Unless you come from a family of lawyers or had happened to work in a law firm before you went to law school, all you would know of lawyers when you graduated would come from law school professors because they would be the only lawyers you would have known.
That’s the way it was for me. The only lawyers I knew when I graduated from law school were law school professors. I would come to find out that the view of lawyers they gave me was not very accurate because law school professors are not actually lawyers. Technically they are, but not actually. Actually what they are is teachers, which is a fine profession but a different one.
The reason that law school professors are teachers rather than lawyers is because almost none of them have ever practiced law for any appreciable amount of time, and it is the practice of law (not the teaching of it) that changes a person from what they are into something different, that thing we call a lawyer.
I have looked (but not very hard) for statistics on the percentage of law school graduates who actually practice law for any significant period—say five years. Although I couldn’t find anything definitive (again, not looking that hard) it appeared to me that the number is very low. A lot of people go to law school but not many people practice law for even five years. I think that’s a very fair if half-assed conclusion.
And it conforms to my anecdotal experience. Although I practice in a city that is only ninety miles from my law school, I rarely see anybody practicing who went to school with me. I also know a lot of people who went to law school somewhere else who didn’t practice very long before they realized this gig was not for them and found a more reasonable way to make a living—like working in a dynamite factory or something.
One of the reasons I didn’t spend much time diving into statistics is that most of them seem to be aimed at law school satisfaction rather than the continued practice of law. Actually, what I should have said here was “dissatisfaction”, because the degree of satisfaction that law school graduates express is very low. As a group that (in fairness) has incurred six-figures of student loan debt they are incredibly unhappy with the quality of what they have purchased.
I don’t blame them for feeling this way, although I don’t really agree. Personally, I think my law school did as good a job as possible to prepare me for something as crazy, chaotic and unpredictable as the practice of law. For me, it’s like clown school. They can teach a young clown to put on the makeup and cram himself into the tiny car, but it’s not really possible to fully prepare him for all the insanity that goes on under the big top. How could they?
I was trying a case just last week when the lawyer who represented another party pulled out a book called North Carolina Trial Practice that was written by one of my old professors. It was the text she had used in the trial practice class I took from her during law school. I was pretty amazed that this sixty-two year old attorney was using it during a trial and it made me wax nostalgically about how that class had provided me the nuts and bolts I needed to begin my career as a litigator.
But I have to admit that my view has aged and mellowed like good bourbon over the last twenty years. If you had asked me during my first five years of practice I would have been less charitable about law school because during those five years I felt like I was drinking from a firehose. It was only during the second five years that I felt like anything but a complete incompetent.
Maybe law schools could improve their standing with their students by preparing them for the Firehose , like when a pilot warns the passengers about the turbulence he’s pretty sure they’re going to hit. It doesn’t make the flight any less bumpy, but it makes it more palatable.
It also gives you hope.