Law school taught me nothing

by ketchupduck6 min read11th Apr 202013 comments


RationalityWorld Modeling

This is a list of all the topics a standard Civil Procedure class in law school covers, with the concepts I remember highlighted in blue and those I don't in red.

There is a lot more red than blue, which is shocking because:

  • I graduated from law school less than a year ago
  • I paid slightly more than $6,000 for my Civil Procedure class
  • I received an A in the class

This post is an exploration of possible hypotheses for why this happened.

Epistemic status: spinning hypotheses from personal experience, so take lightly.

User error

In a world where even surgeons sometimes leave their tools inside their patient's body, the ghost of user error haunts us all. Maybe I am the problem, and my skills, situation, or environment are not suited for remembering basic facts that I paid $6,000 to learn. There are a few ways in which I could be failing at this task.

First, maybe I am not good at school. I reject this hypothesis out-of-hand, mostly because I have a fragile ego, but also partly because it's not true. I scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT, attended a top-3 law school in the US, and graduated with honors. All these points don't insulate me from being bad at school, but the vast majority of law school attendees are even worse at school (not learning) than me. You know that scene in Taken where Liam Neeson says "I have a very particular set of skills..."? That's me with school; I am good at school. If I can't retain this knowledge, the entire system might as well commit its tax-advantaged resources to rolling boulders up hills for all the good they're doing.

Second, maybe I have framed the problem incorrectly. It's true that retaining material from a Civil Procedure class is not a standard validated benchmark. However, I promise you that I'll receive similar results on any benchmark you devise for 90% of the law school classes I took; I only picked Civil Procedure for this exercise because it is alphabetically first in the list of required law school classes I took. My problem is not that I don't remember Civil Procedure; my problem is that I remember almost nothing.

Third, maybe I didn't study properly. This, unlike the previous two, is a plausible hypothesis. I did work my way through about ~70% of the study tactics the professor recommended, including attending class regularly, completing all the readings ahead of time, taking good notes, and reviewing all the material at the end of class. But if I had done more, like made flashcards, practiced with spaced repetition, joined a study group, or just spent more time with the material, I would remember more today. Some other students do remember much more than I do, partly because they used more intense study tactics.

School is just a signaling mechanism

As Bryan Caplan says:

There are TWO solid business reasons to pay extra for educated workers.  One is that education teaches useful skills, transforming unskilled students into skilled workers. This is the  standard “human capital” story.  The other reason, though, is that education certifies useful skills, helping employers distinguish skilled workers from imposters.  This is the “signaling” story. [...] My best estimate is that signaling explains 80% of the payoff.

In other words, students go to school because employers hire people with degrees, not because they want to learn. According to this hypothesis, it is perfectly rational for me to only remember odds-and-ends from my law school education; the only thing I need to retain is my degree, not any knowledge.

Legal employers largely behave in accordance with the signaling theory. It was common knowledge among the student body that (A) the highest paying or most prestigious jobs mostly go to graduates of top law schools and (B) as long as you are a graduate of one of the top law schools, you can get a high paying or prestigious job without having excellent grades. A prestigious degree essentially equals a good job. You might need a prestigious degree AND excellent grades to get a very rare job (e.g., a Supreme Court clerk, of which there are less than 40 each year), but most people were not aiming for those jobs.

Schools also behave in accordance with the signaling theory. Most blatantly, five of the top fourteen law schools in the US have adopted idiosyncratic grading schemes that make it hard for employers to understand exactly how competent a student is (inasmuch as grades ever indicate competence). These grading systems range from no fixed curves to pass/no-pass grades to UChicago's (hilarious) "numeric grade with median of 177." There is a discredited security strategy called security through obscurity, where you secure your system by keeping the system secret, instead of making it resistant to attacks. This is analogous: grading through obscurity.

This privilege of using a grade scheme that obfuscates is exercised by market-making schools, whereas market-taking schools largely stick to A/B/C/D/Fs. But even these latter schools, while not prestigious enough to make up their own grading schemes, have an array of schemes to choose from to make their students more attractive to employers. Employers judge schools by how many of their graduates find gainful employment. Schools want to maximize this number so that its graduates look like catches. In good times, they'll do so with good ol'-fashioned definition massaging, defining "long-term" employment as employment lasting a year and "J.D. advantage jobs" to include jobs such as FBI agent and paralegal, for which a J.D. is only marginally more advantageous than breathing oxygen. In bad times, such as the Great Recession, they'll do so by employing graduating students themselves in temporary positions.

Students, too, behave in accordance with the signaling theory to some extent. First year (1L, in the jargon) grades matter quite a lot for most student's first post-graduation job, so students do work hard in the first year. However, most 2L and 3L (3LOL, in the jargon) students skate by, trying to apply the bare minimum effort possible.

