When it comes to law schools, everyone’s a critic these days. Even President Obama has piled on, suggesting that law schools “would probably be wise to think about being two years instead of three.” The third year is a waste of money, critics say, because it doesn’t get students ready to be lawyers.
Like any good lawyer, I have a question about language: what does it mean to be a lawyer? Does it mean that you identify a client’s problem, propose a solution, and fight like hell to get the result your client wants? Or are you only a lawyer if you do those things for rich corporate clients?
This question isn’t just lawyerly yammering. Law schools today offer a lot of opportunities for third year students (and second years, for that matter) to represent actual clients. It’s just that these clients tend to be real live people rather than businesses. Never mind that the essential skills of lawyering—advance your client’s interests zealously and ethically, conduct thorough legal research on the issues you’re working on, and lay out strong arguments in written, oral, and other forms of advocacy—don’t change much from one legal job to the next.
In the view of many law school haters today—as well as many law school supporters—real law is something you do on behalf of big businesses. Everything else is just practice. A recent article in the Economist sums up this patronizing position nicely: “Law faculties have long sent their students to gain practical experience by giving free advice to the poor. . . [which] often means learning how to be good at suing businesses.” (Last time I checked, businesses spent a great deal of time suing each other, so it’s pretty unfair to say that poor people have cornered that particular litigation market.)
It also means learning how to be damn good at being a lawyer—regardless of which defendant you’re suing. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of celebrating the 100th birthday of the oldest student-run legal services organization in the country: the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Since 1913, second and third year students at Harvard Law School have “gain[ed] practical experience by giving free advice to the poor” on such vital matters as divorce, eviction, and fair wage practices. They have argued cases in many courts and other tribunals, including the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Bureau has been home to more than 2,600 Harvard Law students—including First Lady Michelle Obama, Governor Deval Patrick, and Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Justice Brennan once said of his service there: “Bureau exposure is to the hard reality, yet fascinating world of the practitioner, not as it’s depicted in books, but as it actually is.”
Today, in the Bureau and other similar programs across the country, third year law students gain significant experience with this hard yet fascinating reality. Under the supervision of licensed instructors, they handle the nuts and bolts of lawyering. Not only are they getting ready to be lawyers, they are essentially working as lawyers already. For them and the clients they serve, it would probably be wisest to continue this work on law as it actually is.