Law school taught me nothing

This is a list of all the top­ics a stan­dard Civil Pro­ce­dure class in law school cov­ers, with the con­cepts I re­mem­ber high­lighted in blue and those I don’t in red.

There is a lot more red than blue, which is shock­ing be­cause:

  • I grad­u­ated from law school less than a year ago

  • I paid slightly more than $6,000 for my Civil Pro­ce­dure class

  • I re­ceived an A in the class

This post is an ex­plo­ra­tion of pos­si­ble hy­pothe­ses for why this hap­pened.

Epistemic sta­tus: spin­ning hy­pothe­ses from per­sonal ex­pe­rience, so take lightly.

User er­ror

In a world where even sur­geons some­times leave their tools in­side their pa­tient’s body, the ghost of user er­ror haunts us all. Maybe I am the prob­lem, and my skills, situ­a­tion, or en­vi­ron­ment are not suited for re­mem­ber­ing ba­sic facts that I paid $6,000 to learn. There are a few ways in which I could be failing at this task.

First, maybe I am not good at school. I re­ject this hy­poth­e­sis out-of-hand, mostly be­cause I have a frag­ile ego, but also partly be­cause it’s not true. I scored in the 99th per­centile on the LSAT, at­tended a top-3 law school in the US, and grad­u­ated with hon­ors. All these points don’t in­su­late me from be­ing bad at school, but the vast ma­jor­ity of law school at­ten­dees are even worse at school (not learn­ing) than me. You know that scene in Taken where Liam Nee­son says “I have a very par­tic­u­lar set of skills...”? That’s me with school; I am good at school. If I can’t re­tain this knowl­edge, the en­tire sys­tem might as well com­mit its tax-ad­van­taged re­sources to rol­ling boulders up hills for all the good they’re do­ing.

Se­cond, maybe I have framed the prob­lem in­cor­rectly. It’s true that re­tain­ing ma­te­rial from a Civil Pro­ce­dure class is not a stan­dard val­i­dated bench­mark. How­ever, I promise you that I’ll re­ceive similar re­sults on any bench­mark you de­vise for 90% of the law school classes I took; I only picked Civil Pro­ce­dure for this ex­er­cise be­cause it is alpha­bet­i­cally first in the list of re­quired law school classes I took. My prob­lem is not that I don’t re­mem­ber Civil Pro­ce­dure; my prob­lem is that I re­mem­ber al­most noth­ing.

Third, maybe I didn’t study prop­erly. This, un­like the pre­vi­ous two, is a plau­si­ble hy­poth­e­sis. I did work my way through about ~70% of the study tac­tics the pro­fes­sor recom­mended, in­clud­ing at­tend­ing class reg­u­larly, com­plet­ing all the read­ings ahead of time, tak­ing good notes, and re­view­ing all the ma­te­rial at the end of class. But if I had done more, like made flash­cards, prac­ticed with spaced rep­e­ti­tion, joined a study group, or just spent more time with the ma­te­rial, I would re­mem­ber more to­day. Some other stu­dents do re­mem­ber much more than I do, partly be­cause they used more in­tense study tac­tics.

School is just a sig­nal­ing mechanism

As Bryan Ca­plan says:

There are TWO solid busi­ness rea­sons to pay ex­tra for ed­u­cated work­ers. One is that ed­u­ca­tion teaches use­ful skills, trans­form­ing un­skil­led stu­dents into skil­led work­ers. This is the stan­dard “hu­man cap­i­tal” story. The other rea­son, though, is that ed­u­ca­tion cer­tifies use­ful skills, helping em­ploy­ers dis­t­in­guish skil­led work­ers from im­posters. This is the “sig­nal­ing” story. [...] My best es­ti­mate is that sig­nal­ing ex­plains 80% of the pay­off.

In other words, stu­dents go to school be­cause em­ploy­ers hire peo­ple with de­grees, not be­cause they want to learn. Ac­cord­ing to this hy­poth­e­sis, it is perfectly ra­tio­nal for me to only re­mem­ber odds-and-ends from my law school ed­u­ca­tion; the only thing I need to re­tain is my de­gree, not any knowl­edge.

Le­gal em­ploy­ers largely be­have in ac­cor­dance with the sig­nal­ing the­ory. It was com­mon knowl­edge among the stu­dent body that (A) the high­est pay­ing or most pres­ti­gious jobs mostly go to grad­u­ates of top law schools and (B) as long as you are a grad­u­ate of one of the top law schools, you can get a high pay­ing or pres­ti­gious job with­out hav­ing ex­cel­lent grades. A pres­ti­gious de­gree es­sen­tially equals a good job. You might need a pres­ti­gious de­gree AND ex­cel­lent grades to get a very rare job (e.g., a Supreme Court clerk, of which there are less than 40 each year), but most peo­ple were not aiming for those jobs.

