BARBS: Scalia this month criticized Georgetown University Law Center for making bread-and-butter first year courses entirely optional in an alternative program called Curriculum B.
BARBS: Scalia this month criticized Georgetown University Law Center for making bread-and-butter first year courses entirely optional in an alternative program called Curriculum B. (Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

Law school leaders and professors are pushing back at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s latest criticisms of legal education.

Scalia opposed shrinking law school to two years and ridiculed the curricula of top institutions in his May 11 commencement address at College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law. The idea of shortening law school education, Scalia said, “rests on the premise that law school is — or ought to be — a trade school. It is not that. It is a school preparing men and women not for a trade but for a profession — the profession of law.”

President Barack Obama and others have urged law schools to consider two-year programs, in part to reduce the cost of legal education for students.

William Treanor, dean of Georgetown University Law Center, applauded Scalia’s call to keep law school at three years. But, he added: “I strongly disagree” with one of Scalia’s curriculum criticisms in the speech.

Scalia questioned Georgetown’s practice of making traditional courses optional for first-year students and offering an alternative called Curriculum B. “Like our students who follow a traditional first-year curriculum, Georgetown’s Curriculum B students are well prepared for ‘the profession of law,’ ” Treanor said.

Criticizing legal education has become an annual event for Scalia. He called it “a failure” in a 2013 talk at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. In 2012 at the University of Wyoming, Scalia urged students not to take what he called “frill courses.” He said, “Do not take ‘law and women,’ do not take ‘law and poverty,’ do not take ‘law and anything.’ “

But at William and Mary, Scalia got more specific, singling out specific courses and schools he believes ignore essential subject matter for new lawyers.

“Many schools now offer first-year students one or two ‘electives’ to spice things up a bit,” Scalia said. “At Northwestern University School of Law, for example, 1Ls may choose two elective courses among options that include ‘Law and Psychology,’ ‘Narrative Structures,’ and — I’m not making this up — a class called ‘Large Law Firms.’ “

Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet, who teaches the “Narrative Structures” course, refuted Scalia’s criticism.

“I suppose I should be honored to be singled out by Justice Scalia, but I am actually a little baffled by his comment,” Lubet said. “The ‘Narrative Structures’ course is wholly legal, as it teaches students the techniques for crafting a compelling story. What could be more lawyerly than that?”

Using italics in the text of his speech, Scalia also criticized Georgetown for making “the bread-and-butter first-year courses entirely optional.”

Treanor said the alternative curriculum, adopted more than 20 years ago, does not reflect “a departure from a commitment to educating lawyers for our profession.” Instead, it is designed to introduce students to the complexity of law and the role played by regulations, statutes and history — which, Treanor noted, is “exemplified in Justice Scalia’s use of history in his opinions.”

“We have found that the people in Curriculum B do as well academically as other students in their upper-level courses and they do as well on the job market,” Treanor said.

In the William and Mary speech, Scalia singled out the University of Chicago Law School, where he — and Obama — once taught. Scalia said about Chicago Law: “It is possible to graduate without ever having studied the First Amendment. Can a society that depends so much upon lawyers for shaping public perceptions and preserving American traditions regarding the freedom of speech and religion afford so ignorant a bar?”

At the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Scalia’s comment stirred debate. William Baude, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, wondered why Scalia targeted his university, when “I am pretty sure that one can graduate from Harvard, Yale and Stanford without taking the First Amendment too.”

Other commenters on the blog attacked or praised Scalia’s speech. “I stubbornly resist the idea that lawyering is a special skill that can only be properly inculcated through a three-year program,” one said. Another wrote, “Wow! A commencement address that actually addressed something of interest to those graduating. That is a rarity.”

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.