Law school has come under fire recently because of the poor job market and other issues plaguing the profession. But there's another reason you might want to think carefully about pursuing a JD.

Law school has become the subject of much criticism lately.  Readers familiar with these criticisms have been bombarded with statistics regarding the shrinking job market, the corruption of the A.B.A., and the nepotism of the legal profession.

I don’t want to dissuade prospective law school applicants on the basis of such considerations.  Rather, I am writing to warn you, budding legal scholar, about the inevitable intellectual dissatisfaction that results from attending law school, especially in the notorious first year.

First, a little about my journey to law school. I began my post-college career as an aspiring academic.  After receiving my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I earned a graduate degree in the same subject.  Yet, the “publish or perish” world of academia was not one I was eager to join.

So, I decided to attend law school, which seemed to promise a more substantive career path.  Nothing can be more substantive or more meaningful, I thought, than proving that someone convicted of murder was really innocent.

The truth is that most people, including me, go to law school without doing their due diligence.  This is true now more than ever.  Many view a sojourn in law school as a way of escaping the clutches of an ailing economy. This is a big mistake.

I found that most students at my law school were just as uninformed as I was.  Most had not done an internship or worked at a law firm before starting their first year.  Many of us did not even have family members or friends who were attorneys.

So, I will attempt to set the record straight for those of you who are about to make the same mistake I made before embarking on a legal education.  But first, you need to know a little about why law school is the way it is.

Most law schools in the U.S. operate on the case system devised by Christopher Columbus Langdell, of Harvard Law School.  Langdell believed that the case method system was the best way to turn the study of law into a social science.  The general idea is that by reading appellate case after appellate case and by engaging in a “Socratic” dialogue (actually, there’s not much that’s very Socratic about it!) with a professor, law students will distill rules of law that the cases illustrate.

What all of this means is that legal education revolves fundamentally around (1) pattern recognition and (2) rule implementation. This modus operandi is diametrically opposed to what one encounters in other disciplines, particularly philosophy.  The real difference is between mere rule implementation, on the one hand, and rule creation on the other.

But here’s the big disappointment for anyone who values intellectual creativity: rule creation has no place in the first year of law school.  You cannot create your own legal rules to reason your way out of a tough Torts exam. You cannot do this, no matter how sound your legal principles are.  Law professors are only interested in whether or not you can spot issues (pattern recognition) and apply legal rules to the facts that support the issues (rule implementation). That’s it. Period.

Unfortunately, for someone with at least a spark of intellectual curiosity, it does not get much more banal than this.

Obviously, this makes for an alarmingly uncreative intellectual environment. This might shock you, but the first year of law school is actually quite similar to being in the military: the least bit of independence is viewed as subversion and is punished.  In the legal writing context, any deviation from the formula is treated harshly with a low grade. In the “Socratic” context, any failure to perform adequately in the rigid question-and-answer procedure will result in public humiliation, being sharply downgraded, or both — 1Ls are to be kept in line.

It’s no wonder that law students are the kinds of individuals they are.  At my law school, most law students are regulars in the therapist’s office.  During orientation week, a 3L told a large group of us: “The only people who are happy around this place are the people who see the therapist. If somebody tells you they haven’t seen the therapist, they are either lying or miserable.”

What’s wrong with this picture?  What went so wrong with our system of educating future attorneys that the process results in mental illness?

In my experience, there is a type of law student: most are gym rats, they play beer pong and video games, and they take Adderall to stay up all night writing their outlines.  Many of these people will become judges and some will become elected legislators.  This situation constitutes a perfectly intelligible tragedy.

The truth is this.  The instructional methods in the first-year curriculum are not designed to inspire a love of justice in 1L students. Law school is not like other graduate programs.  The law school at UCLA is not like the UCLA mathematics department: it is not a place where great ideas are discussed, where there is a love of the beauty of truth, or where students are actively pursuing answers to the most ancient of problems.

So, above all else prospective law student, before you embark on a legal education, think carefully about what you want out of life (riches, spiritual enlightenment, fame, etc.) and seriously question whether law school will be able to provide that for you.

Marc Laroche has studied and taught philosophy in North America and Europe and is currently a second year law student.


  1. Diane Danielson

    Thank you for writing this! You captured some of the angst I faced in law school perfectly and that until now couldn’t entirely put my finger on. I used to just say it was the whole “round hole, square peg thing.” While I did very well at law school and even managed to get a job in that dreadful year 1993 when employment for new grads plummeted, it was a miserable experience. You finally clarified one of the reasons why I was so miserable – the lack of creativity. In fact, the only thing I enjoyed at law school was writing my law review article. After three miserable years as a lawyer, I switched into marketing and never looked back.

    You are also right in that I didn’t do my research – all I did was ace a philosophy of law class and the LSATs so everyone said “you have to go to law school.” Years later, I took a career test and thought it was funny that it said I should not be a lawyer, but I would make a great judge!

  2. Vanessa Stephenson

    While I’m sure that the rules that the author created for his torts exam were “of sound legal principle”, that also doesn’t work in the real world. You can’t create your own rules for law, or business, or math, or anything else; why should professional school be any different?

