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Law school vs. graduate school

Last May I finished my 3L year, and am now the proud possessor of a JD. On Thursday I began my first year program as a graduate student in the history of science. The experiences, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been strikingly different: law school is, ultimately, preparatory to practicing law as an attorney, and much of its emphasis is on tracking students in that direction. Graduate school in the humanities and social sciences, meanwhile, is about training future academics.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Last May I finished my 3L year, and am now the proud possessor of a JD. On Thursday I began my first year program as a graduate student in the history of science. The experiences, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been strikingly different: law school is, ultimately, preparatory to practicing law as an attorney, and much of its emphasis is on tracking students in that direction.  Graduate school in the humanities and social sciences, meanwhile, is about training future academics.

Law school’s pedagogical approach does not necessarily reflect this ultimately practical goal, though, and its focus on the so-called “Socratic method” and on appellate case law is, many argue, an ineffective means of training effective lawyers:

Martha Minow, the new dean of Harvard Law School, where the Langdellian method of teaching from appellate opinions was developed, has called for “another case method” closer to the one used in business and public-policy schools, and consistent with W and L’s approach and Carnegie.

PrawfsBlawg: What’s happening in legal education?.

In contrast, graduate school is eminently suited to its goal of training new academics. We read other academics, write like academics, and teach and grade like the teachers we expect to be. Very disconnected from the “real world,” perhaps, and often overly bound up with theory — but still, if one is aiming to work in this area, the training is, in a very real sense, practical.

Law school, though, while pushing the practical, does not teach it. At most, one might argue that it teaches a kind of thinking — a very critical kind of thinking — but it does not teach students to practice law (nor to teach it, for that matter).

I’m curious to see how my reflections on law school education change as I pursue my PhD — I expect I might feel more positive about it as more time passes. We shall see.