Justice Scalia on Reforming Law Schools

by Ed Whelan

In his recent commencement address at William & Mary law school, Justice Scalia “vigorously dissent[s]” from proposals to reduce law school to two years:

It seems to me that the law-school-in-two-years proposal rests on the premise that law school is—or ought to be—a trade school. It is not that. It is a school preparing men and women not for a trade but for a profession—the profession of law.

When Scalia says that law school “is a school preparing men and women … for a profession,” it’s clear, in the fuller context of his speech, that he is really setting forth his view of what law school ought to be. In other words, he’s discussing his ideal—the traditional ideal—of law school.

In Scalia’s view, a law-school degree ought to mean that the recipient is “learned in the law.” By contrast, modern law schools, with their “elimination of a core curriculum, and the accompanying proliferation of narrow (not to say silly) elective courses,” “increasingly abstain from saying there is anything you really need to know.” (Emphasis in original.) They thus “have only themselves to blame” for proposals to shorten law school to two years.

To put the point somewhat differently, modern law schools seem to have lost any sense of what their mission is. Amidst that confusion (and, of course, the troubling job environment for lawyers), the notion of law school as a trade school can seem attractive and sensible. Indeed, as someone who is skeptical that modern law schools are capable of returning to the traditional ideal, I’m somewhat inclined to see the trade-school model as preferable to the current reality.

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