Practical wisdom

BY RAFFI MELKONIAN

A recent law review article by Professor Amy Cohen of Western New England School of Law promises to revive a topic long discussed by people interested in the mechanics of law school: should professors have practical experience in thefield they’re teaching? Professor Cohen, who took a sabbatical from the academy to shadow some lawyers in an intellectual property firm, says “yes.” Practicing law with her private practice colleagues, she said, helped her identify practical problems which she would never have noticed from her perch in the ivory tower, while doing substantive legal research on issues that were not discussed in the academic literature. Cohen’s conclusion is clear: her “experience observing the world of practice will . . . make me a better scholar.” More professors should therefore dip their toes into the sometimes murky depths of legal practice.

My sense, from the little experience I’ve had at this school, is that Professor Cohen is right. We should want professors with practical experience, especially in the wide range of subjects where it really matters. First, as one practitioner-professor once told a class I was in, there are some legal fields where you shouldn’t really even call yourself a lawyer until you’ve had ten years of practice: the day to day work of law in that kind of more administrative practice area, he said, is so far outside the formal academic literature (which tends to focus on obscure, constitutional, issues) that it’s impossible to understand what’s actually happening without substantial experience. The earthily real subject of Criminal law also depends heavily on an experienced teacher – an acquaintance of mine who practices in the field recently emphasized the importance of veteran prosecutors and public defenders in the professor’s seat, especially in a world where what happens in the courtroom is often so different than what is envisioned by the antiseptic verses of the Model Penal Code. And I personally have had a terrific experience with our excellent corporate law faculty, which combines theoretical and practical experience to great effect – one I can’t imagine if we had limited recruiting to a group of really smart economists.

There’s no doubt that not all academic fields are as susceptible to the benefits of experienced faculty as corporate or criminal law. After all, one can imagine a constitutional law faculty made up of non-practicing theorists, though it should be noted that our own people in the field don’t correspond to that description. But it is also true that even in those kinds of subjects, subjects where practice doesn’t seem to matter as much, the only obviously bad experiences I’ve had in class at this school have been with professors who had no serious experience outside the professoriate at all, save their undeniably impressive Supreme Court clerkships. The Association of American Law Schools apparently warns professors against taking on too many outside responsibilities for fear of depriving their students – but in my experience, that exposure to the world of private demands has only had positive effects in making professors more responsive to student needs, and more efficient in providing for them.

But ultimately, as Cohen points out, the most important part of having experienced professors might well be that our teachers would become more amenable to our future careers than they are today. After all, we’re all at a school that both wholeheartedly facilitates entry into the most sophisticated private practice through on-campus interviewing, and also clearly evidences a certain suspicion of lawyers who actually work for clients and money. There’s nothing entirely overt, of course – but the cynical sense that practicing corporate lawyers and litigators are tainted by their association with big business, high pay, and the long hours required of practice in a large law firm is a pervasive undertone of teaching around here. If indeed jaded lawyers in the real world of private practice are a problem (and as I’ve argued in this column before, I think all the hand-wringing on points like this is exaggerated), then our professors should at least have had some experience with the kinds of problems likely to arise in that supposedly fiendish universe beyond the Harvard gates – and how we young lawyers should act when presented with tough situations. In addition to teaching us, our faculty are supposed to be mentors of a sort to their charges – our first exposure to lawyers bound by the responsibilities of the bar and the world. It would be great if more of them, at this school and others, knew exactly what that entailed.

Raffi Melkonian is a 3L.

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