March 11, 2011
Schools for Misrule
I recently read Walter Olson’s new book, Schools for Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America. I opened the book expecting to like it. As a libertarian, I’m sympathetic to Olson’s claim that the United States is overregulated and over-lawyered. But, although Olson is a forceful advocate and the book is well written, I was disappointed.
To begin with, this is not really a book about legal education. Olson does talk about the work of law professors, but more as advocates and writers than as teachers. Except for a few obligatory comments about professors pushing a liberal agenda in class, the book does not venture into the classroom.
Olson’s real concern is law professors’ advocacy outside the classroom—in influential law review articles and as consultants and activists. He uses legal scholarship and the work of law clinics as starting points to criticize a number of developments in the law, from strict liability to international human rights. Olson’s basic thesis is that law professors have bad ideas, and those bad ideas become bad law.
At the end of the book, Olson does call for law schools to train students “in the skills and knowledge they will need in legal practice.” But, since he doesn’t focus on curriculum, it’s difficult to know exactly what Olson would change. Olson’s bêtes noire are law school clinics, especially the so-called “public interest” clinics. But he focuses on the substance of their advocacy, not whether those clinics teach students the skills they will need in legal practice.
For the most part, Olson neglects the business-law side of law schools. In fact, he specifically singles out business law as one of the few areas where there is “a decided mix of left and right voices.” I like to think we business law professors have as many screwy ideas as the rest of the legal academy, so the lack of attention is disappointing.
People who disagree with Olson’s views of what the law should be aren’t going to find much of value in this book, for his main thesis is simply that the legal changes wrought by law professors are wrong. And people who agree with Olson’s substantive views are not going to find much new here. Olson relies almost exclusively on published sources and doesn’t appear to have done much hands-on investigation.