Why We Need Law Schools

Law school teaches students not only what the law is but also what it can be.

It's not all fun and games.

Photographer: William B. Plowman/Getty Images

Who needs law school? For centuries, the answer in the English-speaking world was: no one. You prepared for the bar by serving as an apprentice or an intern alongside practicing lawyers. Sure, you had to read a lot of cases. At first, they probably made no sense. But over time, you learned by watching and doing to connect the decisions in the books with real cases and real clients.

Today there’s renewed talk of returning to a world where you could join the bar after extended internships rather than formal legal study. I’m a law professor, so you’d expect me to defend the current system. Before I do, however, let me make a big admission: Law school isn’t really necessary for lawyers or their clients.

Practicing lawyers could, if they had the time and inclination, train interns to become excellent practitioners who fulfilled their obligations to their clients more than adequately. In fact, at big law firms in big cities, and smaller firms everywhere, partners and senior associates still do spend a lot of time informally training junior associates.

If they didn’t, the junior lawyers wouldn’t be very good. Graduating from law school, even having learned everything the professors have to teach, doesn’t prepare you to practice at a high level. Lawyering is an art, not a science. And the only way to learn an art well is by doing it.

Yet law school is absolutely essential -- not for lawyers with clients, but for our society as a whole. The reason has everything to do with what makes law distinct as a social phenomenon.

Law is the set of master rules that govern every other aspect of our society and our state. Law functions as a monopoly over all other forms of decision-making. When you make a life decision without a lawyer, it’s because the law allows you to do it. Unlike art or accounting or investment banking or even medicine, law affects and governs literally every aspect of human existence -- whether you like it or not.

Why does law’s power and ubiquity require law school? Because law school teaches students not only what the law is but also what it can be. Our society desperately needs the law to evolve, adapt and improve -- or else we’d be quickly stuck in one place, struggling for change against a static legal system trying to hold us back.

To explain what I mean, let me describe for a moment what we actually do. Sure, law professors start with the cases and statutes that comprise legal doctrine. But that’s only the very beginning, the surface competence, if you will, that a diligent student could eventually acquire by reading and interning. Then law professors -- all of us, at every law school -- move on to the underlying questions that clarify what the law is actually doing.

We teach our students to understand that law is power. That power is never being exercised accidentally or abstractly, but always by real people who are competing with other real people. We teach students to understand that the quest for justice is an irreducible part of legal reasoning -- and that the meaning of justice is always and everywhere being contested and challenged.

To educate lawyers to understand that the law is a living thing, we necessarily draw on the tools of other academic disciplines. Legal history teaches what the law has been and how it has evolved in conjunction with society. Legal philosophy teaches students to ask whether and how the law is moral. Legal economics teaches students to ask whether the law is efficient, and who wins or loses when the rule is set. Legal sociology and anthropology explore how the law is shaped by our social practices and cultural beliefs, and how law shapes those in return.

To be sure, you don’t need all this deep thought to function as a lawyer. But you do need it if you want to exercise wisely the extraordinary power that lawyers have to shape government and society. Because our economy, our society and our moral values are all constantly changing, we badly need lawyers who take all this into account. We need people like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, both graduates of the school where I teach. Romney never practiced law in a firm, and Obama didn't do so for long -- but the law shaped their competing conceptions of what’s possible, as much for the community organizer as the private equity capitalist.

Apprenticeship training can’t prepare you to see the world that way. Learning from a master is the most conservative form of education possible: Practitioners of an art or a craft teach their students exactly the skills they themselves have learned through generations of practice. If you want the best shirts, go to the Neapolitan women who learned to sew them from the previous generation. If you want the best shoes, there’s a London shoemaker who apprenticed at his master’s last. You can apprentice to be a good tax lawyer, but that won't prepare you to face the big questions.

So the answer to who needs law school is: all of us. No society in history has ever changed as rapidly and dynamically as ours. Our economy invents new kinds of products, our financial engineers invent new transactions, our physicians invent new technologies and treatments, all of which could hardly be imagined a generation ago. This amazing dynamism all requires legal regulation so that it doesn’t spin out of control. And our government itself -- a government of laws, not of men, as the old adage goes -- depends on the law to operate.