Thinking Like a Lawyer

Stone, GeofGeoffrey R. Stone, a  professor at the University of Chicago Law School, was the school’s dean from 1987 to 1993 and was the provost of the university from 1993 to 2002. This column appeared in the New York Times.

There is nothing inevitable about the three-year program of legal study, any more than there is about the four-year presidency or the seven-game World Series.

These are artificial constructs, but with time and experience we can decide whether they work well.

Does the three-year program of legal education work well? This depends entirely on what legal educators do with the three years.

If legal educators are lazy, uninspired or indifferent to their responsibility to educate, three years is certainly too long. But if they are thoughtful, focused and creative, three years may not be long enough. Giving up on the goals of law school because they are challenging is not a solution.

The critical question is what law schools can do to educate future lawyers that legal practice cannot do.

There are several experiences legal education can offer that are invaluable for future lawyers. First, and most important, it can teach students to “think like a lawyer.” As any lawyer will tell you, this is critical.

The practice of law demands a rigorous, self-critical (and critical), creative and empathic (how will my opponent and the judge see this issue?) mind-set.

In general, legal education does this brilliantly. This is at the very core of a legal education. Second, legal education exposes would-be lawyers to a wide range of legal subjects — procedure, contracts, torts, criminal law, evidence, constitutional law, corporate law, property law, administrative law, jurisdiction, labor law, commercial law and on and on and on.

This, too, is essential for the intelligent practice of law. Third, legal education presents future lawyers, judges and public officials with a broad array of perspectives that will enhance their work, ranging from economics to legal philosophy to an understanding of empirical and social science data.

Fourth, legal education offers students a supervised, rigorous and disciplined opportunity to learn practical legal skills though clinics, externships and trial practice and negotiation courses taught by individuals who are committed to teaching.

This is a far superior way for young lawyers to gain these skills than by doing scut work for attorneys who are often too busy to teach them.

Finally, legal education provides students with opportunities to work on journals, in moot court competitions and in a broad range of law school organizations that are designed to enrich the education of future lawyers in terms of their writing, their advocacy skills and their exposure to diverse political, legal and cultural perspectives.

A law school that can do all this in two years would have my blessing. But it is not possible. A law school that does not do all this in three years should be held accountable for its failure. But giving up on these goals because they are challenging is not a solution.

Lawyers play a central role in our society, and we have a responsibility to educate them well before unleashing them on our citizens.

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