Four Quadrants of Legal Education: And Educating Thy Self

Recently I have been in many conversations relating to the US legal education system. The debate is generally centered on who has the responsibility to train new lawyers – law schools or law firms? Many believe that both carry a responsibility and both are failing at it. While it is easy to pick apart the dogmatic approach taken at most law schools and it is just as easy to criticize law firms for their lack of training seldom do I hear someone examine the young lawyers themselves.

In preparing lawyers for the “real world” of practice, the education and training debates tend to focus on law schools, professors, law firms, and practitioners. I ask where does the responsibility of the actual young lawyer/student come into play? Do they not have an obligation to pursue their own personal and professional growth? Are they not the ones who ultimately carry the burden of performing?

Bear with me as I touch upon some personal history briefly.

Being a middle-of-the-pack graduate of a 2nd Tier school (now known as the Top 100 - as there is no 1st or 2nd Tier) I knew my legal career would be on a much different trajectory than those in the elite schools. I would not have the Summer Associate offers or the First year offers that follow. For me and the majority of other graduates (as most do not graduate from top schools in the top of their class - see Bell Curve) the heavenly gates of the AmLaw 200 were not open to us – if we wanted in we had to pick the lock or find a side-door – some did. Me, I chose a different path, as many do who do not necessarily even want to practice Big Law.

Recognizing early on as a full-time 1L that my path would need to be non-traditional I quickly found a job working in one of the most elite DC firms – Williams & Connolly. My job – cite checker. To this day I cannot state with any certainty where I learned more that year – in my classes or at the firm. At class I was learning Contracts and Civil Procedure (with such useful topics as the Court of Exchequer). At my job I was proofreading, editing and cite-checking Supreme Court briefs and other pleadings. At class I was called on to recite the findings of a 100 year old case. At work I had to explain to a prominent partner why his cite was wrong both in terms of style (Bluebook) as well as prevailing authority. At school I struggled to make sense of the wide disparity of law I was being taught – from Tax to Criminal Law to Property (with the rule against perpetuities). While at work I learned the dynamics of firm politics, economics, and practice as I was participating in each in some small way.

This experience provided me key insights that have informed my path and choices since. I understood there was a much deeper well of knowledge and experience I needed to draw from than just my classes. This is not to say I disregarded my schoolwork in any way but I did strike a balance between work and school that at the time appeared to be career suicide to my classmates but I argued it better prepared me in the long run. My classmates would not see the inside of a firm until their summer of second year and that would be through the notorious “Summer Associate” programs that do little to teach and a lot to woo and court.

I end my personal story here but want to highlight that beginning my 1L year and ever since I have worked to refine what I observed to be the four quadrants of a legal education.

The challenge is determining where to gain each of these. That debate will carry on for some time, as it needs to. Just now we are witnessing the awakening that the right half of the above are necessary in today’s legal industry and that a majority of new graduates as well as many of the current lawyers ranks are clueless about.

To return to my story quickly – many of my fellow classmates who graduated near the top and wrote for law review are now partners in big firms. They make decent money. But two characteristics abound: First, they are not all that happy or fulfilled. Second, they only know quadrants the left side of the graph above. As the pressure builds to gain more client work and clients apply pressure to bring more value these lawyers are dumbfounded and paralyzed in many ways - a sorry state to be in especially given today’s legal market. Who is to blame? I argue the lawyers themselves. The more important question however is who’s issue is this? I say it is every one of ours in the profession. We need to come to terms with this and address it soon – especially all those senior associates and partner who have no true sense of “business.”
Joshua Kubicki2 Comments