Fish on law teaching

Larry Ribstein —  14 December 2011

Stanley Fish opines on the NYT’s recent criticisms of legal education (HT Leiter):

The expert practitioner is expert in part because when he listens to a client or walks into a courtroom the field of action is already configured for him by an internalized understanding of what could possibly be at stake in proceedings like these.

That understanding is what law schools offer (among other things). Law schools ask and answer the question, “What’s the game here?”; the ins and outs of the game you learn later, as in any profession. The complaint reported by David Segal in his Times article is that law firms must teach their new hires tricks of the trade they never learned in their * * * classes. But learning the tricks would not amount to much and might well be impossible for someone who did not know — in a deep sense of know — what the trade is and why it is important to practice it. * * *

I agree. I argue in Practicing Theory that technology will enable lawyers to shed the small tasks that machines can do and focus on the big questions Fish describes. For example, instead of using forms to draft contracts, lawyers can leave this to machines and create the forms.  This will entail focusing more directly on the functions of contracts than most lawyers do today. Law schools should enable this deeper focus rather than shifting to training students for tasks that technology is making obsolete.

Larry Ribstein


Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

One response to Fish on law teaching


    Thinking about grand ideas and developing master strategies in complex matters may be a most valuable contribution that lawyers contribute to client engagements. But, I have never seen a client include a time entry along the lines of “thinking about case. Rather, lawyers bill for tasks and increasingly, those tasks are being assumed by computers ( ).

    The delivery of legal services is increasingly tied to technology. Law schools need to comprehend that reality and must focus on teaching law students to master those technologies. Should they fail to do so, we may soon find ourselves in a world where MIS specialists outnumber lawyers in the world of delivering legal services and Internet based providers of legal services will outnumber law firms.

    The failure by the legal academy to recognize this reality may well contribute to its collapse.