    Perhaps in something as esoteric (and useless) as philosophy there is value placed on being able to create your own rules, but in any other field, there are right and wrong answers.

    At the risk of sounding brash, this sounds more like an attempt to explain away poor-grades, (“I’m actually smarter than the other students; I just scored lower because I create my own sound legal rules – that are better than reality – and the system isn’t capable of understanding my creativity and brilliance!”) than any meaningful critique of law school.

  3. Jim Lai

    The reason that most 1L classes are taught that way is because that is largely how the legal system work. You take a set of facts and try to show a judge and/or jury how they are more like the cases that are favorable to you than the cases that are favorable to the other guy. Being able to spot issues and apply rules is a necessary skill. If you don’t learn it, you won’t be able to work as a lawyer. Period.

    No, it isn’t always interesting. But you need to be able to do it. There’s a place for theorizing and coming up with new ideas (or new ways to use old ideas) – law reviews and moot court competitions. But not the first year.

  4. Tatiana

    I think to say that people going to therapy is a sign of mental illness is INCREDIBLY problematic. Many, many people go to therapy in order to combat issues that have nothing to do mental illness – sometimes school is stressful and you need someone to talk to. Also, students playing beer pong and taking drugs to stay up late sounds like American academia in general – and not at all specific to law school students.

    The complaints in this post are incredibly general and not specific to just law. I’m sure many professional schools have their issues – like medicine – and even getting a higher degree in the humanities can be incredibly stressful. You could probably say a lot of the things in this post about the pursuit of higher education in general.

    I’m also curious as to why you’re still in law school if you dislike it so much. No where in the post do you mention the redeeming qualities that entice you to stay. And even if it’s an issue of money – I wonder if joining a profession you seem to profess no love or respect for is the wisest decision.

  5. Edward - Entry Level Dilemma

    “You cannot create your own legal rules to reason your way out of a tough Torts exam.” Complaints like these always remind my of my high school physics class. I can’t count how many times I witnessed an exchange like this: Teacher “The answer for #2 is 42.” Student “Haz, I got 48” Teacher “Well let’s put it to a vote, because physics is a democracy.”

    I have a friend who studied philisophy in undergrad before going to law school. He’s about to start an internship with the DOJ. I never heard him once complain about the program, beyond the usual stress he put on himself in all of his studies to excel. And no, he never saw a therapist (well, his girlfriend’s father is a therapist, but never saw one professionally).

    And finally, as Tatiana points out, this same situation is going to play out in other professional (as opposed to academic) fields.

  6. Computer Repair

    This is definitely alarming. First year is like the first year in the military?! Luckily I’m not barred down by the rigorousness of Law School. I’m more bogged down by the troubles of the creative requirements of web design… but the discipline required to learn the trade is all the same.

  7. Anonymous

    I agree with Tatiana that many people go to therapy for reasons that have nothing to do with mental illness. So, yes, my comment was inaccurate. Thanks for pointing this out, Tatiana!

    In terms of some of the content of this post being general (and not just specific to law) enough that it could apply to other graduate programs, this may be true as well. But, notice, that this fact doesn’t mean that what I’ve said is necessarily false as it applies to law school. So, yes, this might apply to med school or business school, but I have no direct experience with that.

    For those who are thinking about law school (and that’s really my audience here), I would also take a good look at Jim’s comments below. Jim is correct in that most of the arguments used by lawyers in the U.S. are analogical in nature. The reason for this is that the legal system in the U.S. is based largely on precedent. That is, like cases should be decided in the same manner (this lends itself to dependability and predictability in the legal system).

    In terms of the second and third years of law school providing better prospects for theorizing, this is true as well. Law review articles are the best way to go. I’m not so sure about moot court. Many students can do guided research with profs during this time also. However, keep in mind that this will still not be the focus of what you will be doing with your time as a 2L or 3L.

    But I urge people to keep my conclusion in mind: identify what you want in life and make sure that law school can get that for you.

  8. Impleadthis

    Wow we don’t have a school therapist, no wonder most of the students at my school at either cripplingly antisocial or just plain assholes.

    It gets better halfway through 2L. The profs start taking you more seriously and you might even out smart them on occasion, gaining you respect and fear from other 2Ls and bland apathy from 3Ls.

    I just started 3L, but already the profs just let us be and don’t care much about “shaping our minds” anymore. Oh, and it gets even easier to openly mock justices and others during 3L.

  9. Brenda Bernstein, Esq.

    I am another example of someone who did well in law school but never felt it was the correct career choice for me. I practiced public interest law for 10 years — enough to get my loans repaid by LRAP — and then started a writing and editing business. I do help a lot of law school applicants with their admissions essays, and I find many of them are much better suited to the practice of law than I ever was! Many go on to make a huge difference in the word, and I am proud to have played a small role in getting them there.

    • kchealy

      I’m also a ‘dropout’ from the legal profession. Loved law school and did well…but the practice of law–just hated it.

      Now I’m doing web application development and am much happier.

