No I'm Not Going To Law School: Disrupting Law Schools

Derek Slater is my former colleague at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, now serving as a policy analyst at Google. He's just published a barn-burning essay called "#noimnotgoingtolawschool: Or, Why I Love Legal Clinics as well as Lawyers and Law Professors That See Their Primary Job As Helping Students Reach Their Goals, Or, Disrupting Law Schools." Slater indicts the legal education industry as a system that produces debt-ridden, half-trained half-lawyers who have to go on to firms in order to actually learn to practice law. He calls for a refactoring of the legal education system around legal clinics, which, he says, will prepare lawyers to actually help clients.

If the thing you want to have an impact on is politics and/or the legal system:

then I’d still recommend you probably be an engineer, and that you direct your engineering talents to politics.

In the alternative: I would recommend you focus on where you have passionate beliefs, and surround yourself with really smart engineers and really smart lawyers. I would apprentice with those types of people, and show a willingness to get your hands dirty and work hard toward what they’re passionate about...

The first model I’d look at is how colleges are training really amazing software engineers. There is nothing inherently special about the people who are software engineers that make them better or more able to change the world. They’re not inherently smarter than lawyers. They are not unique or special snowflakes either.

They have just been trained better. The difference is that they have been trained to be immediately effective in the world. They are trained in ways that allow them to contribute to the companies they join right out of the gate. They know how to code.

Law students are currently the equivalent of someone asking Google or Facebook for a job, and saying “I don’t know how to code, but I know a lot of theory about the Web and I’ve looked at a ton of websites. I’m really smart. So hire me and teach me how to code, ok?”

(Image: UC Berkeley Law School Quote, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from taylar's photostream)


  1. interestingly, very similar accusations have been directed towards architecture schools for the last 25 years. it takes a good 20 years of practice to really know what the hell you’re doing. i’d imagine that practicing law has a similar learning curve? and that coding software doesn’t?

    1. It doesn’t take good, smart lawyers 20 years to really know how the hell to lawyer.  I also disagree with the premise of the article, because you are taught a basic skill set and how to think.  No first year anything is worth as much as a second, third, fourth, etc. anything, but first year lawyers can walk into a firm and start lawyering.  Those at small firms especially are expected to pull their weight.  Don’t we all learn on the job to a great extent?  The author’s premise is focused on a very small subset of law schools (the more elite law schools) and a small subset of jobs (white shoe firms).  Those of us that went to schools that emphasize lawyer training and didn’t end up at a Wall Street firm were ready to go.

  2. Most people hiring software engineers would argue that Computer Science degree programs don’t teach the things you need to be an effective software engineer either.  Source control, how to effectively work in a group, build systems, specific programming languages/libraries are all topics one must generally learn in your first job.

  3. It’s true that law school really is just three years of “teaching to the test.”   However “law,” as it is, is such a big, broad, amorphous thing that there’s no way that working for a clinic for several years could prepare you for anything more than continuing to work in that specific area of law.The current law school system in the US does suck, but this is not a way to fix it.


    1. there’s no way that working for a clinic for several years could prepare you for anything more than continuing to work in that specific area of law.

      The vast majority of attorneys never practice in multiple areas of law.  And those that do, usually practice only in narrow aspects of those different areas.  

      And in any event, most law schools don’t teach attorneys to practice at all.

  4. Yes and why don’t we just turn the law into boxes we can tic on a form and train the incoming “lawyers” how to fill those out. 

  5. Isn’t that true of any “professional” occupation? At least when a lawyer goes out to a firm, they have presumably taken the bar and are fully certified to practice (is that good or bad?). A doctor coming out of medical school knows nothing. A residency is required before being fully licensed and while you learn immensely, you get paid the equivalent of minimum wage while hospitals try and squeeze every hour of cheap labor they can out of you. Not saying either system is ok, but law school isn’t special in that respect.

    On the other hand, 95% of US med school seniors get a residency, and the prospects of getting a job somewhere after a residency are very high. The same definitely cannot be said for graduates of law schools.

    1. Yeah, it probably is true of every professional occupation. Sadly one professional occupation remains abstract even after graduation which is why I’ve changed my mind about lawyers being first up against the wall when the revolution comes.  In their place should go the MBA’s.

