To the editor:
A recent essay in the JMC (“A Better Way to Teach Law,” 17 August), generated much constructive, professional feedback. There is one correspondent who brought up an important point that provides an opportunity to further clarify my argument, if I may, and for that I thank the JMC Letter writer (“Engineering education requirements aren’t all that different from law,” Jerald Gnuschke, 28 August).
The writer asserts that “The author misunderstands an engineer’s progression through the engineering profession.” He rightly underscores the apprenticeship nature of an engineer’s career, but is leaving out some important details in the way he casts variance among engineering and legal education. They are potentially much more alike, in three key dimensions.
First, my point by invoking engineering as a “comparable” or best practice educational program is that its rigor and intellectual demands are arguably more intense than law (so are a number of subjects and disciplines), and otherwise if the formal education module in engineering can be done at the undergraduate level, so can law, as it is in the U.K. That is why the article is titled around teaching law, and not an essay on the totality of progressing through a career, which is another subject. The great myth of the graduate J.D degree is that it demands some rarefied depth of training beyond the STEM subjects, for example, which are all organized in undergraduate colleges.
Second, as I noted by the U.K. undergraduate law programs, they establish an entry qualification to begin a legal career. Such a career includes an intern or apprentice-like period. The U.S. JD is effectively no different: the average age of U.S. law graduates is nearly 28, while only 4% of practicing lawyers are under age 30, which means that nearly all of them are either working in another field, or as is normally the case, working first for a law firm, corporation or government, as a junior associate under the supervision of a more senior attorney, or working as junior staff in other tasks not related to actually providing legal advice under a Bar registration number. They may also be engaged as new assistant professors, which is also a supervised, probation position.
Third, and most importantly, the key difference is that the young engineering graduates are out of school, and working. This contrasts with our American law students who are incurring 2-3 times the additional debt for another 3 years of graduate school, and only beginning their professional work life as age 30 is coming up fast.
By contrast to law graduate school, the engineering undergraduate already has several years of vital hands-on, demanding work experience that has built up his or her professional CV. One example is right from a family in our neighborhood: he has a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering, has 4 years of full-time professional project experience working for a global multi-billion-dollar aerospace manufacturer making 6-figures of salary, owns his own real estate, is getting married, and is interviewing shortly with Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, as a rocket propulsion engineer. He is 26 years old.
Most of his lateral peers in law, by comparison, are still in the middle of graduate law school, still living in a dorm or shared apartment, incurring $200K more in tuition and expenses (at “elite” law schools, it can be twice that, including foregone income), and have little if any professional work experience, or the building blocks of an independent life.
The difference is profound, and underscores how distorted and wasteful U.S. legal education is in the dimensions not only of cost, but of one’s life.
Matthew G. Andersson