Friday, March 1, 2013

The subliminal message law schools send to students about how lawyers communicate

Thanks to Professor Bill Henderson at the Legal Whiteboard blog for finding this bit of insight about the subliminal message sent to students by many law schools.  No w0nder students are confused by the conflicting messages they feel they get about effective communication and legal writing. Their teachers repeatedly tell them to keep it simple yet the unspoken message they receive through the casebooks and elsewhere says that if you want to talk, walk and act like a lawyer, obfuscate.  And leave it to a non-academic to see what's always been right under our noses but has somehow always avoided detection.

From the Prism Legal blog.

On Sunday I spent time sipping a coffee outside of Berkeley Law School. I was struck by its facade, pictured below, and what it signals about lawyers. 

One entrance to the school is a monolithic concrete facade, broken only by two quotes (Cardozo and Holmes) on giant plaques, one above each entrance. The quotes are long and, the the font and spacing makes the text hard to read. The language is complex and hard to understand for the average person.

Here is my take on the subliminal message for law students:

  • Expect to write long, dense prose for a specialized audience. If you can say something in a lot of words instead of a few words, that’s great. Don’t make things easy; don’t worry about the average person.
  • Focus only on the words. Don’t worry that how you lay them - fonts or spacing - make the text hard to read. Great content stands on its own - it’s worth suffering through.
  • There is no context for the law; instead, it appears on a giant blank slate. You can find it if you try hard enough and simply apply it. Never mind society, citizens, or business, focus on the words because you really operate in a vacuum.

I have nothing against a lot of text inscribed on walls. One of my favorite spots in Washington, DC is the Lincoln Memorial, where the Gettysburg Address is inscribed on one wall. On each visit, I look forward to re-reading it.

My only point is to think about the subtle messages law schools send to students. I hope that the current public debate about U.S. legal education leads to a new set of signals about what it means to be a lawyer.


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