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Law Is Still a Profession, Not an 18th-Century 'Trade'
February 15, 2007; Page B10
The Wall Street Journal

In response to Cameron Stracher's commentary "Meet the Clients" (Taste page, Weekend Journal, Jan. 26):

Mr. Stracher, publisher of the New York Law School Law Review and co-director of the Program in Law & Journalism, berates legal education and the qualification of law students. He argues that practicing law does not require much intellectual work. "Law is not brain surgery," he asserts. "It is a skill to be acquired by practice and repetition."

He summarizes his view of the lawyer's role when he praises a paralegal who practiced law without a license: "What struck me about him . . . was how good he was at his job. He blustered, bluffed, threatened and cajoled with the best of them. He knew the law and argued it capably. But then. . .he learned his trade the old-fashioned way: He practiced it." Above all, Mr. Stracher conveys, legal practice is not a profession; it is a trade.

We are professors at Boston University Law School. We are happy to report that we do not teach our students to bluster, bluff, threaten and cajole. We teach them to use their brains. We teach them to reason with logic, clarity and consistency. We train them to write, and to read legal opinions and statutes with great care.

The kind of legal practice Mr. Stracher describes in the above example is one involving many deals and some court cases that do not require in-depth knowledge of complex law. Instead, this sort of practice requires understanding human nature and knowing how to deal with people effectively and win. But even there, the brain must lead.

Legal education may need revamping, especially as our economy and technology develop, but going back to an 18th century apprenticeship model is not the solution.

We teach future professionals, not tradesmen. We aim at preparing them for service to the public both in the private and government sectors. We train them to be trustworthy even if there are no police around. Our society is grounded in law and truth, not in bluffing and blustering. "Knowing the law" does not qualify one to be a lawyer. A criminal can be expert in knowing the rules. So can a computer. By gaining information by mechanical input -- repetition and memorization -- lawyers would become obsolete with the law they "know." We tell students that we are teaching them obsolete laws, because law is changing ever faster. For example, copyright law is undergoing constant revision, as new technologies evolve, and battles rage over how to combine ownership and public access to best meet society's need for information. Also, the rules regarding the stock markets, mutual funds, hedge funds and pension funds are continuously changing, reflecting the changes in the financial system and its movement to globalization.

Now, what about the skills Mr. Stracher mentioned, such as preparing students to speak to clients, to conduct a trial, to cross-examine witnesses, to negotiate and to write contracts? We offer training in these skills in our clinical programs, in extracurricular activities, and in our regular classrooms. But the best practice will come after law school, with maturity, with watching the senior partners and with learning from mentors. The intellectual foundation, the "brain surgery" part of law practice, is gained in the law school.

Tamar Frankel
Professor of Law and Michaels Faculty Research Scholar
Wendy J. Gordon
Professor of Law and Paul J. Liacos Scholar in Law
Boston University
Boston