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Daryl Levinson on the Market for Law Professors:
The Harvard Law Record has a very interesting report on remarks Harvard lawprof Daryl Levinson recently gave to Harvard law students about how to become a law professor. I thought this comment was particularly amusing if it was reported accurately:
[P]ractical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, "is pretty nearly disqualifying." Levinson pointed out that today's younger professors have no significant practical experience, and that if they tried to become involved in the world, "the world would probably recoil in horror."
Also note the Q&A at the bottom of the story; Levinson makes a number of worthwhile points.

  UPDATE: Professor Levinson writes in with a clarification:
For what it's worth, the Record's summary is a bit misleading. The quote they used was taken from my parodic description of hiring trends at HLS in particular—where it is true that most (though not all) of the entry-levels hired over the past few years are PhDs without significant practice experience. This was in the broader context of my describing the general trend in legal academia away from the profession and towards the academy, and the concomitant decline in the number of entry-level hires who come with high-level practice experience (i.e., more than a few years in practice)—obviously not to zero. I actually expressed some doubt about whether this trend has been good for legal education. That's certainly a point worth debating.
Lonely Capitalist (mail):
This is one of the biggest problems with law school. Too much useless theoretical BS. Professors should be required to have some practical experience before they are allowed to teach anything.

I was proud to have gotten my best grades from a couple lawyers who taught part time at the school.
10.25.2007 7:23pm
3L:
I'm forced to concur. The entire reason that 99% or so of students are in law school is to be practicing lawyers. Particularly at the not-top five schools, there's virtually no chance even the top graduate can be an academic. Why is the curriculum geared towards the one tenth of one percent, or so? I would love if law school had prepared me to be a lawyer, but it really hasn't.
10.25.2007 7:25pm
JBMorse (mail):
Daryl and I were classmates and friends in Law School. He's incredibly smart and painfully witty. It's very odd to realize that he's a Harvard Law Professor now.
10.25.2007 7:37pm
Arkady:
The comments remind me of something I read about film schools. A student complained that the school taught him everything about making movies except the most important thing: How to make the deal.
10.25.2007 7:54pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
P]ractical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, "is pretty nearly disqualifying."

What was it that Justice Holmes (who, alas, was also a scholar) said about the "life of the law"?
10.25.2007 7:54pm
Houston Lawyer:
I have worked with attorneys who should have been professors. They were too concerned with theoretical issues to get you what you needed on a timely basis. They could get you really good stuff, but they were painful to work with. Practicing attorneys deal with short deadlines and budgets that are not open ended.

On the other hand, you need to know the theories that they teach in class. You might not use them every day, but ignorance of them will cost you.
10.25.2007 8:15pm
OrinKerr:
What was it that Justice Holmes (who, alas, was also a scholar) said about the "life of the law"?

I believe the line was "The life of the law has been theory, and it takes a theory to beat a theory."
10.25.2007 8:21pm
anonVCfan:
If by practical experience Prof. Levinson means experience doing document review or experience trying to out-d-bag another lawyer over the phone to win a discovery dispute, then I'd hope that that sort of thing would be counted as a negative. I don't want a professor whose main qualification is the ability to manipulate people (though the doc review might be similar to the process of grading exams).

Further, if by practical experience Prof. Levinson means experience formulating strategy for a client so as to ultimately further his interest or charming a jury, then I think that would be more relevant, but still tangential to the task of teaching how the law works.

If, however, Prof. Levinson is disparaging the experience of drafting legal briefs and arguing points of law to judges, then I'd have to disagree with him there and hope that his views aren't representative of hiring committees.
10.25.2007 8:38pm
Larry Rosenthal (mail):
Professor Levinson's statements accurately describe the philosophy prevalent among law schools today, especially those considered elite. Isn't this remarkable? The vast majority of students, at Harvard and elsewhere, are paying a small fortune to learn how to practice law, and yet those who teach the most important courses have no idea what it takes to succeed in the practice of law. Surely the market will eventually punish law schools who willfully -- even proudly -- ignore the legitimate needs of their tuition paying students.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law
10.25.2007 9:13pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I believe the line was "The life of the law has been theory, and it takes a theory to beat a theory."