Schools also be­have in ac­cor­dance with the sig­nal­ing the­ory. Most blatantly, five of the top four­teen law schools in the US have adopted idiosyn­cratic grad­ing schemes that make it hard for em­ploy­ers to un­der­stand ex­actly how com­pe­tent a stu­dent is (inas­much as grades ever in­di­cate com­pe­tence). Th­ese grad­ing sys­tems range from no fixed curves to pass/​no-pass grades to UChicago’s (hilar­i­ous) “nu­meric grade with me­dian of 177.” There is a dis­cred­ited se­cu­rity strat­egy called se­cu­rity through ob­scu­rity, where you se­cure your sys­tem by keep­ing the sys­tem se­cret, in­stead of mak­ing it re­sis­tant to at­tacks. This is analo­gous: grad­ing through ob­scu­rity.

This priv­ilege of us­ing a grade scheme that obfus­cates is ex­er­cised by mar­ket-mak­ing schools, whereas mar­ket-tak­ing schools largely stick to A/​B/​C/​D/​Fs. But even these lat­ter schools, while not pres­ti­gious enough to make up their own grad­ing schemes, have an ar­ray of schemes to choose from to make their stu­dents more at­trac­tive to em­ploy­ers. Em­ploy­ers judge schools by how many of their grad­u­ates find gain­ful em­ploy­ment. Schools want to max­i­mize this num­ber so that its grad­u­ates look like catches. In good times, they’ll do so with good ol’-fash­ioned defi­ni­tion mas­sag­ing, defin­ing “long-term” em­ploy­ment as em­ploy­ment last­ing a year and “J.D. ad­van­tage jobs” to in­clude jobs such as FBI agent and par­ale­gal, for which a J.D. is only marginally more ad­van­ta­geous than breath­ing oxy­gen. In bad times, such as the Great Re­ces­sion, they’ll do so by em­ploy­ing grad­u­at­ing stu­dents them­selves in tem­po­rary po­si­tions.

Stu­dents, too, be­have in ac­cor­dance with the sig­nal­ing the­ory to some ex­tent. First year (1L, in the jar­gon) grades mat­ter quite a lot for most stu­dent’s first post-grad­u­a­tion job, so stu­dents do work hard in the first year. How­ever, most 2L and 3L (3LOL, in the jar­gon) stu­dents skate by, try­ing to ap­ply the bare min­i­mum effort pos­si­ble.

Poor teaching

I re­mem­ber more from high school than I do from law school. I re­mem­ber ran­dom facts that I have never used since high school, like the fact that the ideal gas law is PV = nRT and the French verb venir re­quires spe­cial con­ju­ga­tion in the past tense. This is not as bizarre as it seems at first glance.

A re­cent post ex­plained that the more peo­ple you need to co­or­di­nate, the less band­width you have for trans­mit­ting in­for­ma­tion to them. If you are talk­ing to a hand­ful of peo­ple, you can have a deep con­ver­sa­tion, but if you are talk­ing to thou­sands of peo­ple, you shout a short slo­gan at them. I think the same is true across time. If you are teach­ing a stu­dent in your class, you can give that stu­dent mil­lions of words of in­for­ma­tion. By the time a stu­dent goes to his first job, that stu­dent re­mem­bers thou­sands of words of in­for­ma­tion. By the time a stu­dent reaches the peak of her ca­reer, that stu­dent re­mem­bers hun­dreds of words of in­for­ma­tion. By re­tire­ment, tens of words, if that.

This is not pure con­jec­ture. Mid­dle school stu­dents can lose large chunks of their read­ing and math knowl­edge over sum­mer break, even though those are ba­sic skills con­tin­u­ously re­in­forced by real-world tasks! The in­for­ma­tion taught in law school bears only a pass­ing re­sem­blance to real-world tasks, and is al­most never re­in­forced af­ter grad­u­a­tion. Of course it is for­got­ten. Given that stu­dents will for­get most things they learn, teach­ers should ideally teach in a way that miti­gates the dam­age of the de­cline. The most im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion should be im­pos­si­ble to for­get.

