Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Legal Education Overvalued?

You can become a Supreme Court Justice without having taken Bankruptcy in law school. But it helps to have gone to Yale. Justice Samuel A. Alito gave the keynote address to at the American Bankruptcy Institute's Spring Meeting in D.C. last Monday. He conceded that he never took a course in bankruptcy as a law student but explained that bankruptcy courses were not offered at Yale. (Alito graduated from Yale Law in 1975).

Not to worry though. Justice Alito explained that federal judges are generalists and learn on the job. "We are not experts in all statutes we are called upon to interpret," he noted. But, "we can learn how to read a statutory provision." "You can teach yourself what you need to know" he said. Indeed, "formal legal education today is a bit overvalued."


andrew said...

Ignoring the fact that law schools and the state bar examiners act as the gatekeepers of the legal profession and both of them are necessarily required to practice law with any sense of legitimacy, I think it is true a formal legal education is not required to become well versed in the law. This leads to begging the question, "Can we learn law without law schools?" The answer seems to be yes. A person can learn the law through time, patience, and large amounts of reading. This is equivalent to what law students do without the professional lecturer and trained attorney aiding us in the classroom. However, extra time can make up for the time in the classroom. Nonetheless, someone can be trained better in the law than a Stanford law graduate who will not be able to practice because he has not attended law school and has not taken a bar-review course leading to passing the bar. Is a formal education overvalued or more a necessity because of the self-interested attorneys already in the profession seeking to keep everyone else? The point is well made in the book "The destruction of young lawyers" and without a formal education you simply cannot become a lawyer, or rather a lawyer who anyone will take with half a dose of seriousness.

Alison M. Kilmartin said...

As someone planning to take Bankruptcy next semester, I certainly hope that Justice Alito is wrong!

If nothing else, law school is a wonderful submersion in the language of the law. Students have three years to learn a whole new vocabulary and way of writing. I suppose that if someone can pass the bar exam without having gone to law school they should be allowed to practice, but I for one am thankful for my education.

In addition, one gains mentor relationships while in law school that can be (1) gratifying (2) encouraging, and (3) helpful. Mentors are to be found everywhere, but connecting with teacher-mentors is especially valuable.

andrew said...

I agree alison, law school is a great experience and as professor kahn said there is no other period in our lives that is more intellectally profound. I am very thankful to be here and having professors to help us is awesome.

Buce said...

If Alito graduated form Yale in '75, then one of his classmates would have been Tom Jackson, who seems to have learned some BK law somewhere.

Marie T. Reilly said...

Buce- right you are of course.
Perhaps the fact that Yale didn't teach bankruptcy allowed Jackson's mind to bloom without constraint and bear fruit, e.g., The Logic and Limits of Bankruptcy Law. Alternatively,he could have picked up everything he needed to know about bankruptcy law while clerking for Rehnquist, J. 1976-77.

There is something to be said for the tabula rasa.