Big Law


»  An essay slated for publication in Kentucky Bench & Bar and the Louisville Bar Association's Bar Briefs  «

How ambitious should a law school be? Should it choose a single specialty or serve the profession more generally? What should be the scale on which law is taught, learned, and lived? How deep should we reach? How high should we vie?

In answering the strategic questions of law school management, I've taken Oliver Wendell Holmes's advice. A page of history really is worth a volume of logic. I've drawn insights from a contemporary historian so innovative that he has reinvented the focus of his discipline.

Maps of Time In his magnum opus, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, David Christian argues that the appropriate scale for the study of history is time in its entirety, from the Big Bang to humanity's end. In stark contrast with historians whose careers focus exclusively on one group, in one location, during a sliver of time, Christian has exhorted historians as a group to seek common themes and patterns across places, cultures, and time periods. The resulting enterprise, "Big History," draws heavily from other disciplines, such as biology, astronomy, geology, climatology, archeology, anthropology, and paleontology, in a highly ambitious effort to apply truly timeless lessons to contemporary concerns.

In our domain, I similarly believe that the scale on which law should be taught, learned, and lived is the entirety of human experience. The proper scope of legal education is the range of all things that law governs, informed by all other learned disciplines that influence legal decisionmakers.

In The Morality of Law, legal philosopher Lon Fuller defined law as "the enterprise of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules." An even more complete definition extends law to all questions of conflict resolution and conflict avoidance, of organizations and cooperative solutions that no individual can solve alone. Private and public, formal and informal, entrepreneurial and altruistic — law schools should strive to prepare their graduates for all circumstances and challenges that they may encounter during a lifetime in this profession.

Big bang This essay's title, as it turns out, is a deliberate double entendre. Most legal educators (and, to be frank, their students as well) think that "Big Law" refers to a fraction of the market for legal services. Many of us in the professorial ranks worked in larger law firms, and many law schools have traditionally devoted the lion's share of their career counseling efforts on placing as many graduates as possible in large firms. That approach overlooks some stark realities. Law school graduates work in a dazzling range of environments and serve diverse clients. As much as we appreciate larger firms and graduates of ours who work there, we must also appreciate our graduates who work alone, in small firms, in government, and in nonprofit settings. No individual lawyer, over the course of her career, can reliably predict where she'll work, whom she'll serve, or the tools she will need to bring to bear.

I hasten to add that to the extent larger law firms try to hire exclusively from the top of our classes, law school administrators should remind themselves that the graduate at the bottom of the class pays as much tuition as a graduate summa cum laude, and that early evaluations of talent often bear no relation to ultimate career success. The traditional definition of "Big Law," as it turns out, is far too cramped.

Retraining our law schools' focus on "Big Law" — properly redefined as law marshaling the complete arsenal of intellectual tools and skills in service of all needs and hopes felt by lawyers and their clients — affects all aspects of legal education. We must take our teaching beyond the Langdellian classroom and the Socratic method. Today's students rightfully demand experience-based learning. Clinics, moot courts, internships and externships, public service projects, law journals, and interest-based student organizations all stretch the law school experience beyond those few (albeit important) things that we can teach in a formal classroom setting. It is not too much for students to seek, nor is it to much for schools to deliver, training in skills not tested on any bar exam but crucial to ultimate success: law firm management, mastery of technology, powerful writing, persuasive oral advocacy, even fluency in the foreign languages spoken by a burgeoning part of the American population. Faculty research, more than ever, must become more rigorous and relevant. Law professors today have become better trained in empirical research and tools already familiar to our fellow social scientists. We owe our students and the profession at large an even more considerable push into research that solves real problems and offers workable solutions.

Rainbow Natural historians, who are perhaps the biggest practitioners of Big History, tell us that human civilization his triggered the sixth great extinction spasm of the Phanerozoic Eon, a stretch of time exceeding half a billion years. As the Futurist Manifesto of 1909 proclaimed nearly a century ago, contemporary society confronts the challenge of “omnipresent speed” on “the last promontories of the centuries.” Oliver Wendell Holmes undoubtedly would endorse Big Law's response to this challenge. In showing the next generation the true path of the law, let us embrace an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law.