Thursday, January 5, 2012

Legal Education: A Positive Outlook in an Uncertain Time

Anthony Michael Knipp, L'12

What do Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln all have in common? Among other things, they were all lawyers. These three political figures have arguably done more for social justice than anyone else in history. However, it might not have been that way had they not been legally trained. As a lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi became a highly influential political activist, leading several nonviolent campaigns to defend his people’s rights and gain independence for India. Nelson Mandela became a lawyer to equip himself with the necessary tools to fight apartheid and alleviate racial segregation in South Africa. Abraham Lincoln used his legal education to lead an entire country through the American Civil War, ending slavery and rededicating our nation to equal rights. In my opinion, legal education is an intellectual boot camp of sorts that prepares people for leadership roles beyond the confines of the courtroom. It not only teaches future lawyers the vastness of the law, but also introduces a new way of thinking and conceptualizing that enables people to discover new perspectives of our world.

In the midst of the “Great Recession,” much attention is paid to the lack of job opportunities available to law school graduates. Unfortunately, this negative focus sometimes overshadows the actual quality of training acquired in law school. Although the relentless Socratic method is not always enjoyable, I believe that legal education deserves to be viewed favorably – even more so during these harsh economic times. The true value of law school should not be judged solely on the merit of immediate job opportunities, but on the abilities we develop in training to be a lawyer. There is no other curriculum out there that can duplicate the wide range of benefits associated with learning to “think like a lawyer.” The following are a few underappreciated benefits of a legal education (with or without an immediate job offer):

You Acquire Options No Other Education Can Provide

Upon graduation, a legal education will open a wide variety of proverbial doors. Subsequent to bar passage, most law school graduates choose to become lawyers and apply their legal education to the revered practice of law. Fortunately for these people, the legal universe is immense and specialty areas of practice are practically infinite. Some may choose to open their own solo practice, whereas others have their sights set on the big firm. Some will take their legal education straight to the courtroom, while others will devote their knowledge to complex transactional matters from the comfort of their office. A lawyer’s options in the practice of law run the gamut and nothing inhibits a lawyer from exploring the terrain of every avenue. With a little determination, there is virtually no limit to what a law school graduate can achieve within the profession.

That being said, law school graduates are by no means bound to the legal profession. On the contrary, law school grads may become whatever it is they want to be. Unfortunately, legal education alone will not send you to Mars aboard NASA’s Constellation, nor will it propel you to the first round of the NBA draft. Nevertheless, a law degree will show future employers that you are an ambitious and intelligent person. Law school graduates have excelled in practically every legitimate job out there. The J.D. gives graduates a leg up in almost every career path, simply due to the skills and attributes it cultivates. At the very least, all careers value the ability to understand and comprehend the law because of the relationship between the legal system and our economy. Regardless of what career path is taken, the multiple career options available to legal graduates are a relative luxury that should not be overlooked. While job opportunities may not currently be as plentiful in comparison to past years, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, you will definitely find something.

You Develop The Ability to Gather, Analyze and Communicate Information

John Quincy Adams once said, “[T]o furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is . . . the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind.” In the Information Age, the ability to gather, analyze and communicate information is invaluable. Not coincidentally, these skills are part and parcel of modern legal education.

To most law students, an unanswered question is merely a research challenge. As more information is uploaded to the Internet everyday, the skill of online researching has become increasingly important. Information that seemed nearly impossible to obtain in the past is now only a few clicks away. Whether it be a research assignment from an employer or a heated dispute among friends, the ability to find pertinent information in a timely manner is invaluable.

Of course, to make a good decision, you not only need good information, but you must be able to analyze it. The study of law sharpens critical thinking, reasoning and analytical skills. Law students develop the ability to identify a myriad of factors that can affect an outcome and understand how they relate to each other. Law school instills in students the ability to quickly and accurately make assessments and decisions.

Finally, the last piece of the information-flow puzzle: communicating. The values of communication skills extend well beyond success in your legal career. The ability to effectively communicate a message will largely determine whether any given endeavor is successful. The value of gathering and analyzing information is quite limited if the findings cannot be clearly and concisely expressed to others. Even in personal relationships, the ability to communicate is at the very core of connecting with another person.

You Gain Confidence in Your Own Judgment

While others often try to avoid confrontation and questioning, lawyers cannot. Every lawyer knows that there is no clear answer to every question. This means that part of your job as a legal professional is learning to gain confidence in your judgment. Indeed, this is exactly what made Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln so special, because they trusted their own judgment even when up against seemingly-impossible opposition. They were able to stare adversity in the eye and fight it off with a reasoned stance. By definition, leaders must have the ability to trust his or her judgment.

I came to law school not only for the possibility of becoming a lawyer, but also to receive what I believe to be the best educational experience in the country. I will never again have the opportunity to devote every waking moment to the study of such a vast and complex system. Like Ghandi, Mandela, and Lincoln, my legal education provides me with the necessary tools to succeed and the potential to make a difference. If I choose to practice law after graduation – excellent. If I choose to use my legal education for a non-legal career path – equally great. I think the balance to being happy and successful is the ultimate goal and legal education can provide this balance in numerous ways. Legal education should be appreciated for its unique virtues, regardless of the state of our economy or the many uncertainties that lie ahead.

Anthony Michael Knipp is a third-year law student. This piece originally appeared in the December 2010 edition of the Journal of the Kansas Bar Association.

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