  6. Two comments (from someone who IS a software engineer):  Only a week ago we had one more “article of a series” where companies whine about how poorly trained computer scientiests are and how unable to enter the profession without extensive additional training. I really wish I could remember the URL, but if you just wait, the next version will be printed relatively soon.

    Secondly, there are definitely some mental skills that most software engineers have, including the ability to persist for incredible periods on a task that would drive an ordinary person crazy.

     It’s not a matter of intelligence or eliteness. It’s kind of like the ability of a politician to lie with a straight face – you can’t teach it, you are born with it or not.

  7. re: “Law students are currently the equivalent of someone asking Google or
    Facebook for a job, and saying “I don’t know how to code, but I know a
    lot of theory about the Web and I’ve looked at a ton of websites. I’m
    really smart. So hire me and teach me how to code, ok?””

    That is why the first several years of a young lawyers career they spend 80hrs a week busting their ass, doing the grunt work and earning their experience.

  8. is there a shortage of lawyers?  i think we have enough to get by. if law schools simply closed for the next 10 years, the country would continue without them. a few more engineers would be a good start.  

    we need to start making things again.  not just buildings and roads. cars. computers. all the stuff that’s made in china. if we can’t build it cheaper, then we need to build it better.

  9. I would agree with Gerard Pierce on both counts. Real programmers are just crazy weirdos. Trust me, I’m one, and have been since I can remember.

    On the subject of universities – I’ve never met a programmer out of university that has been actually good at programming. I do however know a ton of programmers who have never finished or even gone to university, hell, some haven’t even finished high school. And some are big names in the software industry.Some tech dudes, we all know, Bill Gates, and although not a programmer, but nonetheless a good example, Steve Jobs. 
    The world is full of artists, musicians, thinkers, scientists and others who have one thing in common: They’ve not learned it in school or anywhere else.

    I can’t draw more than a stick figure, but a friend of mine who hasn’t even finished high school can turn a thought into a beautiful image by wiggling her hand on a wacom board for an hour. That’s not something that anyone can teach. And if it is, where do I sign up?

    In my experience, university education is a way to expand your knowledge, or maybe even start you off on a new path. But it’s just that, a start, nothing more. And while my personal experience is in programming, it seems to me that this is the case for most fields. This article is additional proof of this.
    People who are really interested in something and are really good at something, will get there, and a university for them will be just a tiny stepping stone, maybe a way to pass the time and meet other like minded individuals.
    I just don’t understand why this is a surprise to anyone…. I mean, school has never been more than what an person makes of it. Everyone knows it, yet everyone is surprised by it?I think it’s just a hypocrisy people keep around to fool kids into sticking with school ;-)

    1. Reminds me of the claim that the Beatles become good because they spend roughly 10000 hours playing as resident musicians in German bars.

      I think the real issue is that you can be as good as you like. But without some big name place presenting a paper saying that you have been tested by their people, and found to be as good as you claim, your just another person making unsubstantiated boasts.

      Schools are not about the education, it is about the paperwork certifying that you know what you claim to know. Or at the very least passed any test devised to test that claim.

  10. Cmaaaahn.  Everybody knows lawyers are sleaze buckets.  Are we really that naive to think they wouldn’t sleaze each other?

  11. In California, I believe, one doesn’t need to go to law school to practice law. They must pass the Bar Exams, though. This makes more sense to me. If you’re smart enough to pass the exam without school, then do it. If you’re not, then go to school.

    1. You mean like Lincoln. He basically learned everything about law from books and when he felt he’d learned enough hung out his shingle. I’m not sure if Illinois had bar exams when he decided to practice.

  12. I’ve seen far too many poor programmers, fresh out of school or otherwise, to buy the claim that colleges are in general doing a great job turning out excellent engineers.

    One big difference between software engineering and practicing law is that it’s much easier to learn software engineering on one’s own than to learn how to practice law on one’s own.

    There are industry-specific skills to be sure, related to working on a large team, dealing with customer requirements, version control, testing methodologies, just to name a few. But the bottom line is that a person can successfully take a software project from start to finish before ever graduating from college (or even going to one, for that matter).

