What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Law School

“Sheet music is a bunch of black marks; they have no significance. I play violin, but in order to play well you have to be much more than a violin player. There is an entire world that lives together with it, like the currents in the ocean.” – Ivry Gitlis

As a 2022 year-end exercise, I reviewed the articles that I wrote over the prior twelve months concerning the law industry and legal training. My focus in these essays was largely on institutional, technical, and industrial organization problems, because that is where structural improvement opportunities are to be found. These are problems common to all institutions; we can, therefore, make useful generalizations.

I also came across a vast number of older essays penned by various members of the legal profession, especially the legal academy, concerning ways to “innovate” in law schools. Many writers predicted that law schools will die if they don’t change. If I were to distill their arguments into a single, general proposition, however, it’s pretty simple: they all believe that improvements in legal training come from more legal training. This is easy to understand: these essays were written by law school insiders. The have an obvious conflict of interest which is difficult or impossible to overcome.

The overwhelming instinct of the legal academy is to focus on the margin: minor modifications to the curriculum. This results in a simplistic hodgepodge of recommendations that, when combined, will somehow remake the lawyer: some computer science (or “coding,” as judge Richard Posner entertainingly recommends), some economics, a course in leadership, a review of accounting, even a bit of literature. The more you read these essays, and the more you unpack what they are admitting, it becomes clear that the J.D. degree itself is deficient—what they wind up describing instead (but will never admit) is a business degree.

[Related: “You Are the Constitution”]

But that’s not the full answer either. The problem is not so much the content, but rather the form. The two biggest flaws of American legal education—its central risks of obsolescence which the academy refuses to confront—are 1) how long it takes to get through law school, and 2) what happens when students are over-exposed to academia and under-exposed to experience.

We also may expect too much from college training: it serves many purposes, but it is not  (because it cannot be) a complete experience. Even career training is just one of several independent variables of success. Indeed, “college versus experience” is a false dichotomy—college is experience, and experience is also “college.” You are the true independent variable.

Here’s the main point I’d like to make contrary to the law academy’s internal “transformation” studies, one which was well-put by IMG founder, CEO, and author Mark McCormack in his best-selling book What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. As Mark put it, “In all fairness to Harvard Business School, what they don’t teach you, is what they can’t teach you” (emphasis mine). This is a key point that also applies to law school: what law schools could teach—even with a perfect curriculum—is a necessary part, but only a part, of what you need to know as a lawyer. The key coupling is experience. But experience means much more.

Experience is mastery.1 A musician who spends a decade practicing and perfecting the performance of a musical instrument;2 or a pilot with thousands of successful command flight hours; or a surgeon who performed 2,000 hip replacements; or a lawyer who negotiated 1,000 divorce cases has something more than just “experience.” They have competence, know-how, and facility.3

[Related: “Breaking Up the Law School Monopoly: Part 2”]

This means that the sooner you undertake a regular, disciplined, reflective routine of concentrated experience (which simply means constant practice, making mistakes,4 and learning by recovering from those “mistakes”), the more valuable your academic training will become. This also implies that law-school reform requires a structural acceleration of legal education.

The smartest way I can think of to accomplish that goal is to learn from other disciplines that educate on the undergraduate level. Engineering is a good example (as are music and architecture). Why is it an undergraduate program? Because it is vitally tied to the next phase of knowledge activation: work. No amount of further academic training can replace it, and over-training is as counter-productive as under-training—indeed, it may be worse because it delays work experience, while distorting the judgment that must be developed through it. Instead, this judgment will coalesce around idealized conceptual forms that are isolated from reality and that can lead to misguided behavior. (It is not a coincidence that the progressive Left consists primarily of individuals whose primary life experience is from the modern university. Geoengineering policy, racial ideology, property redistribution, and deindustrialization all stem from an academic intellectual class.5)

As music academies can teach you to play an instrument, law schools can teach you basic law, but they cannot make you into a musician, or a lawyer—you have to do that on your own, through experience, endless practice, collaboration, and performance. As the Elders of the Torres Straight say, “Listen with your own ears. See with your own eyes.”

1 See the excellent Financial Times essay by Nadia Beard on adult musicianship. In private correspondence, she made the following comment relevant, I think, to law training: “Increasingly, I’ve come to see ‘talent’ as an often overused stand-in used to describe a synthesis of intelligence and hard work.” In my view, it is this “synthesis” that best describes the combination of discrete, programmed instruction with immediate application and practice. It might be called the “dialectic” of proper legal training.

2 For a fine discussion of how musical training provides a foundation for lifetime learning, see Living the Classical LifeEpisode 104, an interview with Berliner Philharmoniker principal flutist Emmanuel Pahud. At its best, the music academy is much like the ideal law academy: it maintains and transmits foundational principles, methods, and applications under intense performance standards. In formal music training, there is a hard termination point where further training is unnecessary, if counterproductive, and where one ought to work and develop one’s “ear.”

3 As a professional pilot, I often witnessed other airmen during recurrent training who, despite thousands of hours of experience, never seemed to progress in skill, and struggled to maintain proficiency standards. Often the problem could be traced back to insufficient or deficient training. Those pilots, on the other hand, who went through a structured undergraduate training regime in university programs or the military often had the advantage of thorough skill acquisition under high-performance standards. Outside natural aptitude, this was the most causal factor in their superior demonstrated skill, and in their ability to further develop and adapt by converting experience into learning. Likewise in legal training, an intense, high-performance training regime will provide the foundation for long-term success. This creates the mutual feedback mechanism between training and experience necessary to transform them into a unified whole.

4 “Our whole purpose is to make the mistakes as fast as we can.” – John Archibald Wheeler, University of Texas at Austin.

5 See Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society. This phenomenon is especially pronounced, and dangerous, in law schools that link idealism with constitutional, extra-legal, “work-around” ambition.

Image: Chensiyuan, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.


  • Matthew G. Andersson

    Matthew G. Andersson is a corporation founder and former CEO, management consultant and author of the upcoming book “Legally Blind,” concerning law education. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Private Equity, the National Academy of Sciences, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize report by the Chicago Tribune. He has been a guest on CBS, ABC, CNN, Bloomberg, Public Television, and the BBC, and received the Silver Anvil award from the Public Relations Society of America. He has testified before the U.S. Senate, and Connecticut General Assembly concerning higher education. He attended Yale College where he studied Russian language under department chairman Alexander Schenker; the University of Texas at Austin, Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the LBJ School of Public Affairs where he worked with economist and White House national security advisor W.W. Rostow. He received an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in Barcelona, Spain and the U.S. He is the author of a text on law and economics used at Northwestern University, DePaul University College of Law, and McGill University Faculty of Law. He has lived and worked in Russia and Eastern Europe for a Fortune 100 technology company in strategic joint ventures.

One thought on “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Law School”

  1. I don’t know if the author is saying this, but I will — there is no justification for the JD degree because it isn’t a doctorate and ought not be called one.

    At best, it is a master’s degree (not unlike the MBA) — although it really is a second baccalaureate degree, and that’s what it used to be called, i.e. LLB — Legum Baccalaureus or Bachelor of Laws.

    There really is no justification for requiring the full seven years of education — ideally law should be an undergrad major like engineering or nursing. Of course the thing to remember is that the ABA exists to reduce the number of lawyers so as to increase their price.

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