Law school taught me nothing

post by ketchupduck · 2020-04-11T14:30:04.254Z · score: 23 (13 votes) · LW · GW · 13 comments


  User error 
  School is just a signaling mechanism 
  Poor teaching
  The point was to learn meta-skills

This is a list of all the topics a standard Civil Procedure class in law school covers, with the concepts I remember highlighted in blue and those I don't in red.

There is a lot more red than blue, which is shocking because:

This post is an exploration of possible hypotheses for why this happened.

Epistemic status: spinning hypotheses from personal experience, so take lightly.

User error

In a world where even surgeons sometimes leave their tools inside their patient's body, the ghost of user error haunts us all. Maybe I am the problem, and my skills, situation, or environment are not suited for remembering basic facts that I paid $6,000 to learn. There are a few ways in which I could be failing at this task.

First, maybe I am not good at school. I reject this hypothesis out-of-hand, mostly because I have a fragile ego, but also partly because it's not true. I scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT, attended a top-3 law school in the US, and graduated with honors. All these points don't insulate me from being bad at school, but the vast majority of law school attendees are even worse at school (not learning) than me. You know that scene in Taken where Liam Neeson says "I have a very particular set of skills..."? That's me with school; I am good at school. If I can't retain this knowledge, the entire system might as well commit its tax-advantaged resources to rolling boulders up hills for all the good they're doing.

Second, maybe I have framed the problem incorrectly. It's true that retaining material from a Civil Procedure class is not a standard validated benchmark. However, I promise you that I'll receive similar results on any benchmark you devise for 90% of the law school classes I took; I only picked Civil Procedure for this exercise because it is alphabetically first in the list of required law school classes I took. My problem is not that I don't remember Civil Procedure; my problem is that I remember almost nothing.

Third, maybe I didn't study properly. This, unlike the previous two, is a plausible hypothesis. I did work my way through about ~70% of the study tactics the professor recommended, including attending class regularly, completing all the readings ahead of time, taking good notes, and reviewing all the material at the end of class. But if I had done more, like made flashcards, practiced with spaced repetition, joined a study group, or just spent more time with the material, I would remember more today. Some other students do remember much more than I do, partly because they used more intense study tactics.

School is just a signaling mechanism

As Bryan Caplan says:

There are TWO solid business reasons to pay extra for educated workers.  One is that education teaches useful skills, transforming unskilled students into skilled workers. This is the  standard “human capital” story.  The other reason, though, is that education certifies useful skills, helping employers distinguish skilled workers from imposters.  This is the “signaling” story. [...] My best estimate is that signaling explains 80% of the payoff.

In other words, students go to school because employers hire people with degrees, not because they want to learn. According to this hypothesis, it is perfectly rational for me to only remember odds-and-ends from my law school education; the only thing I need to retain is my degree, not any knowledge.

Legal employers largely behave in accordance with the signaling theory. It was common knowledge among the student body that (A) the highest paying or most prestigious jobs mostly go to graduates of top law schools and (B) as long as you are a graduate of one of the top law schools, you can get a high paying or prestigious job without having excellent grades. A prestigious degree essentially equals a good job. You might need a prestigious degree AND excellent grades to get a very rare job (e.g., a Supreme Court clerk, of which there are less than 40 each year), but most people were not aiming for those jobs.

Schools also behave in accordance with the signaling theory. Most blatantly, five of the top fourteen law schools in the US have adopted idiosyncratic grading schemes that make it hard for employers to understand exactly how competent a student is (inasmuch as grades ever indicate competence). These grading systems range from no fixed curves to pass/no-pass grades to UChicago's (hilarious) "numeric grade with median of 177." There is a discredited security strategy called security through obscurity, where you secure your system by keeping the system secret, instead of making it resistant to attacks. This is analogous: grading through obscurity.

This privilege of using a grade scheme that obfuscates is exercised by market-making schools, whereas market-taking schools largely stick to A/B/C/D/Fs. But even these latter schools, while not prestigious enough to make up their own grading schemes, have an array of schemes to choose from to make their students more attractive to employers. Employers judge schools by how many of their graduates find gainful employment. Schools want to maximize this number so that its graduates look like catches. In good times, they'll do so with good ol'-fashioned definition massaging, defining "long-term" employment as employment lasting a year and "J.D. advantage jobs" to include jobs such as FBI agent and paralegal, for which a J.D. is only marginally more advantageous than breathing oxygen. In bad times, such as the Great Recession, they'll do so by employing graduating students themselves in temporary positions.