I am not sure if that's what Holmes said, but I think Professor Levinson is about to go on a fundraising campaign to buy more ivory for his law school's tower.
10.25.2007 9:52pm
therut:
Same can be said for academic Physicians. Alot are just weird and could never take care of a normal person in a normal practice or non-teaching hospital. They would have a nervous breakdown.
10.25.2007 10:44pm
Cornellian (mail):
Some law schools could use a few more clinical courses, but I'm fine with the heavily theoretical focus of the elite law schools. I attended one of them and I don't feel I was shortchanged. If you want a law school that will spend 3 years teaching you how to pass the bar exam, there are places that will cater to that.
10.25.2007 11:58pm
neurodoc:
As a physician and attorney (like therut, I think), I find it interesting to compare and contrast the two professions. Very, very few qualify as physicians, that is graduate medical school and pass a licensing exam, only then to go immediately into the lab ("piss-boilers") or otherwise distance themselves far from clinical medicine. Yes, we did have a few basic sciences professors (e.g., biochem, physiology, micro) who had peeled off and gone in the PhD direction, but their MD degrees were less important qualifications than their PhD ones, though the MD part may have meant a higher salary. A career in academic medicine would go in a different direction from one outside academia, but except for a minority who avoided meaningful clinical responsibilities for years, those who wanted to leave academic medicine for whatever reasons would, unlike many law faculty, have the skills to make it in the "real" world and opportunities to do it.

"Practitioners," especially non-specialists, or less well-credentialed ones, would sometimes be referred to somewhat contemptuously as "LMDs," that is "local medical doctor." But while academic physicians are expected to be the most highly qualified and leaders in their specialties, with more well-trained specialists practicing outside of medical schools than ever, and academic positions not that appealing to many, there is not the huge gulf between academic physicians and those practicing outside medical schools that there is between law school professors and legal "clinicians." (I never heard non-medical types called "clinicians" until I read a recent David Bernstein post about lawyers within and outside the academy.)

It is fairly commonplace for non-academic physicians to consult with academic ones and refer patients to them; for the academics and non-academics to rub shoulders and interact at meetings; and "practical" experience of patient care is important to both, though the academics may get to see a more select population and more unusual and "interesting" cases than most non-academics do. In all these respects, it seems to me that the career paths of academic physicians and "law school professors" differ.

"...academic Physicians. Alot are just weird and could never take care of a normal person in a normal practice or non-teaching hospital. They would have a nervous breakdown." Let's not underestimate the incidence of "weirdness" outside of academics. And I expect that academic physicians would have no more/less difficulty in a "real" world setting with "real" world demands than would a senior partner in a truly heavyweight law firm would have in his/her correspondingly "real" world setting with "real" world demands (no cadre of associates, no deep-pocketed clientele, no lack of resources, etc.) Law professor called upon to make his/her way as a "clinician" might struggle, though.
10.26.2007 12:06am
Tony Tutins (mail):
I guess the message is, if you want a school that will spend X years teaching you how to pass the licensing exam, go to medical school.
10.26.2007 12:29am
neurodoc:
The time spent in medical school will have more immediate relevance to the practice of medicine by its students after they graduate, then will the time spent in law school have to the practice of law after its student graduate. Agree or disagree?

(All but a very small number of American medical school graduates go on to pass their licensing exams, and can therefore practice as physicians; a not insignificant numbers of some law schools' graduates never pass their licensing exams, and hence will never be able to practice as attorneys. Whether this reflects the relative difficulty of medical licensing exams versus law licensing ones; less variation in the quality of students from one medical school to another than from one law school to another; or the greater variation in how well medical schools and law schools prepare their students for their respective licensing exams, I can't say, though I think it is some of each of those.)
10.26.2007 12:46am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Some law schools could use a few more clinical courses, but I'm fine with the heavily theoretical focus of the elite law schools. I attended one of them and I don't feel I was shortchanged. If you want a law school that will spend 3 years teaching you how to pass the bar exam, there are places that will cater to that.
Straw man. Or false dichotomy. Or one of those fallacy type things.