    No one will ever get practical experience practicing law in a completely real-world scenario (i.e. not moot court, not arguing with friends, etc.) until they have graduated from law school, passed the bar, and starting practicing, most likely as part of a firm so they can have someone else show them the ropes. So it seems there’s a fundamental difference between how the two professions work that prevent a true apples-to-apples comparison.

    Now, should engineers be licensed in the same way lawyers are? Or should lawyers be permitted to practice law without a degree or passing the bar? Seems like there may be good arguments in favor of either, rather than the current status quo. But for now, it’s the way it is, for better or worse.

  13. I don’t know about anyone else, but I could do with less laws and fewer lawyers.  The fact that you can’t take a shit in this day and age without having a lawyer on hands help you wipe your ass or be sued into oblivion is scary.  My personal greatest fear is that the hand of law reaches down and smites me with a lawsuit that leaves me with debt until I die, or that some prosecutor makes it his business to skull fuck me because a police officer walks into a video I am taking, or something asinine like that.  

    We have over 1% of the population in jail and, lets face it, Americans are generally overly law abiding folks.  That should scare any sane person.  It certainly scares me a fuck-ton more than the oh so scary “terrorist”.

    I personally wish we had an extra legislative branch of government that’s only job is to consolidate and destroy laws.  We live in a world where there are literally more laws than you can possibly hope to be able to read, written in a language you can’t understand, and a scary amount of them apply to you.  As shithead lawyers are so happy to point out, ignorance of the law is no excuse, and there is literally zero chance that you are not ignorant of all the laws that apply to you.

    1. “The fact that you can’t take a shit in this day and age without having a lawyer on hands help you wipe your ass or be sued into oblivion is scary.”

      Where the hell are you taking a shit? Main Street in the median? Seriously, your greatest fear is a random lawsuit? You should calm down. It’s not as likely to happen as you seem to think.

      1. I’m actually on BOTH your sides:

        Man Sues:  Injures penis while sitting on a Starbucks toilet. (Could have happened anywhere at any time, like a knot in a tree-trunk ala Molly Shannon;

        Woman’s Intestines Sucked Out By Suction Toilet On Cruise Ship: 

        1. True enough, there is that random stuff. I just always have a bug up my ass about people blaming society’s ills on a specific subset of the people. “If only we got rid of the lawyers/bicyclists/hipsters/people who are different than me things would be better around here” type stuff.

          Rindan isn’t entirely wrong either. The market is flooded and at least 60 (probably more) law schools should shut their doors. Our national incarceration rate of 1% is a sick joke, largely as a result of over criminalization. Sure, there is no shortage of asshole lawyers. And lawyers will always be the target of jokes and hate. I just get annoyed when my friends who work for Legal Aid get lumped in so someone can make a histrionic point on the internet. But then, it’s 2011, almost 2012, and I’ve been on the internet since I was but a wee child. I should have thicker skin than that.

  14. Gotta agree that unless things have changed significantly since I was in school  (and I doubt they have), colleges produce programmers who are woefully unprepared for the real world. As others have mentioned, the programmers who come out of this system lack the critical thinking skills to manage a project, understand and respond to shifting requirements, deal with real-world release schedules and deadlines, document their code, and program in languages and environments that are widespread today. I’m sure the field of law isn’t much different.

    Sure, you could argue that these grads are paid entry-level salaries commensurate with their limited skills, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of training they’re given in the first place. I’m glad I had plenty of experience honing my skills in the real world with summer jobs (I even worked full-time for a year while going to night school). To this day, the vast majority of programmers I meet are woefully one-sided in their approach to a problem. You might say that not everybody will be a genius, but neither should this many people be that incompetent in their field.

  15. If one wished to make more effective lawyers by emulating an engineering curriculum, based on my experience I would recommend this: get rid of the pre-law Bachelors, make law a highly focused bachelors degree, and have certain fields of law require further, graduate-level study.

    There’s nothing that fundamentally separates pre-law, pre-med, and basic government or history programs at most universities. This means most law students had very generic bachelors experiences, which is odd, because most of them were always pretty confident that they wanted to go into law.  All law students are graduate students, and all law schools are graduate schools, so admissions is very competitive. They are expected to donate time, partly for experience, and partly because law firms are used to expecting on a certain level of free labor. In contrast, an engineer does 3.5 years of pure engineering at a Bachelors level. Unqualified people are weeded out in the first year. Engineering students do not work for free to secure a future job. They’re skilled directly out of school, and learn quickly once placed.  Some go to graduate school, and it helps, but it’s not necessary or expected.

