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Why Law School Is for Everyone

Law isn't as exclusive as it seems.

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According to consensus, it is the rare person who enjoys the Socratic method of the One-L experience. Most people would be less than enthusiastic about studying the holding and dictums of Pennoyer v. Neff, the civil procedure opinion that has puzzled generations of lawyers, and the same goes for equally celebrated cases in contracts (the damage of the "hairy hand"), torts (Mrs. Palsgraf's accident), property (the fox hunt ended prematurely in Pierson v. Post), and criminal law (the reluctant cannibals Dudley and Stephens). Nobody wishes to see too many of us initiated into the adversarial processes of litigation. Although that skepticism is understandable, it is based on an impression of lawyers and the legal system that is as false as it is popular.

The average viewer of L.A. Law or Boston Legal might well conclude that lawyers are all about sarcasm, expensive cars, fancy suits, affairs with colleagues, and the occasional trial—which starts the day after the allegations arise. So much for reviewing documents, performing research, closing deals, confronting ethical dilemmas, and billing delinquent clients.

Yet in reality, legal reasoning demonstrates the power of rational thought. Law encompasses all conceivable issues, ranging from the future of the environment and the regulation of the Internet to the response to terrorism.

The practice of law is crucial to our lives together. A diverse society flourishes only if its members respect different opinions and make mutual commitments to public discourse for resolving disputes. Democracy follows, and constantly improves upon, a set of shared principles. The complexities of our global economy require a robust legal culture that recognizes contracts, protects human rights, and is overseen by an independent judiciary.

Within that context, lawyers work on everything from the most significant financial transactions to the most contentious child-custody fights. As members of a service profession, they are the essential interpreters who transform the messy stories of their clients' lives into the compelling evidence that will win juries over to their side. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of their jobs is to represent another individual, giving voice to someone else's cause.

Lawyers must be more than merely lawyers. More than ever before, they need to blend analysis of legal doctrines with skills from accounting or physics or foreign languages. Hence, the trend toward lawyer-doctors, lawyer-engineers, lawyer-businesspeople, and so on.

Students have been ahead of their teachers for some time. They have long been coming to law school planning to adapt their training to myriad pursuits. They benefit from their ability to interpret a statute, even if they end up opening a restaurant.

Light for all. It is time for the institutions to adjust, offering new specializations, clinical opportunities, and appropriate placement services. Professors are realizing that they ought to cultivate multiple intelligences, not limited to the technical logic of analogizing and distinguishing precedent and hypothetical fact patterns. They see that the Juris Doctor program at its best continues the well-rounded liberal arts curriculum, presenting an array of intellectual challenges.

There is no typical law student. As many law students matriculate straight from college as enter after having taken a break in their formal education. Some have aspired to be advocates since they were children and became determined to right the wrongs they had witnessed; others happened to do well on the LSAT taken on a whim.

Whether they ever appear in court or draft a will, they will have been well served by learning how to stand up and speak out. They have been inspired by a sense of civil rights as well as civic responsibilities. They are ready to become leaders.

Frank H. Wu practiced law in San Francisco. He has taught at Howard, Michigan, Columbia, Maryland, and George Washington universities, and served as dean at Wayne State.

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