Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Don’t We Teach?

Lately, criticizing the alleged inadequacies of contemporary legal education is all the rage.  Judges, law professors, and, perhaps most notoriously, the New York Times all have abundant opinions on what’s wrong with or missing from legal education.  I think, for reasons exhaustively documented elsewhere in the legal blogosphere, that many of the critiques are overblown.  But the debate undeniably is important, and it has me wondering: what important pieces are missing from contemporary environmental law education?  And how well do the standard critiques apply to the education of environmental lawyers?

Before I suggest some possible answers, a few caveats are in order.  First, I have only attended one law school, have only taught at one school, and, prior to teaching, held just one environmental law job (as well as working on regulatory issues as an environmental consultant before going to law school).  I can’t offer definitive answers.  Second, this post considers the education of an environmental law specialist, rather than a generalist whose practice includes some environmental law.  Perhaps our primary focus should be on educating the latter rather than the former, but that’s a question for another day.

Those reservation aside, here are some things I found important, that law school didn’t teach me, and that I suspect law schools elsewhere don’t really cover:

-  Understanding environmental reports written by scientists, engineers, and other non-lawyers.  Reviewing these reports is a big part of what environmental lawyers do, but it isn’t easy to teach in the classroom.  I had spent my years before law school reading and writing such reports, but they weren’t part of my law school experience.

- Understanding how to bring in clients.  The most valuable person in any law firm is the biggest rainmaker.  But other than trying to teach good lawyering skills, which, of course, are relevant to bringing in and retaining clients, rainmaking isn’t a major part of environmental law education, or of legal education generally.

- Understanding law firm recordkeeping, finance, and office management.  I worked at a tiny firm, and if I had stayed and become a partner, I would have needed these skills.  But nothing in my legal education helped me develop them.

Those are important skills, but still, it's not a very impressive list.  Its brevity reflects my view that  law school actually did a pretty good job of preparing me for practice.  But I’m curious what our readers think.  What do you wish your law school had taught you?

-Dave Owen

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With respect to Dave's first point about understanding environmental reports, I agree but would take it a step or two further. Having practiced environmental&energy law in the public and private sectors for over 25 years, many lawyers struggle both with 1) skillfully and efficiently asking questions of their non-lawyer consultants and big-project collaborators (engineers, biologists, geologists, accountants, etc etc), and then 2) listening well to ask the needed clarifying questions and make the key suggestions to focus them on the legal needs at hand. For example, the non-lawyers rarely have a good grasp of the intricacies of the permitting processes, while the lawyers also often do not understand the basic rules and principles of the non-lawyers' fields. What I have always enjoyed about working on complex projects in the development or adversarial processes is working with non-lawyers, because it feels like I am continuing my liberal arts education in fields I did not study in college--or law school.

Posted by: Jeff Thaler | Feb 3, 2012 7:46:17 AM

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