The Winnowing of the Legal Mind

It takes only a short while for law school to confine your thoughts to a narrow width. In the beginning you reason in broad strokes, attempting to take account of every factor and every solution in each problem. Public policy in its comprehensive sense comes up often, and discussions as to the best direction for the law are lively and seemingly fruitful. But October turns into November and November into December, and you come to care about only one thing: rules. Complex rules, to be sure, rules with difficult reasons, rules allegedly derived from the common good – but rules just the same. When you think “why this rule, and not this other rule?”, you will not range over the plains of policy, but rather mull within the four walls of precedent, statute, regulation and standard legal principle – the building blocks of the legal framework.

Legal frameworks constrict the possibilities of the lawyer’s mind, dismissing any analysis or answer too far outside the norm as impractical, inconceivable, or impossible. The Constitution is the preeminent example: any musing on the structure of government that contradicts the Constitution is, according to the lawyer, impossible and unwise, and so not useful and not worthy of discussion. The law purports to cabin only action but it also cabins imagination, leaving the law student along an artificial spectrum of what can be done and for what reasons.

The question is whether such confinement is good or bad. It’s easy to argue that law students should think in expansive terms: lawyers have great power, and thus should deliberate on the greatest number of ideas and solutions in shaping the world. But I am not convinced.

We are not political philosophers, macroeconomists or historians, no more than we are engineers, scientists or doctors. The further we reach, the less we know and the more likely we are to get it wrong. Teaching law students things outside the law creates judges who think themselves smarter than the economists on economics and smarter than the scientists on science, and we already have too many of those. A narrower legal education that teaches students the law in its technical aspects, builds in them the special capacities that only lawyers have, and, most important, inculcates an attitude of deference to those more expert than themselves – in economics, science, engineering, politics, and much else – is perhaps exactly what we need. Then maybe we’d realize that the power to make law does not necessarily confer the wisdom.