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Theory v. Practice in Law School Education

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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PrawfsBlawg: The Balance Between Theory & Practice:

Recently, the balance between theory and practice in law schools has received markedly more attention (see the much-discussed Carnegie Foundation’s Report on Educating Lawyers). Many schools realize they do a disservice to their students if they don’t prepare them adequately for law practice. Several leading organizations have called for law schools to refocus and reform their curriculums to emphasize professionalism and professional skills. Students — more than ever approaching law school as critical consumers — demand greater help in preparing for the Bar Exam and succeeding in practice. For sure, this is nothing new. But the calls seem to no longer be falling on dea[f] ears. We may be on the brink of profound changes in (or at least ways in thinking about) American legal education.

Austen Parrish then points to a move in the opposite direction by those doing the hiring in law schools:

Unless you obtained your J.D. from an Ivy League law school, your chances of entering the market without an advanced degree also is slim. Interdisciplinary or “theoretical” scholarship is viewed as weighty, while characterizing scholarship as “practical” may be the wors[t] criticism one can hear.

Personally, I’m interesting in pursuing this additional advanced degree approach. It matches my reasons for being in law school. At the same time, law school is professional school, a place to train practical lawyers to practice the legal profession. Thus there clearly needs to be a balance, instead of a muddle, which is what I see in the current law school approach in actuality (at least at the four law schools I’ve been privileged enough to attend for various reasons and times).

Per usual, the debate over what to teach has barely reached the ground, and at the point where the teaching meets the student, everything comes down to an individual’s approach. There is no unifying principle or approach.

Can schools do better? Yes, both in theory and in practice. Law schools are failing both to help students pass the Bar and practice effectively, and they are failing to impart useful theoretical/analytical skills at a very high level. Actually, “failure” is too strong — students and professors are muddling through and in many cases succeeding brilliantly. But it could be much, much better than it is. And why should we settle for mediocre in our law schools?