Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) delivers an astonishingly brilliant batch of essays from the early Information Age. One of the 20th century’s few true ‘Renaissance men’ — and the father of cybernetics — he highlighted both the liberating potentials of digital technology and the catastrophic dangers of military industrialism via a mélange of insights from science, technology, art, and history. One is gratified to see references to game theory and Benoit Mandelbrot alongside discussions of Newton, Leibnitz, and Clerk Maxwell. There are many delicious bon mots.
What does Wiener have to say about law? Quite a bit in one short chapter, and scattered elsewhere. One example: “Not even the greatest human decency and liberalism will, in itself, assure a fair and administrable legal code. Besides the general principles of justice, the law must be so clear and reproducible that the individual citizen can assess his [sic] rights and duties in advance, even when they appear to conflict with those of others.”
What might he say about contemporary legal education? Perhaps that it is more like a static colony of ants than a thriving learning community dedicated to unleashing progress in matters of justice and legal wellness.
Yes, in many law schools there are whispers (or loud proclamations) by law school faculty and administrators that when students don’t opt to use their J.D. to practice traditional law – and sit for the bar exam – it’s because they can’t/couldn’t cut-it in law school.
Popular conceit holds that law school is for a single purpose: professional training for the barred practice of law. Law schools (and their requirements and curriculums) have a bias against students who choose distinctive career paths and decide not to sit for a bar exam. Students who find a different purpose for their J.D. are often viewed as less intelligent law students (untrue). J.D.s who do not sit for the bar are viewed as failures (they are definitely not!).
Is advice to not take the bar given to students as an equal alternative career choice or the path to salvage something from their J.D.? This myth of “lesser” careers is perpetuated by the divisive distinction between “J.D. required” and “J.D. preferred” jobs that occurs for law school ranking and accreditation purposes. It’s a vicious circle of negative reinforcement that curtails innovation and growth in law schools.
It’s time to recognize not just the equality of J.D. students who choose not to follow a traditional barred career path, but their importance to the success of law schools in the future. As we look to the impact of technology and innovation in the legal industry – whether alternative dispute resolution or legal AI – they have the right idea. The legal industry is growing – the traditional role of the attorney is shrinking. Law schools that wish to remain relevant must address this change in both their curriculum and most importantly their treatment of the non-traditional career paths taken by some of their J.D. students.
If we can’t allow room within our curriculums for non-traditional career paths with a J.D. – perhaps we need an ALT JD?
Legal education is a silo. One that is, for the most part, divorced from the work required of lawyers (and others) to meet the needs of real people requiring real help to navigate an increasingly complex set of legal systems.
As long as the primary job of (most) law professors is to produce research and write to support tenure and institutional rankings, this will not change.
We need more people in law schools doing more, and different, work to teach and train new lawyers. To reach out of the silo and connect with others, in the real world.
Consider for a moment how change can impact law schools.
In one scenario law schools, alert to the transformations sweeping both higher education and legal practice, adroitly position themselves to embrace controlled, necessary changes. Such schools transform from within and with intention. Planned strategic transitions are less chaotic and build excitement and energy. In this scenario law schools lead change by embracing new legal trends and demands.
In a different scenario law schools, comforted by the status quo and tradition, entrench themselves in time honored (and ABA approved!) models of legal education. As the legal market shifts, legal careers transform and change is forced upon these law schools by circumstances of poor graduate job placement, high student debt and/or decreasing enrollment. Outside forces will shape these law schools’ path forward and the changes they must make are likely to be chaotic. Disruptive forces position such schools to react rather than lead in the face of change.
Most law schools have the opportunity to choose and shape change for now. Tick-tock.
1 – The cost of legal education maintains — if not dictates, at least in part — the astronomic cost of providing legal services. New lawyers, heavily indebted, cannot afford to do the work that most needs to be done.
2 – Even if every newly-minted lawyer went straight into service of the estimated 80% of people who need legal help but don’t get it, we lawyers still wouldn’t be enough. The need is greater than the guild.
The one way we’re doing legal education, alone, doesn’t work. Lawyers, alone, are not enough.