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Law schools hire the wrong people, emphasize theoretical scholarship over the practice of law, and fail to provide important types of training to young lawyers — or so says the chief judge of the Washington, D.C. Circuit. Speaking at the circuit’s judicial conference in June, Judge Harry Edwards handed up a scathing indictment of American legal education. “A lot of people in this room would say that what you see as profound scholarship is utterly useless to [lawyers and judges] at any level, practical, theoretical, or other,” he said. One of the nation’s most influential federal judges and himself an experienced teacher at a half-dozen top-ranked law schools, Edwards spoke bluntly to an audience of some 300 invited lawyers and judges. But he was also talking to the deans of four top schools who sat on a panel with him that day — a panel whose members he had handpicked to receive his message. Edwards puts the blame on the elite schools’ shift in recent decades to a “graduate school model” that emphasizes social, economic, historical, and linguistic research rather than the teaching of rules of law, methods of legal reasoning, and principles of legal ethics. “There is no good bridge between legal education and the profession,” Edwards says in an interview. “If the law schools don’t provide good bridges, if they don’t have a sense of concern, they are not going to impart clarity and good sense to students, who will be left to fend for themselves.” How do the nation’s law deans respond to the charges of irrelevance? In general, they enter a plea of not guilty. The four deans — Judith Areen of Georgetown, Robert Clark of Harvard, Anthony Kronman of Yale, and John Sexton of New York University — argued their case fiercely at the judicial conference before a skeptical audience. Yale’s Kronman, whose institution is probably the most theory-oriented of any American law school, acknowledged that “today, most law professors think of themselves as academics whose primary specialty is law, not as lawyers ‘posted’ to the university.” But he said there are plenty of academics looking at practical issues such as the problems of large law firms and the failures of public interest groups. Dean Michael Young of the George Washington University Law School, who was not a conference panelist but has studied the subject closely, says law school faculty and curriculums are as relevant as they ought to be. “For 75 years, law schools have not been in the business of teaching what to do when you hang out a shingle,” Young says. “But what they try to do is teach students how to think through a client’s problems, take hold of the messiness, and come up with an ordered way of thinking.” To Areen of Georgetown, there is “great merit to [Edwards'] calling the academy’s attention to focusing on what our goals are. But his critique doesn’t apply to all schools or all faculty members.” And Harvard’s Clark said at the conference, “It’s sad or despicable for professors to write just for a little club of people. But they shouldn’t write for judges and practitioners. Their job is to write for the greater good and deeper understanding. What’s produced now is not useless. It can have an impact on policy decisions.” SINGING OUTSIDE THE SHOWER Edwards’ most specific criticism of many law schools concerns their hiring practices. He says that many institutions won’t even consider an applicant for a full-time teaching job who hasn’t already written a major work of scholarship. The result is that only theorists, not successful litigators or deal-makers, need apply. “Why is the academy afraid of hiring prominent people who have been in practice for a few years, and ranked just as high in their classes as those who are being hired?” Edwards asked at the judicial conference. “We want people to prove that they can sing outside the shower,” replied NYU’s Sexton. “Put something in writing to display the raw intelligence.” Harvard’s Clark added, “The pool of those who can be good teachers is much, much greater than the pool of those who can be scholars. Just because someone is at the top of their class doesn’t mean they can do it.” Georgetown’s Areen says, “We do expect of applicants that they demonstrate the ability to do scholarly work. There are plenty of very bright people who can’t translate their insights into work that is written on paper.” But Areen says the qualifying work need not be a major footnoted law review article. It could be an outstanding brief filed with an appeals court. “We’re just looking for the quality of mind that would make both a good teacher and a good scholar,” says Areen. GW’s Young says the purpose of such requirements is “to engage in risk minimization, to find people who have a clear commitment to writing.” But he says his school has no such formal prerequisite. AN OLD QUARREL The current controversy is the most recent continuation of a long-running dispute that Edwards has maintained with legal academia. Edwards has seen legal education from the inside. He was a tenured professor at Michigan Law School and briefly at Harvard Law School before ascending the bench in 1980. While an appellate judge, he has served as an adjunct professor of labor law at those two schools as well as at Duke, NYU, Georgetown, and Pennsylvania. He has been excoriating aspects of American legal education since at least 1992, when he wrote a much-read and much-cited Michigan Law Review article that declared, “If law schools continue to stray from their principal mission of professional scholarship and training, the disjunction between legal education and the legal profession will grow and society will be the worse for it.” The problem, Edwards says in an interview, got started when “a lot of bright Ph.D.s weren’t being hired in their own disciplines. They switched over to legal education and decided to use law schools as their base.” But contrary to some deans’ and professors’ beliefs, Edwards says he is not opposed to interdisciplinary courses like law and psychology, law and social thought, or law and economics. “I’m not anti-theoretical,” he says. “I am very inclusive. But to what end? What if you have all these courses that don’t connect themselves with the professional piece of our mission? A lot of times, there is no coherence. No curriculum planning is going on.” Areen says Georgetown avoids the ivory-tower label by employing a host of part-time adjunct professors, most of whom are law partners or government officials, to provide “the largest array of classes of any American law school.” She adds that many full-time Georgetown faculty perform scholarship that has great practical impact. For example, she says that Professor T. Alexander Aleinikoff, a former general counsel at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, “has focused on crucial questions of immigration, asylum, and refugee status that are related to theory but also have immense practical importance.” And Professor Lawrence Gostin received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control to research the law of all 50 states on the use of genetic information, a project that may lead to the drafting of a uniform state law to handle the difficult ethical and privacy issues that result from genetic testing. GW’s Young says it’s a basic misunderstanding to assert that interdisciplinary approaches to legal questions are the exclusive domain of theoreticians. “A lot of these additional tools — economics, history, sociology — are designed to help us solve legal problems,” Young says. “We aren’t using these tools to help understand human behavior but to help us write and understand the legal rules.” Daniel Ernst, a Georgetown law professor who specializes in legal history and the history of legal education, says Edwards’ critique of legal education is only partly accurate. Law schools are both “portals to the profession and part of the academy,” Ernst says, “and a law school that forgets either one [of those aspects] is in trouble.” But, Ernst adds, “most schools and most people remember that they have both jobs. There are some stunningly obscure pieces of work in law reviews, it’s true, but this is a small sliver in absolute terms.” Ernst says that it was not until the 1970s that “you have large numbers of people who feel that in addition to teaching lawyers, they are also participating in the scholarly life of their field. These are not lawyers who feel that sociology is relevant. These are sociologists who are in law schools.”

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