July 09, 2020 Feature

The Value of a Law School Education

Law school taught determination, fortitude, and per-severance—that effort and preparation were essential for success.

by Kenneth P. Nolan

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When my son was in Boston College, a roommate’s father encouraged him to attend law school. “I don’t care if you sell pencils on street corners, Kenny. A law school education is valuable. It teaches you to think.”

Until that moment—decades after I was admitted—I never considered that comprehending the UCC or the rule against perpetuities was beneficial. Few of my law school classes were palatable, while almost all were agonizingly boring and worthless in my goal-driven, practical mind. Creditors’ Rights and Business Organization II, taught by pallid professors lecturing in monotones, were simply forms of academic waterboarding.

I attended Brooklyn Law for a better job, a more lucrative future. Would it make me happy, a better person? C’mon, I grew up in Brooklyn, not Seattle. I studied interminable cases, statutes, and procedures because they were required. Although I was never a frat bro, law school seemed like an extended fraternity initiation without the booze being poured down your throat until you puked on your sneakers.

So I was bemused to hear my son being urged to endure law school not for wealth or prestige but for knowledge. And this was from a most unlikely source—an old-school Massachusetts pol right out of The Last Hurrah whose disdain for academia was such that when asked by the governor what type of judges should be named, he replied: “Could you at least appoint one who actually practiced law!”

Given my penchant for avoiding self-analysis, along with the demands of a challenging practice, it was a year or two after my son began law school that I revisited that overheard conversation. After all, children gravitate to the family business, and even though I knew my son would make an excellent attorney, I was somewhat sure he never wanted to practice. I’m certain, however, that the words of his roommate’s dad were influential.

As my rushing from one court to the next and my all-consuming work slowed over time, even I reserved a moment or two for introspection. And it was in those peaceful times that I would occasionally ruminate on my own life, whether my career as a plaintiff’s trial lawyer had value, made the world a touch better. It was then that I recalled that advice and concluded that my law school education was instrumental in making me a better advocate, a better communicator, and, maybe, a better person.

Yes, the Internal Revenue Code and its voluminous regs did not enthrall, but law school molded my mind, my ability to think. It taught me how to read, analyze, and decide. Every word had value, and a careful, precise reading of a statute, judicial opinion, or document was essential for an understanding of a problem and its resolution.

Determination, Fortitude, and Perseverance

Knowing how to study an issue and argue your position in clear, concise language are difficult attributes to master. Law school compelled me to do the dirty work, spend days in the library researching arcane issues, poring over cases, deciphering judges’ convoluted decisions until I found the opinion on which I could rely. It taught determination, fortitude, and perseverance—that effort and preparation were essential for success.

It is true, sadly, that law schools were, and probably still are, deficient in the training of communication as if the ability to write and speak logically and plainly were innate and in no need of instruction. Fortunately, my high school mandated a speech course each semester and placed emphasis on grammar and usage. Because I attended college when an expansive liberal arts education was thought essential to develop character and intelligence, courses in oral communication (speech) and composition (writing) were part of the core curriculum (as was personal hygiene, which is obviously no longer a priority, as evidenced by New York City’s subway ridership).

In his Autobiography (1794), Benjamin Franklin wrote that the ability to write well was “of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement.” Yet, writing—like the ability to think, analyze, and orate—is discounted in this era of email, texts, and emojis. Instead, we urge our children to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors, along with other pragmatic subjects like finance or accounting. These areas—not literature, history, philosophy—result in jobs, careers, and financial security. With the closing of so many liberal arts colleges, some contend that colleges are in danger of becoming essentially trade schools, teaching limited subjects, never having exposed students to Michelangelo, Mozart, or Joyce.

Liberal arts education, as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, was once the core of our democracy. A populace educated in the arts and sciences enhanced society and guarded our freedom against demagoguery. “The diffusion of knowledge among the people . . . ,” Jefferson wrote, is the foundation “for the preservation of freedom.”

Exposure to a wide array of scholarship not only broadened our experience but also highlighted our paucity of knowledge. Arrogance in one’s belief and disdain of another’s opinion—as exhibited today by almost everyone, especially our politicians and talking heads—stem, at least in part, from the failure to appreciate how little we actually know.

Law school, for all its faults and costs, instills the appreciation that you cannot master every area, that problems are complex, and that resolution is usually achieved only when all parties compromise. It also exposes the coddled young to the reality of losing, something our society foolishly eschews in the “everybody gets a trophy” world. Every argument, every motion has a winner and loser. At the beginning of my first semester, I quickly realized that many classmates were smarter, more eloquent. Although painful, losing is enlightening—at least that’s what I always told myself whenever a jury tossed my case in the gutter.

A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Look, I would never suggest you mortgage your future simply to learn. Paying your own way is essential, which I learned when my mother snarled: “You want a new baseball mitt. Get a job.” I was 11. And I realize that the law and, of course, the world is much different than when I graduated more than 40 years ago. Then law school was inexpensive—I paid less than $1,500 a year attending at night. Today it’s more than $40,000 ($55,000 if you attend full-time). Then the legal industry was expanding; today it’s contracting. Then jobs were plentiful; today they’re scarce. Then law was a profession; today it’s a cutthroat business.

And I read the blogs detailing how stress and missing your child’s dance recital cause partners to quit for a new life. Friends and colleagues advise their children against becoming attorneys—don’t waste your time, law is boring, too hard. You’re only representing mega-rich corporations battling over money. Get your MBA instead.

Some of this is true. But this doesn’t devalue the benefits of a law school education. All education has value (except maybe the part about parallelograms), but let’s not diminish our learning and training.

Analytical skills are developed, permitting you to recognize and understand all aspects of a problem. Facts, law, venue, who sits on the bench must be considered in formulating your strategy. You evaluate your opponent’s position, anticipate her argument, and expose its fallacies. You must state your position confidently and succinctly, but respect your adversaries who are talented and effective. You begin to appreciate that you must communicate in compelling language to a variety of audiences. The words you use—whether orally or in writing—must persuade, and to do so, they must be understood and resonate.

Alas, much of life involves litigation, whether you run a mom-and-pop coffee shop or are creating the next technological miracle. Eventually, you’ll be enmeshed in an infuriating and expensive experience—a lawsuit. Your understanding of the process and your ability to decipher the law, the cases, and your counsel’s advice will assist you in making intelligent decisions and determining your chance of success. In addition, selection of your legal team will be easier because you will be able to reject those charlatans whose slick demeanor promises easy, simple victory.

A law degree has significant advantages in almost every field, certainly in business and politics. Many CEOs have a law background, as do most of our elected representatives (too many?). Even if you never practice, a law degree sets you apart, enhances a résumé. It doesn’t guarantee success, of course, but it may provide you with a foot in the door, an advantage over others.

I know some will counter—yeah, all this is true, but it’s still not worth the years of study and the tremendous expense. If that attitude prevails, more law schools will close. Supply and demand will determine the market. I also realize that the years of law school could be better spent on other subjects, building businesses, having a catch with your daughter. As I trudged to the library nearly every weekend—while my friends frolicked—I regularly cursed my misguided decision. In retrospect, however, I’m very fortunate to have persevered, to have completed my education and passed the bar. No doubt, a defining moment of my life.

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Kenneth P. Nolan

The author, a senior editor of Litigation and the author of A Streetwise Guide to Litigation (ABA 2013),is counsel to Speiser Krause, Rye Brook, New York.