Abolish Law School, Keep the Bar Exam

Elizabeth Wurtzel argues that the bar exam should be abolished because many illustrious lawyer-politicians flunked it on their first try. I disagree. Passing the bar exam may not be enough to make you a good lawyer. But it is necessary, just as knowing how to read is necessary, but not enough, to make you a good English teacher. In fact, the bar exam is the one of the few incentives lazy law students have to actually learn basic legal principles.

I learned very little about real-world law in three years at Harvard Law School, as a result of classes taught by professors who obsessed over ideologically-trendy but irrelevant hypotheticals, or engaged in hide-the-ball Socratic dialogue. I somehow passed my Contracts class despite not knowing which body of law–the common law or the Uniform Commercial Code–applied to five-sixths of my final and only exam in the class. (I got a “B” anyway.)  But my knowledge rapidly improved after graduation, when I had to sit for the bar exam.

I learned more practical law in six weeks of studying for the bar exam than I did in all of law school. The reason was that preparation for the bar exam is done using well-organized, concise commercial outlines produced by competing private companies like BarBri and BarPassers. Their materials won’t be bought by students unless they organize the material in a compact and easy-to-understand format, in a manner that enables students to pass the bar exam. By contrast, in law school, professors assign their own boring, long-winded, disorganized textbooks to students. (To make himself look smart, one Harvard professor would assign one text to his students, while teaching from yet another, to avoid giving away what he was asking about in class.)

On graduation from law school, I knew next to nothing about the law, having frittered away much of my legal studies watching “Married With Children,” arguing with classmates about politics, or drinking peach schnapps in the basement of the Lincoln’s Inn Society.

All that changed when I had to prepare for the bar exam. Because I suddenly faced the sword of Damocles in the form of exclusion from the bar, I studied hard and learned a lot of basic principles of law (especially real estate and contract law) that I never had mastered in law school. Thanks, BarBri and the New York Bar Exam, for teaching me what Harvard Law School failed to do.

Maybe top-of-the-line lawyers don’t need the bar exam to make them master the law. But most lawyers aren’t top-of-the-line. And their future clients deserve competent representation, something fostered by a would-be lawyer’s need to prepare for the bar exam.

Rather than getting rid of the bar exam, America should get rid of the legal requirement that people attend law school before being able to practice law. That requirement is costly, unnecessary, and wasteful.  Many prominent lawyers in America’s past never attended law school. They either prepared for legal studies by reading the law on their own, or apprenticed or read law in the office of a practicing lawyer. That made sense, since law is a practice, not an abstract intellectual exercise.

Requiring law school graduation as a prerequisite for practicing law just drives up lawyers’ bills by increasing the cost of becoming a lawyer, and thus artificially reduces the supply of lawyers.  (It also drives away from the legal profession people from poor families who would make fine lawyers, but have little money for law school tuition.)  Law school graduation requirements weed out few bad lawyers. Even students who seldom studied, and reputedly were on drugs, managed to graduate from my alma mater, Harvard Law School.

If the legal requirement that students graduate from law school were eliminated, law schools as we known them would probably disappear, replaced by a much shorter, more compact course of studies, probably lasting one or two years rather than three. You just don’t need three years and $100,000 plus in tuition bills to learn enough to do basic legal tasks or pass the bar exam.