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Studying Engineering and Studying Law: I enrolled in law school after engineering graduate school, and people occasionally ask me if I have advice for engineering graduates planning to study law. I get questions like, "Is studying engineering good preparation for law school?" Or, "How should I make the transition from engineering to law?" I thought it might be worth blogging about this, as my answers hinge in part on something that should be of broad interest to readers: the differences between how engineers and lawyers look at the world.

  I tend to think engineering education provides a pretty good background for law school, but that there are some pitfalls to keep in mind. Engineers tend to have two possible advantages over other entering law students. First, engineers usually have a very high tolerance for pain. It takes a lot of time and energy to "get" law school, and former engineers are used to facing that kind of challenge. (If you survived diffies, civ pro is nothin'.) Second, studying engineering trains students to think logically, step by step, and that kind of logical thinking can sometimes help students see relationships more easily than students with some other backgrounds.

  I mentioned a pitfall, however, and that pitfall is that the nature of law and engineering are profoundly different in a very important way: Engineers study nature, while lawyers study something man-made. The goal of engineering education is to understand how the world works so we can design useful tools that help manipulate it. Engineering education focuses on describing that world using mathematical equations and relationships that the world follows. There's an objective truth that can be and has been proven by experiment: either the beam will bend .2479 inches under the stress load X or it won't. After a few years of engineering education, engineers sometimes think that the world always works this way. If you can only figure out the underlying principle that the world follows, the thinking goes, you can model that world and calculate the correct answer.

  Law isn't like that. Law is man-made, and has all the uncertainty and open texture of any human endeavor. Roughly speaking, legal systems are made when a bunch of people get together and agree to form a set of rules for making rules. They write down those rules, and then enough people respect that agreement that they start to see themselves bound by it. The people in the institutions set up by the agreement start issuing new rules, and they write those down, too. So whereas in engineering, the "laws" come from nature, in the law we have man-made rules devised under man-made rules for making those rules.

  Why does this matter? For a student, I think it's different for two reasons. First, studying law means studying the man-made process of how law is generated. You read the actual opinions that made the law, and you see human beings making choices about what the law will become. This opens up a really important normative dimension of legal edication. If the law is man-made, you're going to be interested in why they made the choices they made as well as whether they made the best choice. Rules can change, so your opinion about the rules actually sorta matters.

  This is totally foreign to an engineer. When you study Newton's Laws in Physics, you don't imagine Newton pondering whether F should equal MA, or perhaps MA squared, or maybe it should be Pi/M. There's no point in voicing your opinion as to whether force should equal mass times acceleration. Nature is nature, and that's just how it is. Law is different; at bottom, it's the collective product of human opinion.

  Second, you need to learn to deal with ambiguity. Engineering offers certainty, at least subject to assumptions; if an equation describes how the world works, then it describes how the world actually works. You have certainty in the equation. But man-made processes are very different. Those rules are bound to have some areas of certainty and other areas of uncertainty, and you need to get used to it. You need to know how to identify when something is (or is not) uncertain and why, and to know the typical arguments for how that uncertainty could be resolved if someone (such as a judge) must resolve it.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Engineering and Law Comment Thread:
  2. Studying Engineering and Studying Law:
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Engineering and Law Comment Thread: Oops — Thanks to reader e-mail, I just learned that I had accidentally turned off comments on my post yesterday about the differences between studying engineering and law. (I drafted most of this post several weeks ago, and for some reason the VC software seems to set comments to closed when you put a draft in storage for a while. I know this has happened before, but once again I forgot about it.) Anyway, I have just opened comments, so comment away, throw rotten fruit, etc., if you're interested. Sorry about the confusion.

  One more thought; please note that the topic of the post is the difference between studying engineering and studying law, not the difference between practicing engineering and practicing law. That is, I'm trying to explore how a student encounters the two subjects; that's the question that I often receive from prospective law students who are/were engineering students in college. How the two two fields differ from a practitioner's perspective is a terrific question, but wasn't what I was getting at in my post. (Of course, feel free to discuss it in the comment thread if you find it interesting.)

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Engineering and Law Comment Thread:
  2. Studying Engineering and Studying Law:
41 Comments