Before I go further, a few disclosures. First, I am a law professor, a tenured one at that. I have been tenured at a rural public law school and at a public law school in the state capital of a major state, and I have visited at private "top 25" law schools. I've seen the spectrum of legal education. Second, I also practiced law for longer than most law professors prior to entering teaching--12 years with a very large law firm, the last four as a partner. I was in charge of hiring for one of the firm's offices for two years. I know what the practice of law is about, and I know what to expect at the entry level hiring stage. The upshot is that I do value the value of ensuring that law schools prepare graduates for entry into the profession, but I also equally value how important it is not to reduce the law school experience to that of a trade school. Now back to Lippe's ditty.
In short, although there is some truth in the basic theme of Lippe's assessment of the role of law schools and what they deliver, which I will get into later, how he arrives there is thoroughly off base. Here's why:
1. Lippe repeatedly suggests that medical and business schools have got it right and law schools provide "inferior training." Oh really? So, when our nation is in the throes of a debate over the runaway costs of health care and the global economy is in a massive recession due largely to the utter largess and indulgence of our big business and investment industries, law schools should emulate medical and business schools? I think not. Rather, I suggest that medical and business schools are right up there with, if not ahead of, law schools in the need to examine their pedagogical models. In any event, it is not useful to compare medical, business, and law school models--they are three vastly different professions with distinct subject matters and professional pathways.
2. Lippe goes further, arguing that "law schools will have to produce fully functioning lawyers who can quickly become economically viable--not just proto appellate clerks." Just like medical and business schools do, right? Wrong. Medical schools do not produce "fully functioning physicians" and business schools do not produce "fully functioning corporate executives." Medical residencies and corporate ladders are the next training grounds for graduates of those professional schools. Indeed, Lippe identifies a root problem with legal profession--that "firms' appetite for subsidizing training will decline." It already has declined, because the "law as a business" model of elite law firms, which replaced "law as a profession" in the 1980s, has squeezed out everything but the billable hour from the life of associates. With a few notable and noble exceptions, BigLaw law firms want more and more to be able to charge new associates' billable hours they can justify to clients, but want less and less to bear the cost of getting the new lawyers "fully functional." Most of the discontent Lippe identifies seems to come from practitioners locked in this "law as business" model, whether in elite law firms or large corporate departments. It may be time for them to reexamine their commitment to training young lawyers, as well as to law as a profession.
3. Nowhere, for that matter, does Lippe define what a "fully functional lawyer" is. What does Lippe expect law schools to produce? Is it a lawyer equipped out of the box to argue a case in the U.S. Supreme Court? To take the deposition of a Fortune 50 CEO? To negotiate the terms of a major corporate acquisition? Of course not. Consider that most first year law students come to law school with little or no knowledge of the legal institutions of our nation beyond the basic civics class level. Lippe argues that the "time to [lawyers'] professional independence is longer [than physicians']. This is not because law is more complex or riskier than medicine, but because legal training is inferior." Well, at least he concedes law is complex and risky. But is it fair to say that I wouldn't want a newly-minted lawyer arguing a bet the company lawsuit for me because his or her training was inferior? No. The reason why is because I want someone who has argued hundreds of other less high stakes cases before taking on my high stakes case, and that simply takes time on the job. There is no way in three years of law school to get someone into that position. What we can and should do, of course, is strive to get our graduates into a position to become such a lawyer.
4. Part of the problem with Lippe's pitch in this respect is that he talks about law schools preparing graduates for the "legal profession" as if the legal profession consists exclusively of private law firms and corporate counsel offices, where, if I understand him correctly, the theory and policy of law are irrelevant. I'm not sure what Lippe believes goes on in law firms, but I know from my practice days that lawyers at law firms with sophisticated clients are often asked to think outside the box, to propose changes to legislation or regulations, to make novel arguments in court, and to suggest cutting edge legal strategies. Moreover, the legal profession extends far beyond law firms and in-house counsel offices. Lawyers working for public entities and non-governmental organizations are even more likely to be asked to "invent" law for the future. Lippe believes legal education should be reduced to "no more than a year of case method, a year of clinical, and then a year of externship with subject area focus, along the lines of medical school." What happened to thinking about what the law should be, rather than just what it is?
5. Lippe's central objection with law school faculties is that they "have grown more distant from the profession, and the legal academy has come to define itself as primarily engaged in a scholarly pursuit (like, say, literature or history), as opposed to a professional pursuit, like, say, medicine or business." But if one believes there is any value to ensuring that law students learn to think about the "ought" and not just the "is" of law, there has to be an emphasis on the part of the faculty to exploring the "ought" in order to be able competently to teach their students how to do so. Law is inherently a normative enterprise within society. True enough, practitioners must learn the mechanics and basic content of law, and for that purpose law schools must maintain a strong emphasis on practice training, but practitioners--good ones--are not simply automatons applying black letter law to uncontested facts. The law is often murky, or just plain bad, and facts are often incomplete and contested. Thinking about what ought to happen in such contexts is an important facet of legal education I fear Lippe's model would stifle into oblivion. In any event, Lippe's suggestion that law faculty scholarship is devoid of practical focus and content suggests that he has not read much of it.
6. Along with his claim that law schools have "have grown more distant from the profession," Lippe goes so far as to claim that law professors hold law firms "in low regard." One solution he proposes is to use "more adjunct faculty who are active practitioners." Has he examined the course offerings at any law schools lately? He's welcome to check out ours at Florida State University, which includes a plethora of practical and skills oriented courses, many taught by our faculty members. I teach, for example, courses on Land Use Regulation, Growth Management, and Environmental Issues in Business Transactions. Hardly "distant from the professsion" or the sign of holding law firms "in low regard." Like many law schools, moreover, we offer numerous courses taught by adjuncts who are leading practitioners and our faculty members routinely invite practitioners from all types of practice settings to guest lecture, speak at forums, and mentor our students. Many of our faculty members, like those at most law schools, actively participate in local, state, and national legal professional associations such as the American Bar Association and state bar associations--writing for their journals, speaking at conferences, and chairing committees. Lippe is working off a mistaken straw man of what goes on inside most law schools and inside the heads of their faculty members.
I could go on with what is misinformed and off the mark with Lippe's assessment of legal education, but I should give him some credit for identifying the need to respond to the changing landscape of the legal profession (within which I include more than BigLaw and Fortune 50 in-house counsel offices). We must get control of the cost of legal education--it is pricing people of modest means out of the profession and making it near impossible for new law grads to enter public service. We must deliver the skill set that will enable our grads to enter the path to becoming a "fully functional lawyer," a path that is clearly changing at their feet. And we must continue to ensure that law school is about the law student, not the law faculty. My problem isn't with those ideals, it's with how Lippe articulates them and the solutions he offers. Less emphasis on teaching appellate common law decisions and more emphasis on clinical experiences are both part of the mix for legal education reform, but the trade school mentality that permeates Lippe's vision of legal education would be a giant step into backwardness and the last nail in the coffin of law as a profession.