Training Legal Architects vs. Legal Mechanics

There is some very smart and forward-thinking advice from Professor Larry Ribstein in his response to the NYT article "What They Don't Teach Law Students: Lawyering."

My favorite line from Prof. Ribstein's piece: "[L] aw schools should teach law students how to be architects and designers rather than mechanics." After all, "[l]awyers now don’t draft agreements from scratch. There’s an app for that — software templates modified by user input.  A technological tsunami is sweeping over legal services," and "[c]omputers and non-lawyers will handle the mechanical tasks."

That's good advice for all higher ed today. In a world where X% of any job can be done by a machine (or by "mechanics" without fancy, expensive graduate degrees), we need to train people to handle challenges where there is NOT an "app for that," and that requires teaching how to think. Human-think, not computer-think. That means different things for different professions and industries, but certainly applies to law and legal education as well.

My take on the NYT article (which has already generated a lot of discussion; there's a nice round up here):

1. Recently minted lawyers BY DEFINITION will not have the experience or judgment (yet) to be actual "counselors," as the NYT seems to want and expect. And that's true whether you spend only one year or all three years in law school focused on practical skills. Experience and judgment are built up over years in the trenches, under the mentorship of more seasoned practitioners who do have that experience and judgment. Law school can't substitute for that, because experience and judgment simply cannot be learned in the classroom. What law school CAN do is give people broader intellectual tools required for non-mechanical problem solving, as Ribstein points out.

2. For the same reason, let's treat law school for what it is — a classroom experience — and not try to make it into something it's not. If we want law students to spend some time learning practical lawyering, then we should send them out in their third year to do practical lawyering in actual law firms, just like doctors-in-training have to do in medicine.

All that being said, there are still things students could be learning more effectively in the law school classroom. How to write, how to read an actual contract, etc. Those are all valid points in the NYT article and worth further soul-searching in the academy.

Part of the difficulty (as I'm told by my law professor friends) is that there is so much remedial work that must take place for the most foundational skills. How do you teach someone to write a good legal brief when that person has never learned how to write well, full stop? If they're not learning how to write well in high school or even in college, it's asking a lot of law professors to close that gap.

At the same time, the top law schools have oodles of great applicants to choose from. If they want to make good writing a top priority, they can decide, for example, that good writing should matter more than an LSAT score. (The LSAT test includes a writing exercise, which is a decent window into someone's real-time, unedited writing skills, but I have not seen it factor into admissions decisions in any meaningful way.) Admissions is closely intertwined with the whole purpose of legal education, and if the latter is in flux or should be in flux, admissions needs to adapt as well. But I agree with everyone involved that writing standards — even for students coming out of top colleges — are woefully low.

That's one of the reasons we treat our own work with applicants in part as a writing bootcamp. Whatever baseline writing skills they show up with, we try to move that needle and make sure they walk away with better writing skills than they came with. That can range from teaching and correcting the most basic grammar and syntax, to teaching more nuanced self-editing, like helping people shed their Consulting or NGO-speak that is so intolerable for the rest of the world to read. ("Leveraging capacity building" and other kinds of wuggamugga. Nobody wants to read that.) We're all about transferable, long-term skills here, and that's just an example.

To circle back to the opening quotation: All the training in the world to become the best "architect" or "designer" of ideas will come to naught if you can't express yourself clearly. And that's something a computer can't do for you either.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.