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Blowing the whistle on US law schools

With courses from 'Wine and the Law' to 'Understanding Obama', even President Obama is calling for a rethink on US law schools.

Wine: A US law school course Givaga

President Obama recently let slip what some in the legal community have been thinking - that the American law school experience should be reduced from three years to two.  The Obama proposal is a reflection of the type of critique that laws schools are facing as the cost of a legal education has escalated and placement rates for graduating lawyers have dropped.  At the American Association of Justice’s Annual Convention in July, noted trial lawyer Gerry Spence  attacked American law schools for failing to prepare students for the practice of law.  

Yet, the Obama proposal to reduce a student’s time in law school does not seem to focus on the real problem.  If Spence is right, the Obama proposal would be akin to curing the inadequacies of a bad restaurant by requiring it to serve smaller dishes.

On the law school menu

Let’s take a look at what the American law schools are serving up these days.  At Harvard, students can take a course in “Animal Law.”  The course description says “this is a basic course in animal law in which the students engage a broad range of cases, legislation, and concepts as they pertain to nonhuman animals.”  I do not completely understand what a “nonhuman animal” is but I can only speculate that I am not one of them.  At least I hope not. 

Also at Harvard, students can take a course called “Law & Psychology; The Emotions.”  The course description states “love, jealousy, guilt, anger, fear, greed, compassion, hope and joy play important roles in the lives of lawyers and those with whom they interact.”  And for those Harvard law students who do not read the newspaper or follow current events, they can take a course called “Understanding Obama.” 

Over on the West Coast of the United States, at the renowned Stanford University – not far from California’s lush vineyards – students can take a course called “Wine and the Law.”  Down in Southern California, at UCLA, students can take a course in “Law and Popular Culture” where they have arduous homework assignments.  The course description states “before class, students will see a series of films or television shows relating to law, lawyers and the legal system.  There is also a weekly homework assignment based on materials in the assigned text or the assigned film or TV show.”

More tragic than comic

You might be thinking that I have skills as a fiction or comedy writer.  I don’t.  The truth is that no one can make this stuff up. Unfortunately, what I am writing about is more tragedy than comedy.  While law school placement officers complain that there are not enough jobs for their graduates, the unfortunate reality is that more people need legal representation than ever before. 

There are people whose workplaces are unsafe but they cannot find a competent affordable counsel to advocate for safer conditions.  There are workers who are deprived of their full hourly rate of pay or are not properly compensated for overtime.  There are literally thousands of people who are forced out of their homes because they cannot afford the mortgages that were sold to them by the banks.  And there are people who have filed for bankruptcy because their credit card interest rates have exponentially rocketed once the debt was incurred.  These are the hard working victims who need counsel.  I could talk about those who are accused of crime and need competent representation but I suspect that story has been told already. 

Law schools have lost their compass

The type of clients I am talking about are not looking for lawyers who charge hourly rates  exceeding what most workers make in a week or perhaps a month.  I am talking about those who  are looking for competent yet affordable counsel; lawyers who can battle life’s conflicts and by doing so can change the trajectory of a life.

It seems that our law schools have lost their compass. Sure they have their clinics that provide future lawyers with exposure to clients whose needs are too small for the mega firm to handle. But at the end of the day, their overall curriculums at times seem disconnected from what I understand was at one time a goal of training advocates in a system of justice. It seems that in their race to top of the US News Rankings, schools hire the Professor who is renowned for writing about a previously uncharted topic; albeit perhaps one that has nothing to do with the representation of people with the needs of  which I write about here.

What “Wine & the Law” or “Understanding Obama” has to do with the needs of real clients is as much a mystery to me as the term “nonhuman animal.”  I will confess that when I read the term “nonhuman animal,” I did what most lawyers do – I consulted an expert.  Our dog said she would consult her colleagues and get back to me. I will let you know how that turns out.   

Posted by:

Reuben
Guttman

04 September 2013

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