There are a lot of opinion pieces out there positing that law school degrees are utterly useless.
I tend to disagree with that. In fact, even though I gave up practicing law after nearly 20 years, I believe the time I spent in law school is one of the most valuable intellectual pursuits of my life.
That said, I cannot deny that we were forced to learn a few things that, looking back, really weren’t worth all of the stress and strife.
Of course, different courses are important to different types of lawyers. I practiced business litigation and, in the interest of full disclosure, these are the things that I ultimately found didn’t really matter to my practice.
#1: The rule against perpetuities
Who is with me on this one?
All of the lawyers in the room (except maybe folks in real estate or wills and trusts) must have their hands up right now.
If you’ve forgotten the rule against perpetuities, it is a premise of common law that goes something like this: “No interest in land is good unless it must vest, if at all, not later than twenty-one years after some life in being at the creation of the interest.”
I spent weeks in law school trying to decipher what this means. I prayed that the Rule wouldn’t be a part of any of the essay questions on my bar exam. (It wasn’t; phew!)
Nevertheless, this legal premise cost me many nights of sleep and more than a few wrinkles.
And guess what? According to Cornell Law School, “because the meaning of this rule is virtually impossible to decipher, many states have modified it, and some have abolished it altogether.” Thanks, law school.
#2: Federal taxation
I went to law school between 1996 and 1999. That means I took my Federal Tax course in roughly 1998.
Guess what doesn’t matter at all anymore?
The Federal Tax laws that were in effect in 1998.
The truth is, tax laws change constantly. And while I will reluctantly agree that I learned some core tax principles in that class that still apply today, I would have been a much happier law student if I’d never had to live through that.
#3: Shepardizing cases
I often wonder if today’s law students still have to learn to manually Shepardize cases.
If you’re a young lawyer and you don’t know what that means, you’ve just answered my question.
In the old days, if you were going to use a prior case within a legal brief, you’d have to do actual book research to find the subsequent treatment of that case. You did that to make sure the cases you were relying on were still “good law.”
The term “Shepardize” came from “the common historical use of Shepard’s Citation Service to track the treatment of specific decisions.”
It was a tedious process that could only be done in the law library and easily ate up months of my life.
Today, of course, subsequent case treatment is handed to lawyers, young and old, through the internet and all of its magical tools. Seriously, how do young lawyers meet their billable hour requirements anymore?
#4: Federal everything
Yes, I understand that law school is intended to give a well-rounded education that can be commonly understood by the greatest number of lawyers. I also understand that is why most law school classes focus on federal law as opposed to state law.
I’m actually not denying that that education was useful.
To be honest, I practiced quite a bit in federal courts and was even admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court back in the day.
In my experience, however, law school tended to overlook the critical differences between state and federal practice. That made things unnecessarily difficult when I left law school for the real world and was immediately expected to understand state laws and procedures.
#5: The peppercorn rule
Who among us doesn’t remember the peppercorn rule when it comes to contract law?
The premise, of course, is that when it comes to the exchange of consideration that is the hallmark of a legal contract, “a mere peppercorn” is sufficient tender if both sides agree to it.
In practice, however, this isn’t always the case.
This is one of those rules that it seems they introduce in law school only to trip you up during the bar exam. And anyway, is anyone still out there bargaining with peppercorns?
#6: All of the required courses
Again, it is understandable that the goal of law school is to provide a well-rounded education.
That said, maybe law schools (and bar examiners) need to start listening to student preferences when it comes to practice areas.
For example, every law school and every bar exam includes both criminal and civil law components. Yet, how many lawyers have you ever known to practice both civil and criminal law?
It would be an interesting experiment to have law students be able to pick a “study track” that provided focused education in the area of law each student intended to practice.
I can tell you without a doubt, for instance, that taking “Criminal Procedure” did nothing for my Civil Litigation practice.
I’m going to take that theory one step further and suggest that, as a future civil litigator, I would have benefitted way more from a “State Court Civil Procedure” class than I did from any of my required criminal classes. It also would have been nice to take a focused “Civil Law Bar Exam,” rather than an exam that tested extensively on criminal law.
As with anything, it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback when it comes to law school education. At the end of the day, I’m grateful for the entire experience…except having to learn the rule against perpetuities. It still keeps me up at night for absolutely no reason.
Are you brave enough to share the useless things you learned in law school? Leave a comment below.