Students, too, behave in accordance with the signaling theory to some extent. First year (1L, in the jargon) grades matter quite a lot for most student's first post-graduation job, so students do work hard in the first year. However, most 2L and 3L (3LOL, in the jargon) students skate by, trying to apply the bare minimum effort possible.

Poor teaching

I remember more from high school than I do from law school. I remember random facts that I have never used since high school, like the fact that the ideal gas law is PV = nRT and the French verb venir requires special conjugation in the past tense. This is not as bizarre as it seems at first glance.

A recent post [EA · GW] explained that the more people you need to coordinate, the less bandwidth you have for transmitting information to them. If you are talking to a handful of people, you can have a deep conversation, but if you are talking to thousands of people, you shout a short slogan at them. I think the same is true across time. If you are teaching a student in your class, you can give that student millions of words of information. By the time a student goes to his first job, that student remembers thousands of words of information. By the time a student reaches the peak of her career, that student remembers hundreds of words of information. By retirement, tens of words, if that.

This is not pure conjecture. Middle school students can lose large chunks of their reading and math knowledge over summer break, even though those are basic skills continuously reinforced by real-world tasks! The information taught in law school bears only a passing resemblance to real-world tasks, and is almost never reinforced after graduation. Of course it is forgotten. Given that students will forget most things they learn, teachers should ideally teach in a way that mitigates the damage of the decline. The most important information should be impossible to forget.

Grade school teachers are better than professors at forcing unforgettable information into students' minds. (They're not perfect, but they're much better.) They'll use alliteration, repetition, rhymes, and chanting to get their students to memorize information forever. My high school chemistry teacher would say "piv nurt" every day for a few weeks when teaching us PV = nRT. That's not a good mnemonic; it's just two meaningless syllables! But the repetition worked. I will remember piv nurt on my deathbed. Same for DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP. And SOH CAH TOA. And "always add +c." And many other little factoids. My professors, on the other hand, when telling us important information, would preface it with "And if there is one thing you remember from this class, it is this..." That's it.

Law school professors will hate changing how they teach. They didn't get into their prestigious jobs to develop mnemonics for fully-grown adults. It's beneath their dignity. The responsibility for retaining information rests with their students. I get it. It does seem silly to suggest that famous credentialed lawyers spend their time treating their adult students like high-schoolers. But the current situation, where these very same famous credentialed lawyers spend months teaching students, only for the students to forget most of what they've learned within weeks, doesn't seem like its befitting their dignity either.

The point was to learn meta-skills

The canard that law school repeats often is "we teach you how to learn." It's fine that I remember almost nothing from my classes, because that was never the goal. The goal was to learn the skills needed to learn the law. Now the rest of my life can be an orgy of learning, limited only by my initiative.

Learning about anything, including meta-skills, requires looping through the below list many times:

Law school fails at this loop because it makes sure tenured professors rarely have to besmirch themselves by giving feedback.

Law school instructors, although all human, like the Eloi and the Morlocks can be split into two classes. There are tenured (or tenure-track) professors, and there are the rest. You can distinguish them by the size of their offices.

If you take a class with a tenured professor, it is extremely unlikely you will receive feedback on tasks you complete. It happened to me maybe twice in three years, and I'm including feedback given by the professors' TAs in that count. Even more annoyingly, you might not even have any tasks to complete! In almost all classes, the student's only job throughout the semester is to complete the reading, and if called upon in class, to answer reading-comprehension-type questions about the reading. (Law schools refer to this as the Socratic Method, but it's more like read-and-regurgitate.) Neither the reading nor the perfunctory questioning that follows is a meaningful task on which law students need feedback, given that law students are already good at reading and reading comprehension.

If you take a class with a non-tenured professor, on the other hand, you can receive lots of excellent feedback. However, these have their own problems. First, they require small student-to-teacher ratios so students can receive feedback, which means law schools need to hire lots of teachers to run them, which means they are expensive, which means law schools are wary of having too many of these. Second, the subject matter taught by non-tenured professors doesn't always overlap with that taught by tenured professors. Students end up experiencing a classic Catch-22: one can either properly learn an unwanted subject, or poorly learn a wanted subject. Third, almost all these classes are structured as practicums where students solve problems for real or fictional clients. Especially when the clients are real, these classes quickly devolve into base concerns of "How do we fix this client's problem?" rather than the lofty aim of "Let's learn how to learn." On the whole though, these classes are much better than classes with tenured professors.


