Do Law Schools Really Exist?

A recent protest at Carolina Law raises questions about the purpose of legal training.

Law schools began as trade schools, training future lawyers to sell legal services as licensed providers. Modern law schools, however, have increasingly adopted the routines of political institutions. Even at more practical regional schools, the effect can be insidious, as faculty bring with them a progressive bias from their extensive academic exposure. Sometimes, this ideological emphasis is subtle and difficult to detect, because it can be integrated into the basic framework of how law is taught. At other times, the effect of ideological preoccupation in the legal academy is observable in how law students behave.

Recent dramatic disruptions in such “elite” law schools as Berkeley, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, and UNC-Chapel Hill may say a lot about those institutions, but it says more about the state of mind that has permeated general law-school culture. These incidents represent a deviancy from the law industry’s professional standards and arguably from those of the legal academy’s own advisory body, the American Association of Law Schools.

Carolina Law students were advocating for the re-admittance of an accused domestic terrorist with a long arrest record.The UNC example is especially interesting, because, unlike Yale Law students protesting a Supreme Court nominee or UChicago’s J.D. candidates heckling a conservative alumnus, Carolina Law students were advocating for the re-admittance to campus of an accused domestic terrorist with a long arrest record. Having been barred from in-person classes upon his March arrest at an anti-police riot in Atlanta, Carolina Law student James Marsicano became a cause célèbre among his classmates. On April 13, dozens of Carolina Law students walked out of class in protest of his suspension. What might once have been an act of academic misconduct subject to discipline was instead greeted meekly by law-school administrators and teachers, who appear to have done nothing to punish the disruptive protesters.

Most law-student disruptions stem from an adolescent resistance to law and order, as well as an inability to recognize the most basic of the law’s principles concerning neutrality. Many law students and their professors can’t tell the difference between fact and opinion, belief and reason, or inference and evidence. As Kant once stated, “Enlightenment is the emergence from self-inflicted immaturity.” Law students often seem willing to remain intellectual minors, with faculty as their temporary guardians.

The general weakening of law-school culture stems from three primary causes: negative faculty influence, student self-selection error, and institutional distortion. Technology and media reinforce these dislocations and also create what psychologist Stanley Milgram called the “Cyranoid” effect, in which men and women “relay” messages from other sources rather than speaking their own thoughts. This partly explains why law students often parrot, or mirror, the faculty. A casual perusal of most law reviews reveals “speech shadowing,” whereby students repeat and propagate faculty interests, ideology, and cognitive framing. This also points to a fascinating philosophical problem in mind science, which is, of course, where law and jurisprudence ultimately rest.

Could it be that many law students shouldn’t even be in law school? Students who want an actual legal career are typically interested in basic trade work like writing contracts, defending trademarks, or standing in front of a judge. Too often, however, the legal academy holds out to idealistic young adults the possibility of being “more than just a lawyer”—being, instead, a lawyer-citizen.

Too often, the legal academy holds out the possibility of being “more than just a lawyer.”The first question one should ask here is why one has to be a lawyer to be a citizen. Moreover, is a lawyer really the best example of how a citizen should think, act, and behave?

To a certain extent, this line of thinking has some merit: Lawyers have a “higher duty” to educate the public about the law and to develop public confidence in the legal system. That involves some citizenship sensibilities.

But that is not what most law schools mean or even care about when they refer to “lawyer-citizens.” They have in mind something very different, revolving around the idea of being a social activist who can pursue “justice” on behalf of the world that should be built.

Is law about justice? In a sense, it is. But justice has to be narrowly defined and mostly in economic terms. Law is largely economics, and economics is about trade-offs.

What the progressive legal academy has in mind, however, is social engineering, where justice manifests as vengeance, and the law can be used to effect retribution on groups thought to be “oppressors.” Most important is the belief in using legal activism in a “heroic” manner by righting past wrongs.

How did law schools get to this point? And, if they feel this way and operate this way, are they in fact law schools? Is there even such a thing as a law school in contemporary America?

In raising such a question, I am not suggesting that some principles like contracts and civil procedure are never taught or learned. Nor am I arguing that a true school of law is an incoherent concept. What I am asserting is that the modern law school is something other than what it claims to be: an activist degree program that has expanded so far beyond the basic five-subject principles of American common law that legal training is not really any longer its core concern.

Such students make bad lawyers, bad judges, bad teachers, bad legislators, and bad citizens.Many of our nation’s legal academies have crossed the line from a concentration on the strict principles of law to the advancement of ideologies and social objectives (e.g., voting procedures, biosecurity, or carbon taxes). This undermines students’ intellectual independence and produces law graduates who are a burden to the law trade because they haven’t developed enough knowledge and skill to perform what lawyers actually do. They make bad lawyers, bad judges, bad teachers, bad legislators, and bad citizens, because they have internalized a corrupted sense of what law is and what it is for.

The principle of objectivity permeates legal doctrine. It is the bedrock of the judiciary, where there are always two sides to every legal argument, case, or controversy. Objectivity and “neutral principles” are as fundamental to law as gravity is to physics. When Carolina Law students walk out of class to protest a legitimate arrest, they are betraying this principle. When faculty and administrators decline to punish such behavior, they are contributing to the infantilization of future lawyers and the corruption of the profession.

Because there is actually no such thing as legal “research,” the primary task of law professors is teaching. Teaching is an art form demanding high levels of intellectual maturity, including the maturity to know when to discourage students from inserting themselves into political controversies. Without such an institutional culture, law students may not reach their potential in reasoning, perception, and professional conduct. Or as lawyers.

Matthew G. Andersson is a graduate of the University of Chicago, a technology professional, a former CEO, and the author of the forthcoming book Legally Blind, concerning how ideology affects law and policy.