    If schools had B.A. Law degrees, it could act as a better weed-out mechanism for graduate-level work than the current admissions process. At the very least it would produce better paralegals, clerks, etc to do the most common procedural work.  And by the field narrowed early, maybe they won’t have to compete so hard for work that they’re expected to work 80 hours for free to secure future work.

    They’ll probably still need some polishing. Maybe competition will still be steep enough and employers stingy enough that they’ll even still have to donate time, as grad students in the sciences do. But it seems like a better plan than wasting the first four years on general studies, then trying to fit most of their formation into the next three years.

  16. I have to chime in that Engineers are just as bad. When we recruit, we see possession of  an Engineering degree as proof that the candidate has a few core understandings, and is hopefully smart enough to be taught how to do the job properly by us.

    I personally learned physics and chemistry fundamentals at Uni, and how to read a drawing or flowchart, but really, b*gger all of use in actually doing a day to day job. 20 years later, although every Uni advert I see claims to provide practical, career led training, the graduates I mentor still haven’t a clue about practical issues.

    For example: Every one of them can rattle off a 3D animated Solidworks CAD mockup of a piece of equipment (which we don’t use), but were goggle eyed at the awesome technical tool of the Gantt chart, which they’d never heard of, and think that a technical report is somewhere to use SMS abbreviations.

  17. The problem isn’t just the schools, but the tools.

    From a programmer’s point of view, law is best treated as an incredibly buggy and error-prone programming language, in which one must not only practice defensive programming but is usually better off abusing a previously tested module — even if it doesn’t actually fit your needs  very well — than writing a new one. Hence all the verbosity and archaic language and redundancy — if something passed muster in previous case law, everyone is afraid to alter it more than they absolutely must.

    If you want something that’s easier to teach, start by building something that isn’t running in failure mode 99% of the time.

  18. Any industry can be flooded.

    Today, it’s Lawyers and Massage Therapists. 

    In my day, the mid 80’s,  it was Flight Attendants and Tanning Parlors. 

  19. Just to chime in, as an engineer, at least a chemical engineer, you actually don’t learn anything useful.  You snag a few basic principles that are nice to have, but otherwise, you walk away having completed a completely useless math marathon.  Being good at solving differential equations is probably the single most important skill you can have to survive school as an engineer.  Differential equation solving also has to be one of the most worthless skills on the face of the planet in terms of an actual job.  Granted, you should know WHAT a differential equation means, but actually solving one by hand?  Holy shit, if you are doing that at work, you are doing it very very very wrong.

    Most of the time when a company hires a fresh engineering with their BS, they are doing it because they want to train and mold someone.  Every engineer learns pretty much everything of value on the job.  Companies who hire people fresh out of college are basically taking a shot in the dark that they are going to snag someone who is smart and effective,  and who they can teach their technology to to build a worthwhile employee.

    Engineering is all about having a head for problem solving and the capacity to learn.  A proven engineer can radically change what industry they are working in because people are hiring for the mind, not for anything they have memorized.  Basically, a BS in engineering is just a people filter.  It weeds out anyone who is dull witted or just don’t have the right mindset.  At higher levels of education you might pick up a few very narrow and worthwhile skills, but a BS is just a big glorified personality and intelligence test, and has little to do with any actual education or learning.

  20. For pretty much any job, a hands-on apprenticeship type of training (though supplemented by the periodic reading of more theoretical lecture notes and literature) would produce a more capable individual than the traditional type of schools we have today (more cheaply and more efficiently too!). Thing is, the function of those schools is increasingly not to train people for jobs, but to serve as filters to see which people will be allowed to get the elite jobs at the elite firms.

    One of commenters on this site recently quoted the money river excerpt from Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Tertiary education today is much along these lines.

  21. Count me in with the engineers who are now saying, “Seriously?? His argument is that students of software engineering are better trained for the real world?”

