American Legal Education: Buyer Beware

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Many Americans hate lawyers. For that matter, persons the world around dislike lawyers.

Anyone who followed the Gore election lawsuits can only have come away from the sordid affair with a greater dislike for lawyers.

I am a new lawyer, so this is not at all disturbing to me. I am not sure that I will find it disturbing when I am very old. It was apparently greatly disturbing to Congressman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who went so far as to instruct my graduating class of 2000 at Case Western Reserve University law school not to make lawyer jokes, and to gently chastise people heard making lawyer jokes. (As an aside, Jones earned an F- from the Gun Owners of America for the 107th Congress, so she is not on my list of favorite politicians. Yes, that is an F minus. The Gun Owners are serious about report cards.)

Many lawyers should be made fun of, especially the two self-righteous charlatans who will be exiting the White House soon, namely Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Gore dropped out of law school).

But it is not only lawyers who are in need of scathing criticism. American law schools should also be taken to task for their third-rate intellectual environment.

As the story was told by my law professors, early in the 20th century, Harvard decided that there was a cheaper way to educate law students. Rather than the traditional lecture format, more students could be crammed into classes if the Socratic method was used. This makes no intuitive economic sense to me, but we will follow the story as it is told.

The Socratic method — which is a disgrace to Socrates, who sought a) to get the truth from self-proclaimed experts, who were no more than windbags and b) sought to be a gadfly in the political life of Athens — consists of sneering professors quizzing students until a student gets something wrong. Generally, this is done by trick questions, argumentative assertions, and similar devices for which contemporary American law students are wholly unprepared.

The Socratic method — which should, in fairness, be called the Drill Sergeant Lite method (because no one will be punched or made to do pushups, or run three miles in the rain in full pack) — may have been a sensible method a) at Harvard and b) when it was instituted, i.e. when Americans entering law school were better educated than they are today.

Unfortunately, many younger Americans are semi-literate at best. Even if the students entering law school today are able to read, they are not well-read. They have likely never heard of, let alone actually read Hayek, Cicero, or St. Thomas Aquinas (Aquinas, after all, is a "religious" figure, and thus doubly-dangerous).

The odds are good that they have not read much Shakespeare either. Using the Socratic method on such nearly-empty minds is a sheer waste of time. The waste is multiplied when one considers the fact that law students are expected to teach themselves.

Yes, teach themselves.

The job of the law professor is to hide the truth. The professor will not tell the student the elements of a contract, or the elements of a tort such as battery (i.e., the legal cause of action for physically hitting someone). Instead, the student is expected to read the cases in a textbook and figure it out on their own.

Remember that these are students, born after 1975, who nearly uniformly have never been made to think or work hard in their educational careers. Challenges having been abolished in the name of protecting "self-esteem," these students do what comes naturally to them: they play Nintendo, read the New York Times, email their friends, drink tremendous amounts of beer, have illicit sex, and generally bide their time until graduation.

When it comes to teaching themselves, law students fall back on whatever platitudes they memorized in college and high school, or what they might have heard from a special interest group or on CNN.

The end product of such legal education is not a nation of great legal minds. At best, it is a nation of competent legal practitioners. At worst, it is a nation whose lawyers lack an adequately grounded philosophical and moral understanding of the nature of law, who willingly pervert the law, and who consequently do a great deal of harm to American society. James Bovard’s books have documented the cumbersome regulations both written by lawyers and spawned by the lawsuits filed by lawyers (and presided over by a subset of lawyers known as judges).

In short, law school is almost indistinguishable from an intellectual wasteland.

Despite this fact, it is possible to get a legal education and to practice as an attorney. In the process, prospective students should expect to be bombarded with Marxist economics, totalitarian political thought, and endure a cultural environment which is almost completely hostile to Christianity and Western civilization. Expect to be inundated with propaganda from racial and homosexual interest groups, which will be funded with the fees you are compelled to pay to the law school. And expect Democratic politicians to be above criticism.

Persons interested in thinking about the law from a philosophical, historical, or jurisprudential viewpoint would be better served by studying history or philosophy, and by prayer and fasting.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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