Response To ‘Academics Who Have Not Practiced Cannot Teach Lawyers About Law’

A couple of weeks ago the PrawfsBlawg posted an article  stating it is a false binary to claim academics who have not practiced cannot teach lawyers about law.  This was in response to the pounding law schools are taking about not providing practical training and that academics are not up to the task of teaching lawyers how to be practitioners.

Here’s what I take to be the steps of the argument:

(1) Academics have not practiced:

(2) Practice experience is required to train lawyers how to practice;

(3) Therefore academics lack the experience required to train practice-ready lawyers.

Now this may sound strange to you coming from me as I am a HUGE proponent of practical education while in law school, but I think the pendulum is swinging too far and I even think this binary isn’t accurate.  Let me explain and it might shed some light on why I feel so strongly about practical education while in law school and who should actually be teaching it and why.

When I was an undergraduate at Syracuse University, I was privileged to be one of a small class entering the Newhouse School of Public Communications.  I had my heart set on a degree in Advertising. (Today the degree doesn’t exist. It’s public communications or some other nonsense. Back then you called it what it was – Advertising).  I wanted to work on Madison Avenue.  After my first year I felt empowered and wanted to create my own internship and I knew exactly where I wanted to do it, the advertising department of the New Haven Register.  I got the interview and started answering the questions as best I could based upon what I learned my first year.  I have never ever forgotten the response. “Tell your professors when they start teaching what’s really going on in the advertising world then you can come back for an internship.” I was crushed.  It was then I realized the only way my degree was going to be valuable to me was if I got practical experience concurrently with my formal education. Otherwise there was no way to make sense of what I was learning in the real world and I was going to be laughed out of every job interview upon graduation.

I went back to school that September and created my own paid internship at a local advertising agency and convinced the school to give me two credits so I could start my practical training while in school. It brought a whole different perspective to each class.  I even found myself challenging the faculty when they taught something which didn’t jibe with what I was actually doing on the job.  I worked the internship my entire sophomore year.  The next year the school came out with a new rule that Freshmen and Sophomores could not get internships for credit!  I then followed up with more paying jobs in advertising while attending school.

When I graduated no one was getting jobs.  However, within two weeks of graduation I was employed in New York City. What made me stand out from everyone else (besides a very clever resume) was the on-the-job experience I had gotten concurrently with my education.  The importance of this experience never left me and shaped all my learning thereafter.  I demanded the same opportunities in law school.

While in law school there was no solo track but I knew I was going solo.  I did, however, get into clinic which afforded me the opportunity to do a whole trial (under supervision, of course).  We met with clients, witnesses, conducted depositions, and the trial lasted a whole month concluding on Christmas eve. We missed our finals and had to get special consideration to take our finals before the beginning of spring semester.  To highlight how it is a struggle to get practical education to be recognized, I was taking Family Law 101 and Trial Practice. (I was a 2L).  The trial was a very involved custody case and I was able to waive the Family Law 101 final and be admitted to Family Law 201.  However, the committee actually had to meet to discuss if I could get credit for my Trial Practice class.  The adjunct faculty who taught the class said, ‘of course.  This was an amazing experience and she should get credit.’  The tenured faculty had to debate it. It was only after one enlightened tenured faculty stood up and said, ‘Let me see if I understand this correctly.  You want to deny her credit for not completing a fake trial because she was too busy conducting a month long real trial?’  After that it was quiet and they voted to let me get credit for my trial practice class.  ( I know all this because one of the faculty present told me the story after I graduated.)

In every education, no matter the degree, there is fundamental knowledge which simply must be taught through lectures, text books, memorization, socratic method, etc. Usually, it is best taught by those who make a career of being deeply immersed in the scholarship of the topic and are generally skilled in relaying the information.  There is no getting around this.  Straight academics play a critical role in legal education.  These faculty members are ‘specialized’ in certain areas of law and to deprive students of the depth and breadth of their knowledge isn’t the answer to the problems with legal education and it would be just a poorly thought out over reaction.

The problem is when the necessary practical education which should accompany the fundamental knowledge is minimized and marginalized or worse, schools ask career academics to teach ’something practical’ just so the school can say they are teaching ‘something practical’. The schools should be embracing the concept of practical training and then bringing in those best suited to teach it. These are courses which should rightfully be taught by someone who is actually practicing law or had a substantial amount of time practicing law before teaching.  And sometimes, just sometimes, it is someone who is already tenured because they have the right qualifications to teach the practical applications.

I’ve also had experience with teaching a course on How To Hang A Single Right Out of Law School with my alma mater and know how adjuncts are not treated with the proper respect because law schools still deliberately turn a blind arrogant eye to the importance of practical knowledge.  The tenure system creates an old guard hell bent on protecting the royalty from the heathens trying to cross the moat into the castle. It’s that simple. It’s that sad…and it’s costing the students dearly.

In my perfect world I would take the lessons I learned in undergraduate school.  Career academics would teach what they teach best at the foundational level and in some more discreet areas.  Adjuncts would be blended in to teach how to actually apply the law in today’s fast-moving and ever-changing legal profession. It would be a marriage between theory, precedent, and hand dirtying practical application. Students could both opine on the why’s and wherefores and then get down in the trenches and do the work under the supervision of practicing lawyers who are just as comfortable in the courtroom as the classroom.  Each type of faculty member would be doing what she does best, the end result being a graduate who actually brings real value to an employer or to themselves should they decide to start a solo/small firm practice right out of law school.  Either choice should be a noble one and one respected and encouraged and nurtured by both the school and the profession.



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One comment on “Response To ‘Academics Who Have Not Practiced Cannot Teach Lawyers About Law’

  • Susan: There is great value in learning abstract concepts in law school (and on that point I think we agree), but you are correct when you argue that legal education that is not applied is about as valuable to the practice of law as reading a John Grisham novel.

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