Why a legal education is worth it

by Rigel Oliveri

Recently, I took part in a trivia contest to raise money for charity. A friend, who happens to be a lawyer, bought the table. He invited several of his friends, many of whom also happen to be lawyers, to be on his team. We were called (much to my chagrin) the Legal Eagles. The huge Knights of Columbus Hall was full of competitors – 30 teams with 8 people each. Many of them clearly did this regularly: The teams had matching costumes, elaborate signs, and lots of snacks and alcoholic beverages. My group, on the other hand, had never done this before. We hadn’t made costumes, or come up with a cool sign, or studied up on anything trivia-related. And even more to my chagrin, we hadn’t known to bring snacks.

Long story short, we won. We didn’t just win – we crushed it. It didn’t hurt that one of the categories was “Famous Legal Cases.” When the team scores were posted and the other participants saw who won, a chorus went up around us: “Well of course they won! They’re lawyers! No fair! Who brought in all the smart lawyers?”

Which got me to thinking… We were pretty smart! (Of course, the fact that everyone else had booze and we didn’t might have also had something to do with our victory.) My table didn’t just know the names and the holdings of those famous legal cases – Roe v. Wade, Kelo v. New London, Citizens United. We knew where the legal reasoning came from, which portions of the Constitution were involved, what grounds the dissents were based on, and the doctrine each case spawned. In short, we had a profound understanding of the inner workings of some of the most important political and social events of the last century.

Lawyers have always gotten a bad rap. The old saying about everyone hating lawyers until you need one is very true.  And lately legal education has come under heavy fire as well. Law schools are criticized for teaching too much theory and not enough practice, for being too expensive, for churning out too many graduates into an already-saturated legal market. The lucky few who do get jobs at big firms are stressed out, bored, and disillusioned with their work – at least, according to the critics.

It’s not that these critiques don’t have some truth. Law schools do need to focus more on practice skills and experiential learning. The employment market for lawyers has gotten tougher, especially for people seeking the plum jobs at big law firms. Student loans, for lack of a more elegant term, suck.

But, and here is where I finally get to my point: The law is fascinating. It is incredibly important in people’s lives. And a legal education is an amazing opportunity to get the tools to understand, and most importantly, work within this system. (Here is where I should also note, in the interests of full disclosure, that I am in fact a law professor.)

We all know that profound understanding of a complex system alone doesn’t always pay the bills. So what about the work? What about the nonexistent or soul-destroying jobs my teammates and I were stuck with?

I looked around the table and saw: a wills and trusts specialist who, with great compassion and precision, drafts complex estate plans that allow people to provide for the guardianship of their children and distribution of all their worldly possessions; an election lawyer who advises the state government on how to make sure voting procedures are fair; a family lawyer, who helps clients adopt babies, negotiates divorces, and acts as an appointed guardian for children who otherwise have no representation; a criminal defense lawyer who fights hard to keep innocent people out of prison and to make sure that the guilty are at least are charged and sentenced appropriately. And then there was me, a former civil rights lawyer who used to work to ensure that victims of housing discrimination received justice and compensation.

We weren’t big law firm millionaires. In fact, we all either worked in government or worked for ourselves. But we all did important, interesting, and deeply satisfying work. Granted, we came out of school in more favorable economic times and we were able to get a foothold in the legal market without losing our shirts to Sallie Mae. But the work – criminal law, family law, state government law, wills and trusts, civil rights – will always be here, and everywhere in the United States.   

All of this is why it breaks my heart to hear about young people who are interested in law deciding not to bother applying to law school. Our society is shaped in innumerable ways by law. We need another generation of the best and brightest to learn the craft, to continue helping people with their legal needs, to make sure our government works the way that it should. And, of course, to beat the pants off of nonlawyers in trivia.

As my team members and I proudly held up the $20 Target gift cards that were our prizes, I joked that this victory made all of those law school loans (which I am still paying off) worth it.

But as I joked, I realized that my legal education was indeed worth it. 

 

Rigel Oliveri is associate professor and associate dean at the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia, Mo.