Poor teaching

I remember more from high school than I do from law school. I remember random facts that I have never used since high school, like the fact that the ideal gas law is PV = nRT and the French verb venir requires special conjugation in the past tense. This is not as bizarre as it seems at first glance.

A recent post explained that the more people you need to coordinate, the less bandwidth you have for transmitting information to them. If you are talking to a handful of people, you can have a deep conversation, but if you are talking to thousands of people, you shout a short slogan at them. I think the same is true across time. If you are teaching a student in your class, you can give that student millions of words of information. By the time a student goes to his first job, that student remembers thousands of words of information. By the time a student reaches the peak of her career, that student remembers hundreds of words of information. By retirement, tens of words, if that.

This is not pure conjecture. Middle school students can lose large chunks of their reading and math knowledge over summer break, even though those are basic skills continuously reinforced by real-world tasks! The information taught in law school bears only a passing resemblance to real-world tasks, and is almost never reinforced after graduation. Of course it is forgotten. Given that students will forget most things they learn, teachers should ideally teach in a way that mitigates the damage of the decline. The most important information should be impossible to forget.

Grade school teachers are better than professors at forcing unforgettable information into students' minds. (They're not perfect, but they're much better.) They'll use alliteration, repetition, rhymes, and chanting to get their students to memorize information forever. My high school chemistry teacher would say "piv nurt" every day for a few weeks when teaching us PV = nRT. That's not a good mnemonic; it's just two meaningless syllables! But the repetition worked. I will remember piv nurt on my deathbed. Same for DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP. And SOH CAH TOA. And "always add +c." And many other little factoids. My professors, on the other hand, when telling us important information, would preface it with "And if there is one thing you remember from this class, it is this..." That's it.

Law school professors will hate changing how they teach. They didn't get into their prestigious jobs to develop mnemonics for fully-grown adults. It's beneath their dignity. The responsibility for retaining information rests with their students. I get it. It does seem silly to suggest that famous credentialed lawyers spend their time treating their adult students like high-schoolers. But the current situation, where these very same famous credentialed lawyers spend months teaching students, only for the students to forget most of what they've learned within weeks, doesn't seem like its befitting their dignity either.

The point was to learn meta-skills

The canard that law school repeats often is "we teach you how to learn." It's fine that I remember almost nothing from my classes, because that was never the goal. The goal was to learn the skills needed to learn the law. Now the rest of my life can be an orgy of learning, limited only by my initiative.

Learning about anything, including meta-skills, requires looping through the below list many times:

  • I do a task
  • I receive feedback on the task, telling me what I did well and what I did poorly
  • I update my mental modal of how to do the task

Law school fails at this loop because it makes sure tenured professors rarely have to besmirch themselves by giving feedback.

Law school instructors, although all human, like the Eloi and the Morlocks can be split into two classes. There are tenured (or tenure-track) professors, and there are the rest. You can distinguish them by the size of their offices.

If you take a class with a tenured professor, it is extremely unlikely you will receive feedback on tasks you complete. It happened to me maybe twice in three years, and I'm including feedback given by the professors' TAs in that count. Even more annoyingly, you might not even have any tasks to complete! In almost all classes, the student's only job throughout the semester is to complete the reading, and if called upon in class, to answer reading-comprehension-type questions about the reading. (Law schools refer to this as the Socratic Method, but it's more like read-and-regurgitate.) Neither the reading nor the perfunctory questioning that follows is a meaningful task on which law students need feedback, given that law students are already good at reading and reading comprehension.

If you take a class with a non-tenured professor, on the other hand, you can receive lots of excellent feedback. However, these have their own problems. First, they require small student-to-teacher ratios so students can receive feedback, which means law schools need to hire lots of teachers to run them, which means they are expensive, which means law schools are wary of having too many of these. Second, the subject matter taught by non-tenured professors doesn't always overlap with that taught by tenured professors. Students end up experiencing a classic Catch-22: one can either properly learn an unwanted subject, or poorly learn a wanted subject. Third, almost all these classes are structured as practicums where students solve problems for real or fictional clients. Especially when the clients are real, these classes quickly devolve into base concerns of "How do we fix this client's problem?" rather than the lofty aim of "Let's learn how to learn." On the whole though, these classes are much better than classes with tenured professors.


Below are my best guesses for how much each of these hypotheses explains why I don't remember anything.

  • [25%] User error because I didn't study enough
  • [30%] School is just a signaling mechanism, so remembering actual content would be pointless
  • [40%] Poor teaching means I have and will continue to forget information at the whims of my subconscious
  • [5%] The point of law school was to learn meta-skills, not information