Ultra Vires


Contempt of Course: Return to Reading Law

“Law school is where you learn the theory of law; articling is where you learn the practice of law.” Or so explained a thoughtful professor once. First you’re given the concepts, then you’re taught to apply them. Seems like a good plan, at least in theory.

Those of you who recently suffered through the OCI experience will have learned this lesson another way. Around this time of year it becomes apparent that law school is no more than an antechamber to the law firms and government offices where you’ll soon audition for your dream  any old job. Yes, an impeccably staffed, fantastically overpriced, shabbily furnished waiting room. And one where the coffee is emphatically not gratis.

In the bad old days of the Cold War, liberals and moderates would sometimes reason that although Communism may have been a good idea in theory, it doesn’t work in practice. This formulation sounds clever for about two seconds, until one realizes that a theory is only worthwhile if it works in practice: If it doesn’t work in practice, then it wasn’t a good theory.

Law school is based on a theory of professionalization, which holds that the more elevated disciplines should be separated into their conceptual and practical components. The conceptual part, like all sophisticated pursuits, belongs in the university. This trend has helped to destroy a few noble callings (such as journalism) while swallowing up plenty of ignoble ones too (like marketing). It’s also the source of the abuse we’re all currently enduring. And while it may sound compelling in theory, in practice it’s unnecessary.

Modern legal training was only assimilated into the university relatively recently. The barristers and solicitors of yesteryear learned the theory of law by a process known as “reading law,” which consists of—you guessed it—reading up on the law. This was supplemented with an apprenticeship with a practicing lawyer. And voila.

Many great lawyers came up this way, Clarence Darrow and Abraham Lincoln among them. In fact Lincoln was a strong advocate of independent study, as he explained in a letter to a young man asking the future president to be his teacher:

“If you wish to be a lawyer, attach no consequence to the place you are in, or the person you are with; but get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself. That will make a lawyer of you quicker than any other way.”

Lincoln counselled numerous prospective lawyers to learn the theory of law for themselves rather than seek out an instructor. Among other reasons, the Great Emancipator advised that reading law was the quickest and cheapest method of study (tuition petitioners take note).

The tradition of independent study is so entrenched that a number of American states still permit people to join the bar without ever having taken law at university. New York requires but a year of law school before you can write the bar exam.

The idea that people should have to pay for their own job training is a new one, and a bad one. It forces students to place bets on their own futures, and bear the risks. This may not have been an onerous requirement in the days when a year of tuition cost roughly 300 times the minimum wage (as it still does in Quebec). But at this school the number has swelled to 3,000 times.

Expecting lawyers to have at least a taste of higher education is reasonable. So in England, where law is an undergraduate degree, law school makes some sense. But here most law students will spend the better part of a decade amassing diplomas before they’re allowed to apprentice.


Let’s be honest. Most of what we learn at law school is self-taught anyways. Professors expect a pound of independent reading for every penny of lecture. And the luckiest students jump right into firm jobs and clinic shifts before getting any kind of substantial legal education.

Meanwhile the law is becoming ever more diffuse, complex, and specialized, making our broad, dated, theoretical training ever more useless. So why not adjust the ratio of theoretical study to practical training proportionally?

Three years of law school to one year of articling must have once sounded like a good idea in theory. In practice, it’s three years of treading water. Universities are now trimming services while jacking up prices to indefensible heights. What better time to begin thinking creatively about ways we can do without them?

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