Friday, August 10, 2007

Law Schools are Brain-Toilets

Law schools are like giant toilets into which we flush perfectly good human brains. I see it every year, and it breaks my heart. Humanities majors who don't want to pursue their major, their true love, in graduate school and then have a degree that won't get them a job ... smart people who are afraid of math ... people who are very good at math but are too unambitious or too timid to enter the more exacting world of the sciences. Law schools attract great hordes of people for reasons that are extraneous to their personal destinies and to the needs of society.

There are three kinds of reasons why this is a bad thing: personal, legal, and social.

The personal reason is obvious. If you choose a career path that violates your basic character you will live a warped, stunted life. As Thoreau said, "Follow your genius!" If you don't, your genius will exact its revenge on you.

(Business schools are also a haven for students who are just trying to be "practical," but, oddly enough, business students seldom seem to me to be people who really belong somewhere else. Maybe the difference is that everyone knows what business is, so enrolling students know pretty much what they are in for. But it is far from obvious what law is, and new students can be in for a whole series of unpleasant surprises.)

Then there is the legal reason. You might think that the law school brain-magnet is good for the legal system, since all it does is draw resources into it and away from other parts of society. But no, it's actually bad for the legal system as well.

The problem is that it attracts a lot of brains that are really not suited to it. The humanities students who are sucked into the law school pipeline tend to have the same left-of-center world view that most humanities students have. Law has many features that this sort of mind-set finds repellent. It contains many rules. These split humanity into separate groups, those who follow the rules and those who break them. Humanity should not be split at all, but united! It has many constraints. These are things you can't do, even if they would advance your noble intentions. It is hierarchical. Someone gets to tell others what the right answer is. We are not equal at all, not here. It is cold, unfeeling, judgmental.

Above all, it rests on force. Oddly, leftists are generally averse to force. I say "oddly" because all their favorite policies must of course be enacted at the point of a gun. (Try crossing the will of the regulator or the tax-collector. You will soon meet the gun-wielding legions who always stand behind them.) And yet, the one thing they really hate is -- guns! With them, "force" is the real F-word, the one you don't want to deal with. The trouble is, in the law you can't ignore it. In every criminal trial there is one person who does not want to be there. And there is an armed person present, gun plainly visible, to make sure that they do not run away. Every torts case is about whether someone will have things taken away from them or not. The young humanist must feel that there is something brutal in this.

I have seen leftist law students, and they are often unhappy. I don't blame them! They don't belong there. What becomes of them? To some extent, I am sure, the law changes them. The power of the law to acculturate people, to suck them into the true spirit of legality, is awe-inspiring. It is one of its god-like characteristics (and there are others!). But I am also sure that to some extent they change the law. They go out into the legal profession with a mind-set that is bound to thwart and undermine it. The rule of law is only possible if people in the legal system accept the basic principles of legality. If they scorn these principles and prefer their own tender feelings, their idealism, or their noble purposes, then the system will not survive. That is the ultimate legal catastrophe.

I think law is one of the very greatest of human achievements, greater even than the invention of the symphony, the novel, the algebraic formula. In fundamental importance, it is almost equal, as an achievement, to the creation of intelligent speech. For that reason alone, it is a catastrophe that law schools attract students independently of whether they have any real appreciation for the law or sympathy for its aims and methods.

Then there is the social reason for regretting the brain-sucking power that law schools have. It is not that lawyers are bad and have a bad effect on the world, per se. Law is essential to social life, and it cannot function in its most complex forms without lawyers. But it is possible to have enough of them. When we do, we have to look at the other things that people could have been: scientist, engineer, artist, scholar. Many law students are people who wanted to be one of these other things, and gave up on it. In some cases, they shouldn't have. Imagine a world with plenty of patent attorneys to help us protect our rights to our inventions -- but nothing worthwhile has been invented. In which there are plenty of people who have studied property law and know all the different ways in which title to land can be held or transmitted -- but because there are no farmers and no builders, land has no value and is not worth owning. In which there are tort lawyers who will get just compensation if you are injured -- except that no one has produced any wealth and there is nothing to seize. There is a point at which we have enough law students, and the considerable talents of the excess ones would be more usefully employed somewhere else.


Slanted Answer said...


I think your general point about law school here is absolutely correct. At one point in my life I considered becoming a lawyer. Thankfully, a former girlfriend's father (a lawyer) talked me out of it. A number of my friends have now become lawyers and all of them hate it.

