This ad appeared recently – and ironically – on my Cafe Hayek screen. It encapsulates nearly everything that I despise about so much modern ‘legal’ training.
 Here we see an earnest young woman – probably all of 22 years old and fresh from earning a bachelor’s degree in some subject or other – eager to change the world. And she’ll exercise her hubris by manipulating the state’s levers of power (“the law”). Of course, to better enable herself to be a petit social engineer, she’ll first spend three years learning “the law” – in her case, at Vermont Law School.
This ad is supposed to inspire. The ad’s writers take for granted that it’s good to “make a difference” – and better still to make a difference by using the “the power of the law” (that is, the power of the state).
But making a difference is not necessarily a good thing. Not everything about modern society is worse than what can plausibly replace it. Moreover, even for those aspects of modern society that genuinely should, by some calculus, be replaced or reformed, what reason have we to trust lawyers to decide what, and how, such change should occur? What reason have we to entrust with a special role in ‘changing’ society people who are arrogant enough to fancy themselves to be morally and intellectually fit to direct such change through the application of coercion or its threat?
Studying how law emerges in society and what its details are at any moment in time is worthwhile. But too much of what goes on in modern American law schools is akin to too much of what goes on in modern American graduate programs of economics: society is portrayed as a sick patient in need of caring intervention by social physicians who’ll cure this or that ailment, or who will perform reconstructive surgery on the patient to make it better and more vigorous than ever.
To switch metaphors: far too many law students – even more, I suspect, than economics students – think of themselves as learning how to use the tools of the state to mold the inert clay of society into forms more appealing to their own aesthetic sense of ‘right.’ Each such student is an example of Adam Smith’s “man of system” who remains oblivious to the reality that there is always underway a natural, spontaneous, unplanned, and highly complex on-going process of social activity – a process that, if interfered with by social engineers, is quite likely to react in unexpected ways that make matters worse.
The law student sees words in statute and case books and thinks he sees ‘the law.’ He sees robed judges, camera-followed politicians, and titled bureaucrats and thinks he sees the principal sources of society’s momentum and direction. He sees the police prevent domestic disputes and thinks he sees the means for preventing all social disputes. In fact, he sees mirages. He is blind to what really matters.