A Puzzlement! Non-Lawyers Desperately Need A Legal Education, And Unemployed Lawyers Think Theirs Is Worthless


Quick, get a non-lawyer to pay you to teach him about the law, then you will have  rent money, and he'll be unemployable!

Quick, get a non-lawyer to pay you to teach him about the law, then you will have rent money, and he’ll be unemployable!

From the Fordham Law Review comes an article making an important point about American life: it is so intertwined with laws, regulations and procedures that citizens are overwhelmed, and at risk of serious adverse consequences. This provides a function for lawyers, indeed an essential one: allowing citizens of a democracy to be protected and served by laws rather than victimized by them. That is a function lawyers often serve, however, after legal ignorance has raised the specter of harm. From the abstract of Bridget Dunlap’s “Anyone Can Think Like a Lawyer,” which argues for “legal empowerment” for non-lawyers, and the duty of  lawyers to provide it:

“Though a person needs a threshold understanding of the law to obey it or enjoy its protection, lawyers in the United States enjoy a near monopoly on knowledge of what the law is and how it works. Widespread ignorance of the law robs it of deterrent effect, deprives those whose rights have been violated of recourse, and undermines deliberative democracy. This Article argues that the low level of legal knowledge in the United States is fundamentally at odds with the ideal of the rule of law and further contemplates a “legal empowerment alternative” for the United States, inspired by the approach Stephen Golub has argued should supplant our lawyer-focused efforts to build democracies abroad. In the U.S. context, legal empowerment would not only require expanded access to legal services, but also a significant commitment to increasing the basic knowledge of nonlawyers. The American legal profession has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to work to counteract the detrimental effects of both the monopoly on legal services and the near monopoly on legal knowledge by promoting and providing basic legal education for the laypeople that the law binds and protects. Laypeople need to be empowered to think more like lawyers; but for this to happen, lawyers will need to “think less like lawyers and more like agents of social change.”

She is correct, and I have been making this point for approximately thirty years, just as my lawyer (but non-practicing) father drilled it into my head while I was still in high school. The abstract made me laugh, however, reflecting on the law grads who have written here, in response to my assertion that a legal education was an invaluable life and career tool whether one ever actually practiced law or not, that they believed a legal education to be a detriment and a career handicap.

Which, of course, says nothing about the usefulness of a legal education, but a great deal about them..unless one is willing to accept the proposition that legal training and understanding are desperately needed by non-lawyers, while lawyers would be better off without them.


Pointer: Legal Ethics Forum


17 thoughts on “A Puzzlement! Non-Lawyers Desperately Need A Legal Education, And Unemployed Lawyers Think Theirs Is Worthless

  1. Absolutely agree. One of the requirements for a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin is a course in what I called at the time Beginning Law. It was, of course, geared to the needs of a practicing psychologist, but it whetted my curiosity about the law, a trait I retain to this day. It has saved me a lot of grief.

  2. There are several kinds of worthless. a) It does not make me understand the world better. b) It does not help me get a job, or even hinders me by putting off potential employers. c) It saddled me with debt I can’t see my way to paying off, which outweighs in my view the somewhat intangible benefits

    .I suspect the unemployed JDs are referring to the b) or c)

    It would not at all surprise me if non-law employers were reluctant to employ them in case they upped and left when Big Law came calling, however unlikely in reality that is.

    • 1. It clearly helps anyone understand, not to mention analyze, the world better.
      2. It can only fail to help acquire a job if 1) the lawyer involved has other problems or 2) it is the wrong job.
      3. The debts are irrelevant to its intrinsic value. You may have paid too much for it, but what one pays for something can’t reduce its value.

      None of them justify the absurd claim that legal knowledge isn’t an asset in a career, in life generally.

      It would surprise me. Who hires people without recognizing that they might leave? The only ones who won’t leave are the ones you don’t want to hire.

      • In my experience, getting people to separate out the costs and benefits when talking about anything is difficult. They tend to treat their personal evaluation of the net benefit to cost as some sort of absolute measure of the value of something.

      • Jack — the world has changed re legal education. Even great law schools — like the one we attended — have turned into factories. It’s false advertising. What they should be saying is, “we will teach you critical thinking skills.” But they aren’t. They are saying, “You will find a job as an attorney once you graduate.”

        I am a mentor in the DC area to young lawyers and it is alarming how many great, skilled, and personable young people have little hope for finding a position requiring a JD. (I refuse to mentor the psychos or socially inept — I have no advice to give other than “become normal,” which I don’t think is practical, and obviously is unkind.)

        As for the main point of the article, I’m not sure I agree. Most attorneys are specialized and we turn to other specialized attorneys as needed. For e.g., I recently turned to an employment law attorney re a question I needed answered. I have also looked to real estate and tax attorneys in the past. In my experience, someone with a little bit of subject matter expertise does more harm than good.

        • I don’t believe basic legal education is meant to supplant the need for specialized attorney’s. rather it is meant to help attorney’s better represent their clients, by giving the client some underlying understanding of the law, and why referrals to specialists are sometimes necessary. If the client has some grasp of the complexities of the law, he will better appreciate the need for experts to help navigate.

        • The point is that a legal education, which still, however it is marketed, still teaches critical thought and useful, practical knowledge, philosophy and skills, is as valuable for non-legal jobs, tasks and careers as for jobs requiring the degree. I was taught that this was part of the value of a JD, got one exactly for that reason, and have never been disappointed. Would that plan make sense if I had to put myself $100,000 in debt to follow it? Hell no.

          • Critical thinking can be taught in undergrad though — as you mentioned, Philosophy classes teach the same skill, and there are others as well.

            There are lots of disciplines that would be useful to me in my daily life: medicine, mechanical engineering, computer programming, etc. Law school should teach the practical aspects of being an attorney (discovery, motions practice, M&A, criminal procedure, etc.) — the critical thinking skills necessary to apply the law well should be in place before day 1 of law school. This is a failure of our high schools, colleges, and universities.

        • Beth, in section II.A “Lawyers Are Not General Experts,” I argue laypeople need to understand that, as you point out, lawyers are specialists and the law is very complicated. I do not suggest people handle legal matters themselves (though far too many people must because they can’t afford an attorney). I argue laypeople lack legal knowledge they should have for daily life and democratic participation. Additionally, one needs a basic understanding of the law to recognize one has a legal issue and consult a lawyer.

  3. As a non-lawyer I am wondering whether you mean a legal education as means of analyzing a set of facts or circumstances, applying a theorem to them, and then debating the points you want to make effectively or do you mean an understanding of the myriad legal precedents that have evolved over time from common law and legislation.

    I believe both are in order.

  4. Laypeople need to be empowered to think more like lawyers; but for this to happen, lawyers will need to “think less like lawyers and more like agents of social change.”

    She had me until the very end. Why do lawyers need to think less like lawyer and more like agents of social change? Social Change? Where does that nonsense come up.

    But, yes, in law school, a professor, using Moses as an example of a lawgiver, said that the laws are there to teach society how to act and lawyers have the duty to be the educators.


    • Jut, I’m proposing a lay public empowered with basic legal knowledge would be a major social change. I think it would cause social change as well, but there wasn’t space for that in this paper. I’ll humbly suggest you consider reading the paper to understand the idea in context before writing it off as “nonsense.” 😉

          • Hi Bridgette – read the paper and agree. Besides, social change is relatively catch-all in this instance (e.g., non-legal professionals need a better understanding of the law). Sometimes, a phrase like that gets lumped in with “social justice,” which, as we all know, has a very different connotation.

            Thanks again for the thoughtful piece. And thank you Jack for posting on it.

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