  10. Anon

    Honestly, as someone who has a JD and a PhD (in the humanities), I think this underestimates the creativity that is possible in law, and overestimates the creativity in non-professional grad programs. (The primary criterion for success in a PhD program is endurance. Seriously.) The knock on first year legal writing is unfair; when you enter a grad program in your undergrad major, you know enough to hit the ground running. But no one learns anything about legal writing before law school. You have to learn to walk before you can run; as writers outside law frequently say, you have to know the rules before you can break them. It’s not about intellectual curiosity (yet).

    Also, there is pedestrian application of rules to facts, and there is creative application of rules to facts. Because creativity in law has different constraints than in philosophy doesn’t mean it’s not there. It just means that it’s a different field. To be honest, I think law addresses a lot more “ancient problems” than my PhD ever did (and the beauty of truth? Who gets anywhere in a PhD program talking about the beauty of truth?).

    FWIW, my law school doesn’t even have a therapist on staff (there were way more people in therapy/depressed in grad school), if you choose your school carefully you will find plenty of students who don’t fit the stereotype you throw out (I suspect they already exist at your school if you actually look), and I enjoyed my first year of law school. But then, I suppose that just demonstrates that I have no spark of intellectual curiosity.

    I mean, I quite enjoyed my first year of law school

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for providing this different take on law school.

  11. Anon

    (Sorry, the last sentence fragment on that last comment should be deleted – hard to edit on the phone!)

  12. Orlando Bankruptcy Attorney

    As someone who went to law school looking to find a way to “invest” in myself I couldn’t agree more with this article. Cooley Law School is currently facing a class action law suit from former members and I am rooting for the Plaintiffs. Cooley has actually paid to have a baseball stadium named after the school in hopes to “lure” in more suckers, er I mean students. I am not a graduate of that school but I think it speaks volumes for all law schools.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! There is also a similar lawsuit against New York Law School.

  13. Orlando Bankruptcy Attorney

    Oh I forgot to add in my last comment. There are a lot of great blogs out there devoted to exposing the law school scam. There called scam blawgers or something like that. Just google law school scam blogs and you will find a bunch. My favorite is Outside Lies Magic, the guy/girl who writes it is pretty funny.

  14. Ashleycasas11

    I never thought that the law schools have this serious matter. I thought it has a good foundation, and a promise of a better career path. I now fear with this tragic situation and thinking ten times if I will pursue a law degree.

  15. NY Attorney

    I don’t normally comment on blog posts, but I felt the need to comment about this one. I feel as though this posting provides a fairly accurate (albeit bleak) snapshot of some law schools, but definitely not all of them. I think that the 1L experience depends on many factors, the most important of which (in my humble opinion) is the size of your 1L section or class. I went to a large undergraduate college (6000+ students), so I was used to large lectures (100+ or even hundreds of students) with smaller discussion sections (15-20 students). My 1L class had 550 students and my 1L section had 80 students. That was fine for me, as it was by far smaller than my college experience. However, for some of my classmates from small liberal arts colleges, the section size was overwhelming and they felt lost. Regardless of whether the professor is utilizing the Socratic method, it is far easier to speak up and take part in a discussion in a class of 15 than in a class of 50 (or 500). Thus – as with many things in life – size matters in law school.

  16. Anonymous

    This is understandable knowing that the study of law is difficult and stressful. However, you cannot discourage other people from pursuing the course based solely on the bad experiences that you had. Other people may have a different level of tolerance for such hardship and may overcome it as well as other successful people in your profession.


  17. Bianca

    Very insightful and I totally agree! I’m a 2L and a women’s studies adjunct lecturer. Law is as incredibly stifling as it is handy to have as a second language for many policy analyst jobs. Thanks for writing this!

  18. Stanislav Sharovskiy

    The study of law is a discipline where you are taught the mechanics of legal logic but are never taught to question the validity of the underlying premises. Imagine an entire education that begins by being told that “2+2 = 5” with the rest dedicated to memorizing and mastering the infinitude of ways you can present that information in a logical manner.

    For example: 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 5 (Bingo! You spotted the issue!)

    That is what the study of law is. Law students are mostly bred to be empty logarithmic shells of logic, with the important information needed to be processed being provided by others i.e. dumb clients and expert witnesses.

    The best answer a professor will give you, if they are honest, is: “I don’t know.” In fact, it is probably the only profession in which the entire foundation of your expertise is in not knowing. Your opinion does not matter. You have no authority or insight. Your ideas on reform are pointless. Your mind is to compartmentalize everything into neat cookie cutter formulations and spit out an answer, regardless of what information goes in. And, more than likely, if you are capable of spitting out the answer, nobody will actually question the veracity of what you have produced.

    If you master “2+2=5”, you will be prepared for any client and any situation that comes your way with numbers that you can make work in the equation. There are a million ways to express “2+2=5.” And that is all you will ever do, and all you are ever expected to do.

  19. Emma Tameside

    This article does not go down well, considering I’ve just applied to a diploma in law. Although my sister who has already completed law school has told me that there are factors that keep you there, for one she’s came out of it with a brilliant career!

    I think some of the problems you’ve listed are universal for most subjects, especially the taking drugs part. It’s something that I’ve known people from many subject fields to participate in. My only question to you, would be why you stay in law school?

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