One doesn't have to turn law school into bar review to benefit from actual experience.
10.26.2007 12:54am
neurodoc:
Oh, and let's not neglect to mention that while lawyers are usually through with high hurdles exams once they have passed the Bar somewhere, physicians who aspire to be more than general practitioners or uncredentialed specialists have at least 3 and as much as 6 or 7 more years of postgraduate training (residency/fellowship) ahead of them followed by higher hurdle specialty board certification exams, not all of the multiple choice or written essay type. ("Orals" are a more meaningful assessment tool than "writtens," since the examiners are free to probe looking for what the candidate doesn't know, how good/bad his/her clinical judgment might be, etc., and they do exactly that.) Nothing like those exams to qualify after law school is there? (One need only pass a licensing exam to practice medicine, but they may not be able to advertise themselves as a specialist if they don't become board certified, and they may have far fewer opportunities and receive lesser compensation if they don't.)
10.26.2007 12:57am
neurodoc:
I'm not trying to make the case that the top medical or top law school graduates are superior one to the other. (I do think the bottom medical school graduates are probably superior to the bottom law school ones because there is more variation in quality among law schools and their admittees than among medical school and their admittees.) My point was the compare/contrast medical and law school experiences as preparation for careers in the respective professions, and the further differences between academicians and practioners or "clinicians" in the two professions. IMO, law students are better prepared to "think" analytically by their educations than medical students are by theirs.
10.26.2007 1:04am
Bottomfish (mail):
As a nonlawyer I found the following quote from the Harvard news story surprising:

Instead of fancy grades, clerkships, and practical experience, the modern credential of choice for law school hiring committees is a graduate degree in an allied field such as economics, political science, and even English or psychology.

It suggests that just knowing the law is considered an inferior sort of qualification. Perhaps it explains some of the liberal tendency to interpret the Constitution as broadly as possible.
10.26.2007 7:53am
Lugo:
What I find interesting is the contrast here:

Even practical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, "is pretty nearly disqualifying."

Significant expertise in a field, coupled with interdisciplinary methodologies, is highly valued.


So apparently the actual practice of law does not provide highly valued "significant expertise" in the field of law, at least according to legal academics!

Law schools value Ph.D.'s because they indicate that candidates have certain qualities.

Qualities that a law degree does not confer? Hmmmm.

"the problem with real jobs is that they are real," and don't leave much time for writing in the evenings.

Tell me about it.
10.26.2007 9:31am
Roger Rainey (mail):
Speaking as a practitioner and not a professor, the strange refusal for the academy to value professional experience in the hiring of professors leads to the growing irrelevancy of legal academic thought to the legal world - a truly odd and undesirable result. I don't have studies but I feel confident that, adjusted for population and number of cases, scholarly legal articles are cited far less than in the past. I am a corporate lawyer and, while I once found looking at law review artcles illuminating, I now find them useless.
10.26.2007 11:29am
TSW:
Two points:

1. The idea that the only alternative to the current system is "a law school that will spend 3 years teaching you how to pass the bar exam," is a complete straw-man. The relevant alternative is to teach people how to litigate or do transactional work, i.e. the stuff 99% of lawyers do after they pass the bar.

2. The merits of the present system depend on the class. I think it works well for Con Law professors, for example. On the other hand, it's a dismal failure for things like Civ Pro and Evidence. In other words, academics are good at teaching academic subjects, and practitioners are good at teaching practical subjects.
10.26.2007 11:48am
Simon (391563) (mail) (www):
I'm fine with law school professors choosing to align themselves with the academy instead of the profssion (e.g., comments like those cited, emphasis on Ph.Ds and other scholarly indicators). But on behalf of the profession, I really must insist that they get paid to reflect that choice.

Being a professor is a great job -- flexible (if oftentimes long) hours, near-constant intellectual stimulation, tenure -- and most people with terminal degrees are willing to do so for $50-80K a year; many accept far less. So pay law professors that, and use the savings to cut tuition so more people can afford to go to law school, and more graduates can afford to dive immediately into non-bigfirm work.