Grade school teach­ers are bet­ter than pro­fes­sors at forc­ing un­for­get­table in­for­ma­tion into stu­dents’ minds. (They’re not perfect, but they’re much bet­ter.) They’ll use al­liter­a­tion, rep­e­ti­tion, rhymes, and chant­ing to get their stu­dents to mem­o­rize in­for­ma­tion for­ever. My high school chem­istry teacher would say “piv nurt” ev­ery day for a few weeks when teach­ing us PV = nRT. That’s not a good mnemonic; it’s just two mean­ingless syl­la­bles! But the rep­e­ti­tion worked. I will re­mem­ber piv nurt on my deathbed. Same for DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP. And SOH CAH TOA. And “always add +c.” And many other lit­tle fac­toids. My pro­fes­sors, on the other hand, when tel­ling us im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion, would pref­ace it with “And if there is one thing you re­mem­ber from this class, it is this...” That’s it.

Law school pro­fes­sors will hate chang­ing how they teach. They didn’t get into their pres­ti­gious jobs to de­velop mnemon­ics for fully-grown adults. It’s be­neath their dig­nity. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for re­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion rests with their stu­dents. I get it. It does seem silly to sug­gest that fa­mous cre­den­tialed lawyers spend their time treat­ing their adult stu­dents like high-school­ers. But the cur­rent situ­a­tion, where these very same fa­mous cre­den­tialed lawyers spend months teach­ing stu­dents, only for the stu­dents to for­get most of what they’ve learned within weeks, doesn’t seem like its befit­ting their dig­nity ei­ther.

The point was to learn meta-skills

The ca­nard that law school re­peats of­ten is “we teach you how to learn.” It’s fine that I re­mem­ber al­most noth­ing from my classes, be­cause that was never the goal. The goal was to learn the skills needed to learn the law. Now the rest of my life can be an orgy of learn­ing, limited only by my ini­ti­a­tive.

Learn­ing about any­thing, in­clud­ing meta-skills, re­quires loop­ing through the be­low list many times:

  • I do a task

  • I re­ceive feed­back on the task, tel­ling me what I did well and what I did poorly

  • I up­date my men­tal modal of how to do the task

Law school fails at this loop be­cause it makes sure tenured pro­fes­sors rarely have to be­smirch them­selves by giv­ing feed­back.

Law school in­struc­tors, al­though all hu­man, like the Eloi and the Mor­locks can be split into two classes. There are tenured (or tenure-track) pro­fes­sors, and there are the rest. You can dis­t­in­guish them by the size of their offices.

If you take a class with a tenured pro­fes­sor, it is ex­tremely un­likely you will re­ceive feed­back on tasks you com­plete. It hap­pened to me maybe twice in three years, and I’m in­clud­ing feed­back given by the pro­fes­sors’ TAs in that count. Even more an­noy­ingly, you might not even have any tasks to com­plete! In al­most all classes, the stu­dent’s only job through­out the semester is to com­plete the read­ing, and if called upon in class, to an­swer read­ing-com­pre­hen­sion-type ques­tions about the read­ing. (Law schools re­fer to this as the So­cratic Method, but it’s more like read-and-re­gur­gi­tate.) Nei­ther the read­ing nor the per­func­tory ques­tion­ing that fol­lows is a mean­ingful task on which law stu­dents need feed­back, given that law stu­dents are already good at read­ing and read­ing com­pre­hen­sion.

If you take a class with a non-tenured pro­fes­sor, on the other hand, you can re­ceive lots of ex­cel­lent feed­back. How­ever, these have their own prob­lems. First, they re­quire small stu­dent-to-teacher ra­tios so stu­dents can re­ceive feed­back, which means law schools need to hire lots of teach­ers to run them, which means they are ex­pen­sive, which means law schools are wary of hav­ing too many of these. Se­cond, the sub­ject mat­ter taught by non-tenured pro­fes­sors doesn’t always over­lap with that taught by tenured pro­fes­sors. Stu­dents end up ex­pe­rienc­ing a clas­sic Catch-22: one can ei­ther prop­erly learn an un­wanted sub­ject, or poorly learn a wanted sub­ject. Third, al­most all these classes are struc­tured as practic­ums where stu­dents solve prob­lems for real or fic­tional clients. Espe­cially when the clients are real, these classes quickly de­volve into base con­cerns of “How do we fix this client’s prob­lem?” rather than the lofty aim of “Let’s learn how to learn.” On the whole though, these classes are much bet­ter than classes with tenured pro­fes­sors.


Below are my best guesses for how much each of these hy­pothe­ses ex­plains why I don’t re­mem­ber any­thing.

  • [25%] User er­ror be­cause I didn’t study enough

  • [30%] School is just a sig­nal­ing mechanism, so re­mem­ber­ing ac­tual con­tent would be pointless

  • [40%] Poor teach­ing means I have and will con­tinue to for­get in­for­ma­tion at the whims of my sub­con­scious

  • [5%] The point of law school was to learn meta-skills, not in­for­ma­tion