Maybe It’s Not Broken: Law Schools, Critical Thinking, and Carnegie
Law school doesn’t work. The model is broken. We need to train students to be ready to practice as full lawyers right out of law school. These are, of course, slightly hyperbolic reductions of some of the current claims and possible crises in legal education. Nonetheless, there has been discussion of whether the downturn means that law schools need to rethink what they are doing. I have written before that I think law school offers a special skill better than other schools: critical thinking. None of which to say that legal education could not improve. But insofar as that drive to improve is a claim for more practical training, there is another reason to pause. Business schools and at least one business leader seem to say that what they want is someone with, wait for it, great critical thinking skills. What? Yes. Excellent critical thinking skills are requested. And it gets better. Business schools are under criticism for, wait for it, being too practical. “Ever since 1959, when two influential studies by the Ford and Carnegie Foundations chastised business schools as being too vocational, most M.B.A. programs have taken anything but a broad approach to their subject matter.”
That’s correct. According to Carnegie, business schools were too practical. Law schools are too abstract. Which bed will Goldilocks pick? Is there a perfect blend? Perhaps, but one must wonder whether there is a pattern of over-reaction to whatever system is dominant in a given field. I like the idea of law professors using more real world examples in class and that law school should prepare students to write well. But I firmly believe that writing well is a function of reading and engaging with theory as well as other material. In other words, law schools must continue to develop and hone critical thinking skills.
Take a look at this quote from Nancy McKinstry, the C.E.O. and chairwoman of the executive board of Wolters Kluwer about qualities she looks for when hiring: “I look for people who are good problem solvers. Again, I think that’s from my own experience — if you know how to solve problems, you have a shot of performing at a higher level. You obviously need some subject-matter expertise, but I’d rather have someone who’s really strong on problem-solving, and maybe a little less on the subject-matter expertise, because we can teach them that.”
It sounds like something a law school might say. We’ll train you how to think. The details can be sorted as they arise.
If the New York Times is correct that “even before the financial upheaval last year, business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market were beginning to realize the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines. The financial crisis underscored those concerns — at business schools and in the business world itself,” maybe law schools should remember that they are damn good at developing those skills.
In fact, as the Times noted, “while few [business schools] talk explicitly about taking a liberal arts approach to business, many of the changes are moving business schools into territory more traditionally associated with the liberal arts: multidisciplinary approaches, an understanding of global and historical context and perspectives, a greater focus on leadership and social responsibility and, yes, learning how to think critically.” Isn’t that what we do at law school?