March 17, 2004

Baude: On the Asylum's Doorstep

by Guest Contributor

Will Baude is 4th-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago and blogs (too much) at Crescat Sententia. -Ed.

"Why," the astute reader will already be asking, "did they ask Will to throw in his thoughts on this one? After all, heís never actually received a legal education. He hasnít been to Law School." Fair point. Iím not a law student, even if I do sometimes play one on the internet. But the advantage of this is that I can write about the asylum without ever having been an inmate.

Iíve now taken a law school class, worked for some law school professors, and generally spent more time than is healthy in a law school. One of my 3-L friends tells me to leave whenever he sees me there, warning against the dangers of "burning out." And Iíve been friends with miserable law students and euphoric ones. So the question Iím asking myself is whether one actually derives anything from law school other than the credential and the right to be a lawyer. And as Iíve already said, I don't know, though I guess Iím soon to find out.

During finals week, fall quarter, my third year, I was staying up late cramming for an exam in Complex Variables. But at about midnight I found myself procrastinating learning about moebius transformations and reading the oral arguments in Virginia v. Black instead. And then then it was on to Scheidler v. NOW, and so on. I realized I was hooked. So Iím lucky enough to go into law school with a combination of low expectations and eager naivete. So long as this stuff continues to be fascinating, you wonít find me complaining about the value of legal education.

In his book The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz writes:

We have our political poets in America too, of course (Amiri Baraka being only one example), and our political song-writers. But lawyers do that job too. We record much of our history through legal cases Ė Brown v. Board, Plessy v. Ferguson, Rodney King Ė or through legal or semi-legal documents Ė The Constitution, The Emancipation Proclamation, The Declaration of Independence. Even though most people know little about the Supreme Court (etc.), many of us are fascinated by law. Lawyers, to some extent, write our history books.

Fundamentally, that is why I am going to law school. That is the value I hope to derive from a legal education. I hope not just to be steeped in the technicalities of bankruptcy statutes and implied easements (though for that, too), not just to learn formalistic arguments which (Judge Posner assures the class) will be utterly useless in actual courtrooms, let alone the real world Ė but rather to learn about what came before, to learn to sing the legal songs.

And perhaps if Iím very lucky and very persistent, to nudge the world a little bit, or arrange a few sentences that people will speak for me when Iím dead.

March 17, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack


An excellent approach to the law. When you get to law school, you'll be amazed at how many people just stick to the black letter law without really thinking about the stories and theories going on in the background.

I was shocked to learn that one of my friends and fellow grads couldn't name all of the Justices of the Supreme Court and he had an exceptional career as a student and even worked for the DOJ over his second summer.

Dorks like me enjoy reading how the Justices interact with one another and keep track of how they apply their standard jurisprudential theory to particular cases.

Two good books I would suggest are:

"A People's History of the Supreme Court" -- a true narrative of the landmark cases; and

"Justices, Presidents, and Senators" -- a look at the history of the nomination and confirmations of all of the Supreme Court Justices.

Posted by: Brian at March 17, 2004 03:46 AM

"[T]o learn to sing the legal songs"? C'mon, Will.

Posted by: JBW at March 17, 2004 09:27 AM

Did you say: songs?

Posted by: Brian at March 17, 2004 09:52 AM

Wow, definitely keeping up the high caliber in this symposium guys. Will, it was nice to read the perspective of someone who is approaching the law and law school in much the same way I am, but I doubt I could have expressed that so eloquently.

As far as learning to sing the legal songs, well Jeremy Blachman has a leg up on you there!


Posted by: Chris at March 17, 2004 11:17 AM

JBW: Yeah, songs. I know it's some sort of neurological dysfunction but phrases like "Within far broader limits than petitioners are willing to concede, when the government appropriates public funds to create a program . . ." hit me in just the same way as things like "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune . . ."

Sure, the age of lawyer poets is unfortunately waning (where are the Robert Paine Jr.s, the William Wetmore Storys?), but maybe that can be fought.

Brian and Ralph: Sticking to black letter law or paying attention to what's actually behind a case need not be inconsistent with learning the stories that go into the history of law-- to a large extent the law itself can be those stories.

I don't mean to be suggesting mushiness or legal history or legal realism-- though some people go in for those things-- just saying that I think this is stuff is fascinating for its own sake. But I won't attempt to defend my taste in obsessions; It makes perfect sense to me, but it's impenetrable to outsiders.

Posted by: Will Baude at March 17, 2004 02:33 PM

When you have an innate fascination with the law, law school will come alive for you. My first visit to the Supreme Curt last year, for Eldred, triggered this in me. And while there are still times when school grows tedious or simply wears me out, I still love the overall experience and there is little I'd rather be doing at this stage of my life.

A problem, though, is that far too many people enter school without even an interest in practicing law, let alone a passion for learning it. Many 1Ls have never read a single opinion before law school, or understand the basics of how a case gets to the Supremes. I don't mean to suggest that there should be mandatory pre-law programs or courses, but to point out that many "0Ls" truthfully have no idea what they are beginning. In my experience, this is what most frequently leads to people being disenchanted our outright unhappoy in law school.

Scott pointed out in response to Jeremy's piece that the J.D. is essentially a default graduate degree for many people who don't know what else to do. I think this is an unfortunate development for lawyers and clients both.

Posted by: buddha at March 17, 2004 11:17 PM

Assuming you are William Baude from Bloomington,IN, might not we assume that your having grown up as a law school "brat" with a father and step-mother who are law professors had something to do with your decision to attend law school? Pat and Julia deserve some of the credit (or blame as the case may be).
Tom Schornhorst
Emeritus Professor of Law IU-Bloomington

Posted by: Tom Schornhorst at March 18, 2004 10:40 AM

At the very least, Professor, it would probably explain his flowery prose and superfluous verbiage.

Posted by: Brian at March 18, 2004 11:50 AM

Forgive my egregious error! Julia Lamber is, of course, your mother! Another "senior moment" on my part. Regards, Tom Schornhorst

Posted by: Tom Schornhorst at March 18, 2004 01:49 PM

I wouldn't say Will's writing has superfluous verbiage. At least not commonly enough to merit the remark.

Posted by: Nick Morgan at March 18, 2004 08:41 PM
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