    I am a person who courts and hires software engineers and let me tell you, I don’t even look at your degree. Fuck your degree, it’s worthless. Never mind not knowing the “soft skills” like bug tracking and source control, schools are not even teaching them how to code. I’ve seen people with bachelors’ in some kind of CS and even a year or more of experience, who can’t pass the FizzBuzz test, which is something you should be able to write in your head and have it work perfectly even if you’ve never heard of it before.

    See: Why Can’t Programmers Program?

    I look at what projects they say they have worked on, and some evidence that working on those projects would actually have provided them with the skills I’m looking for. Then I ask them about those projects, to make sure they weren’t lying, exaggerating or copying someone else’s accomplishments. 80%–no exaggeration–do not pass that test. I suspect most applicants inflate the impact that they had on a project, which is the lesser crime.

    Then they get the FizzBuzz test and then we work our way toward more serious coding tests, and the simplest one alone weeds out another 50%, so only 10% of the original pool of people whose resumes I liked make it to the point in the hiring process where I actually believe they can code. 90% of people whose resumes or education would suggest they can code, cannot.

  22. Rather than trying to make lawyers (or doctors, or business people) more like engineers (or programmers), it seems like we would be better off if we took the whole lot of them and tried to teach them to treat their fellow human beings with some empathy and respect. The suggestion that “lawyers should be like engineers” seems headed in the wrong direction at high speed.

  23. It’s nice to see so many slurs toward lawyers from what I’ve come to think of as an enlightened commentariat. /sarcasm  The law is like any other profession, in that the vast majority of practitioners are moral people who are highly proficient at their jobs and a minority are of immoral or amoral people who may or may not be highly proficient.  The former are vastly more common than the latter, but some people are willfully incapable of understanding that fact.  Most of my friends are lawyers and they are some of the smartest, most honest, funniest people I know.  I deal with the sleazes, because that’s the nature of the adversarial system, but they are nowhere near as common as those who are exceptionally ignorant about the profession assume.

  24. I know in my girlfriend’s experience as a practicing Family Law attorney that there is a disconnect between real world practice and the underlying educational training. She refers to new lawyers who have just passed the bar as “baby lawyers” since they often have no experience. 

    Her office suite has several firms practicing various types of law, they routinely hire young college students as receptionists, paralegals, and filing clerks, and frequently encourage them to take the LSAT, go to law school, and pass the bar. It usually takes a couple of years before they are very productive, draw up documents that are sound, and are able to go into court by themselves.

  25. Legal clincs are good and effective tools for parts of legal education but  the law changes too quickly and the variety of legal practice is too broad for this solution to be effective across the board.  A better focus may be  focusing on who law schools hire to teach.  For the last forty years, law schools have emphasized scholarship over teaching and tended to hire professors with a disdain for the actual practice of law.  If you want to change legal education you are going to have to change the type of people law schools hire and only
    pressure from the ABA is going to change that.

  26. The comparison to computer programmers is beyond silly. I began programming computers in the third grade and was getting paid to do it in high school. About half of my college CS courses were pure theory and many professors thought that was too little.

    Do you know of any famous lawyers that dropped out and then changed the world? Now do the same exercise with CS people. Case closed.

    1. Do you know of any famous lawyers that dropped out and then changed the world?

      Besides Gandhi?

  27. “I can’t draw more than a stick figure, but a friend of mine who
    hasn’t even finished high school can turn a thought into a beautiful
    image by wiggling her hand on a wacom board for an hour. That’s not
    something that anyone can teach. And if it is, where do I sign up?”

    In fact it is.  I recommend “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. 

    The idea that certain talents are “born” not “made” is one of the things that irks me most, mostly because it’s used as an excuse NOT to invest in proper education and training.  See, for example, the Asian/USian split between “You got an A, because you studied really hard” and “You got an A, because you are just naturally good at calculus”.

  28. For John Harrison, How about Lincoln , Gandhi or Mandela. Lawyers who never went to law school and changed the world.

  29. My initial reaction to this is that it kinda sounds like someone who is close to one thing (law and policy) and tangentially related to another thing (engineering and computer science) and perhaps thinking the grass is greener over there.

    It’s like how I know that lawyers leave university knowing how to read cases and just about how to speak to judges but not very well and not a lot more (because that is my real life situation right now) but I sort-of-vaugely-know that doctors leave university knowing how to do heart surgery (I’ve never been to med school and don’t know what it’s like). I have a feeling that a newly graduated doctor would disagree on the heart surgery but may think that I’m ready to go close some mergers.

