A few Harvard Law School students have endured university censorship to protest the inanity of their Class Day speakers. The pugnacious group (called “HLS is Bogus”) should be applauded for demanding more from the school. But while HLS insists on a self-delusional “HLS Thinks Big” event this week, law schools actually think smaller than small — and it’s a problem graver than hypocritical leftist graduation addresses.
Here’s a recurring scene in legal studies . . . You’re learning about, for example, the needless overcomplexity of the tax code. When someone asks why it has to be this way, why deductions and credits appear so arbitrary and so difficult to discern, the class enjoys a hearty chuckle at his obvious naiveté. Usually the mystified professor will act the cop (“I don’t make the laws . . .”) and move on, but if he’s bold enough to be honest, he’ll say that it’s because the tax code is also a lawyer employment act. The class laughs again, this time, content that the code’s complexity will help them pay off law school debts and pleased that they’ll soon know something that the rest of America can’t figure out. (Now that’s a “valuable” education!)
If a student hazards to wield a normative thought about how a law is enforced or why certain regulation is senseless, he has to subordinate those reflections to, at best, an exam’s “policy” section (which professors never read). Elite law schools aren’t fostering original thinking or “big ideas,” they’re creating waves of followers who excel at “issue spotting” (applying a fixed body of law to a prefabricated body of facts under time pressure). This may be a lawyerly skill, but its inherent lowness partly explains why we continue to be frustrated with the absurdity of our legislation process and justice system.
Speaking of justice, law schools dare not tackle sticky subjects like what “justice” or “equality” ought to mean. Too subjective or theoretical, perhaps — as if the Supreme Court’s wild interpretations of the Equal Protection Clause are not similarly subjective. Instead of inculcating an awe for the majesty of the Law, law schools churn out graduates who view the law as an instrument to manipulate for their own pecuniary or ideological gain. Others simply abhor the law as meaningless minutiae and decide to tack on business school tuition to their debt pile.
It’s been big news that law school is a poor investment, and observers often lament the lack of practical training to prepare alumni for plying their trade. These are valid criticisms, and I would prefer an apprenticeship system with three years of clinical work than the current farce of a curriculum. If law schools are going to neglect practical considerations anyway, they should at least try to energize students when they question the status quo of our broken body of laws and enliven original thinking. Instead, as HLS has done, they squelch dissension, reward rote minds, and pretend that an annual panel “thinks big.” It’s not just the graduation speaker, it’s the audience, too. Law schools, like our colleges, breed “moral midgets.”