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The Limitations of Legal Education

Unlike the combination of medical school and residency, most law schools do not prepare graduates for the practice of law. Becoming skillful at a learned profession requires both technical knowledge and judgment, which take time and practice to develop. The problem is the short duration of law school and the absence of a legal equivalent to medical residency training. Law school training is usually three years, excluding summers. If the school offers a summer program, it is possible to finish in just over two years. Given that most medical schools are four years, including all but one summer, basic medical education is almost twice as long as legal education. Law students get the "basic sciences" and a smattering of classroom-based "clinical education." They get almost no intensive, problem-oriented clinical experience. The parallel would be licensing physicians after the basic science phase of medical school.

Not unlike medical students, law students are rewarded for spotting low-probability events. In medical education, these are referred to as zebras: if a third-year medical student hears hoofbeats, he or she looks around for a zebra. In legal education this is called issue spotting. The third and fourth years of medical school and residency training allow the student to gain perspective on low-probability events. They learn to treat patients based on the most probable diagnosis but to reevaluate that diagnosis as more information becomes available. This is a process of learning both judgment and the factual basis of medical practice.

Law schools teach students to recognize legal issues and how to find the law to address these issues. Legal academics, however, define law somewhat differently than do practitioners and their clients. As with other academic disciplines, including medicine, law professors are rewarded for research in narrow specialty areas that may have little relevance outside the academic institution. Even when law students learn "black letter" law (statutes, cases, and legal treatises), these provide little guidance without the experience of working with clients in a structured teaching environment. Even law schools with extensive clinical education programs expose law students to clients with only simple legal problems. In most schools these clinical programs occupy less than six hours of the students' academic requirements.

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