soft skills might do a lot of lawyer coaches out of a job…

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