Unfortunately, every semester I have many bright, talented students who are about to go on to law school (or dream of doing so). I usually cringe but say nothing. I am considering changing that policy.

I sometimes wonder what it is about law that seems to attract so many people. Money? Law and Order reruns? I'm not exactly sure what it is.

"Q" the Enchanter said...

"[Liberals'] favorite policies must of course be enacted at the point of a gun."

You mean as opposed to those of conservatives?

Lester Hunt said...

Q: Yes, conservatives can be at least as coercive as liberals, and in more brutally obvious ways. There's the war on drugs, for example. And war itself, literal war, is the ultimate act of coercion, isn't it? But I don't think this affects the point I was making here. Conservatives are more honest about their coerciveness than lefties usually are, and won't find this aspect of the law repellent. It might make them feel right at home, in fact!

Matt: Why is law school so attractive? Good question! I'm not sure, but it must be a combination of things. One major factor that I didn't mention is surely the market: for various reasons, some good and some bad, the world is eager to pay for the services of lawyers, and as long as this is true, the flood will continue.

Slanted Answer said...


Thanks for the response. To follow up: I think that your point about business students is correct as well. In my experience, business students are under no illusions whatsoever about what they are going to be doing.

I wonder, then, why law students are under such an illusion. I see your point that "it is far from obvious what law is," but I wonder why? One would think that one could (and would) find out information about what lawyers actually do before one decided to go far into debt to end up in a career one did not like. The illusion still puzzles me.

Craig D said...

You've raised some very good points that have a personal resonance for me.

As I sit here in my middle-aged no-where-career job funk, I have to identify with those who tried to be practical in their choice of post-HS "major."

Now, my first choice, of being a cartoonist, in 1976 seemed about as practical as becoming a blacksmith. The golden age of animated cartoons was long over and TV animation was the sort of post-Sesame-Street positive "life lessons" drivel that I would not want to be a part of.

Figuring that electronics was a happening field (and always being a tinkerer with old TV, stereos, amps and what-not) I opted for a two year degree in electrical technology.

I got a fairly bitchin' manufacturing job shortly after graduation.

Well, turns out I shoulda been a cartoonist, as American manufacturing jobs have now gone the way of ye olde blacksmith.

Dang! I hope I get it right in the next life...

Lester Hunt said...


Why isn't it obvious what law is? Another tough question! The only short answer I can think of is not very helpful: it's that law is a complex phenomenon, with several different dimensions to it, aspects that are emphasized by different theories of the law (realism, natural law theory, etc.). People who have spent their lives studying it persist in disagreeing with each other about its ultimate nature.


You tell a thought-provoking story -- I hope some youngsters out there read it and take it to heart! One of the hazards of being "practical" is, as you suggest, over-estimating our ability to see into the future.

MG Blogger said...

Thanks for this posting! Only a very creative teacher could get away with posting such apparently damning remarks!

As to my philosophical perspective, I would have to agree that any non-questioning "will to a system" - especially one that is arbitrary and based upon chance circumstances producing certain cases provoking decisions by a "higher" opinion like the Supreme Court. After all, an astute law student will recognize that true power actually lies in the hands of the President that makes pivotal Supreme Court appointments. In this way, separation of the Judicial branch and Executive branches of our government are periodically breached, and the current and future generations must live with the consequences of a Presidential decision.

Just that single imperfection alone should give pause to the choice of attending law school. Especially so when a Supreme Court justice proclaims that "Corporations are People" as has happened recently.

If corporations are people, that gives them the benefit of the doubt sometimes extended to individuals and raises issues too numerous to mention. One though, which resonates with many of your views, could be, "if a corporation can be regarded as person, so too can any other abstract entity, like a church, like a government..."

This kind of reasoning is very dangerous, and makes a mockery out of any attempt to make true individuals responsible for their behavior. It violates the very assumptions that make possible ethics. Further, it subjugates true individuals to a newly contrived sense of "individual."

It provokes a contradiction that can only indicate that something is really wrong - but who can argue? They are the Supreme Court after all. I rest my case!

MG Blogger said...

It's so true.

Why should "legal precedent" always take precedent, as you argued in Nietzsche class over 20 years ago - true precedent would involve giving back all US land to the native Americans!