How about it, Orin, Eugene, David, et. al? You willing to embrace academia for 2/3ds of what you're making now?
10.26.2007 12:04pm
wm13:
I presume that Prof. Kerr is joking. (Holmes said: "The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience.") But I'm curious where Prof. Kerr's quote comes from.

Interestingly, although Prof. Kerr's quote does seem to sum up the view of many law professors, it isn't particularly true. The legal academy spends a lot of time developing theories, but they don't have much effect on the actual course of the law. I don't just mean that academics are so far to the left of the courts that they have no effect on actual judicial discourse--though that is often true--but theory generally doesn't drive case outcomes, and it certainly doesn't drive transactional structures. As Prof. Levinson recognizes, academic lawyers are increasingly irrelevant to the law.
10.26.2007 1:04pm
Chris_t (mail):

I presume that Prof. Kerr is joking. (Holmes said: "The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience.")


Over the last six years this truism has served me quite well in the practice of law. Much better than most legal theory, in fact.
10.26.2007 1:49pm
The Cabbage:
(I do think the bottom medical school graduates are probably superior to the bottom law school ones because there is more variation in quality among law schools and their admittees than among medical school and their admittees.)

Depends what where your cut off line is for a "medical school". There are a lot less med school slots than law school slots.

If you want to be a lawyer, and can't get into an accredited or good school, then you go to a low tier school and hope you dont wash out after the first year.

If you want to be a doctor and can't get in, do you go to a master's program, chriopractic school, or something like that?

This difference is more that low-tier legalish students still go to a law school, but low-tier health science students go to alternatives that aren't called medical school.
10.26.2007 5:45pm
CJColucci:
As a practitioner who is, with the encouragement of an academic friend, trying to put together a course to teach on an adjunct basis, maybe my troubles in doing it will shed some light on the problem of practitioners trying to be academics.
I can take my propective students through the cases (no real controversy on which cases ought to be taught), play Socratic games, and instill in them the small number of black-letter rules that apply. I can teach them the forms of words that the courts consider acceptable arguments. I can take them through the problems with the logic of the cases. What I cannot do is explain why things are the way they are. Actually, I can, but the only reasonable, if cynical, explanation (changing decision-makers) doesn't lead anywhere. Even if it could be demonstrated, it is academically, pedagogically, and professionally sterile because it doesn't lead to a research program, doesn't give you anything much beyond vote-counting to teach, and doesn't equip students with anything solid to use in practice. I've toyed with the idea of emphasizing not the cases themselves, but the briefs and, where available, oral argument transcripts, because that, at least, would help teach the students how to craft arguments courts are inclined to accept, whether they make sense or not.
Maybe if I had become an academic rather than a practitioner I wouldn't have this problem.
10.26.2007 6:11pm
visitor from Texas (mail) (www):
You need to realize that all you need to do to qualify to be a law professor is to have the same qualifications that qualify someone to be a first year associate.

Ask yourself, what would you trust a first year associate to do unsupervised? How about train themselves?
10.26.2007 6:46pm
Daryl Levinson (mail):
For what it's worth, the Record's summary of what I said is a bit misleading. The quote they used was taken from my parodic description of recent hiring trends at HLS in particular—where it is true that most (though not all) of the entry-levels hired over the past few years are PhDs without significant practice experience. This was in the broader context of my describing the general trend in legal academia away from the profession and towards the academy, and the concomitant decline (obviously not to zero, but still remarkable) in the number of entry-level hires who come with high-level practice experience (i.e., more than a few years in practice). I actually expressed some doubt about whether this trend has been good for legal education. That's certainly a point worth debating, but the present reality of the situation is important to recognize as well.
10.26.2007 8:23pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I believe the line was "The life of the law has been theory, and it takes a theory to beat a theory."

Since it's been questioned twice, I'll say that I thought this was pretty clever. If I get the reference and intent right, Orin changed a famous Holmes quote to poke a bit of fun at the law &economics folks who respond to their critics (perhaps not famously, but rather frequently in legal academia) that it "takes a theory to beat a theory."

I'll add that I think in the past several months, Orin's been showing more of his sense of humor on this blog, which is a good thing. Perhaps that's why I think I might owe him a beer.
10.29.2007 6:15pm