    1. …situation right now) but I sort-of-vaguely-know that doctors leave university knowing how to do heart surgery…

      Not even close. Add another 8 to 10 years of residency and fellowship for that.

      1. That’s really what I mean. As I say, I’ve never been to med school and don’t know what it’s like whereas I have done a law degree and know what you generally come out of that with.

        For the sake of clarity I should probably have said:

        but I sort-of-vaguely-“know” that doctors leave university knowing how to do heart surgery

        I just think a policy analyst at *Google* may have a slightly rose-tinted impression of what an engineer’s education is like.

  30. Anyone that thinks a *university* is supposed to provide a training program rather than an education is going to the wrong place. 
    Any employer that thinks hiring a fresh graduate will provide a *trained* employee is sufficiently dumb that you probably don’t want to work there.
    Education /= Training for a specific job.

  31. The author is making a false assumption that changing an institution will also result in a change in the culture associated with that institution. A diverse array of students from many different backgrounds and motives attend any educational institution. This is besides the fact that “Law” is a massive field  unto itself. It is unreasonable then to expect any law school to teach “practice,” as “practice” can mean different things depending on the law being “practiced”.
    For example, the EFF “practices” law in a different manner then a trial lawyer “practices.” Far as I am concerned it is the individual’s responsibility, especially with a law degree, to know how and what they plan on doing with their aquired sets of learning. If you don’t have a plan then you probably should not just go to school and hope someone will give you one.  
    It is also unreasonable to expect all of those diverse and multifaceted practices to be contained in one instituion of learning. I mean it takes long enough to get a law degree already, it’s a bad idea  to add to the existing student cost (and resultant student  debt), even if you extended for even a semester for that  extra “practice.” And to top it all off, this is the real kicker, that “practice” might not be applicable to all those who were forced to pay for and attend it. Just like any other school, there are limits to what may be taught, eventally you are going to have to leave school and learn the lessons that aren’t taught in school.

  32. The first comment took the wind out of my sails. Someday I’m going to write my long rant about how useless architecture school is. Trust me, it’s far more worthless than law or engineering school. Honestly, you have no idea.
    But secondly, everyone seems to have missed an essential point. College has nothing to do with education. It’s a credential. It’ s simply the weeding process of who gets to go on and learn the job versus who doesn’t. And the way we have it set up, those who pass the gates are those who are able to afford expensive educations and work for free.  It’s also there to restrict the supply of lawyers (or doctors or engineers or architects), to create artificial scarcity to ‘protect” the integrity of the profession (as if that cannot be done in the market). Thus, the purpose is not to help people become professionals, it is to prevent people from becoming professionals. It is essentially a collusion between the profession, the schools, the licensing bodies, and the school accreditors, with each one being able to rake in money along the way from whatever wages professionals end up making.  Iit has also the side effect, at least in America, of ensuring these professions are out of reach for the vast majority of the middle class.
    So, complaining that professionals don’t know enough when they get out is rather silly. That’s not what colleges are for. College is just a way to make sure the “right” people are the ones who are admitted into any profession. Employers have always had to train their workers. the only difference was, in the past you did not need a degree for most jobs. And don’t get me started on why we need to take 4-6 YEARS of mostly downtime to supposedly train people for jobs. that’s a holdover from the Middle Ages!

  33. I am an attorney, and I agree wholeheartedly with Derek Slater.  I had a great education, but took classes that I really didn’t need to, and did not step foot in a courtroom until my third year as an attorney at a big firm.  I wish I had gotten into one sooner, and I wish I had participated in my school’s clinics, which I could have done, had I not taken those needless classes.

    As for the comments about having “enough” lawyers… sure we have enough lawyers, just like the world has enough food.  But having enough of a resource doesn’t mean that it is getting to the right people, or being used efficiently.  We could use a lot more lawyers defending innocent people, protecting human rights, and educating people about contracts they shouldn’t be entering into (see the subprime mortgage crisis, for a glaring example).  

    But we don’t.  Law clinics could change this, and provide law students with experience representing people, rather than corporations (who are the only ones who can really afford good representation the way the system is now).

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