Below are my best guesses for how much each of these hypotheses explains why I don't remember anything.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by johnswentworth · 2020-04-11T16:15:15.787Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I scored in the 99th percentile on the LSAT, attended a top-3 law school in the US, and graduated with honors. All these points don't insulate me from being bad at school, but the vast majority of law school attendees are even worse at school (not learning) than me.

None of this is good evidence for skill at learning, which is the main topic of the OP. Despite the parenthetical, this is still focused on mostly-irrelevant metrics.

I personally was very good at actually learning things in school and getting value from the things I've learned. While my grades were decent, it was always fairly clear that this was not what the grades were measuring - the vast majority of my classmates learned much less, got much less value even from what they did learn, yet many of them got quite strong grades anyway.

80% of school is just a signalling mechanism. You'll get positive reinforcement mostly for things other than proper learning. But it's still quite possible to learn things; I wrote a mini-essay on useful techniques for that as an answer here [LW · GW]. For law in particular, I would also recommend reading a bit of game theory (especially something on information games, e.g. Rasmussen) and some David Friedman in order to get high-level knowledge of what problems the systems you study in law school have evolved to solve. That helps put specific content into context - you can think about why the system works the way it does, why some precedents have stuck around while others have been tossed, other possible ways things could have worked, and what trade-offs are involved.

(Also, advice for anyone else reading this: I think law schools generally do a better job teaching practical writing than any other academic discipline, and much of it generalizes well to e.g. scientific or business writing.)

comment by Viliam · 2020-04-11T22:19:44.224Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I studied computer science at university. One year after graduating, when I was cleaning my room, I found a paper with questions from various subjects I studied. When I started reading it, I was shocked: half of the questions... not only I couldn't answer them, but I couldn't even understand what the question meant. I would need to study the topic again merely to understand what the words in the question meant.

Partially, I blame myself for not having a good note-taking system back then. With good note system, I could reconstruct some of the knowledge on demand.

But frankly, we learned many things I was not really interested in; where often I had no clue why are we even studying this; and where the standard approach by most people I believe was to learn quickly and forget quickly. The knowledge didn't feel like something valuable, but rather an arbitrary obstacle. Well, this type of knowledge seems to evaporate quickly; should not be too surprising.

I wasn't familiar with the signaling theory back then, so my model was just the usual misalignment of incentives: The teachers have to teach us something, otherwise they wouldn't get paid. But they get paid the same whether the subject is interesting or boring, useful or useless. Thus many of them teach boring and useless stuff. And "the real skill we teach them is how to learn anything" is probably just something they tell themselves to sleep better at night.

From this perspective, the signaling theory sounds naively optimistic, because it assumes that everything actually happened for a reason, however indirect. It probably didn't.

comment by Pattern · 2020-04-12T02:04:12.957Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
From this perspective, the signaling theory sounds naively optimistic, because it assumes that everything actually happened for a reason, however indirect. It probably didn't.

For what Signaling Theory (ST) points at to be right:

  • There has to be a reason. (Not just because.)
  • That reason is something like: 'People want to look good, and people get something for looking good.'

So people do/try to do things that:

  • make them look good
  • or that they think make them look good

Or at the next level up, acting like they believe X makes them look good...

ST isn't necessary if you're not buying something useless, unnecessarily expense, or in fashion - It tries to be the why of fashion.

If you studied at the university because you thought it would be useful....

a) Was it useful enough?

b) ST (as I stated above) isn't required to explain "people buy things that they think are useful but aren't".

Law school professors will hate changing how they teach. They didn't get into their prestigious jobs to develop mnemonics for fully-grown adults. It's beneath their dignity. The responsibility for retaining information rests with their students. I get it. It does seem silly to suggest that famous credentialed lawyers spend their time treating their adult students like high-schoolers.

I prefer the OP's theory of dignity, prestige, and seriousness (DPS), over ST. (If you can decide what serious people do, then you rule the world. All hail our serious overlords.)

The only thing missing (if studying at a university isn't useful), to explain why it persists is:

  • Why isn't this communicated?
  • Do we listen to more successful people (and ignore less successful people to our detriment)? ("Here is the secret to getting rich: Just buy lottery tickets!" says the winner of the lottery.)
  • People who take a test and do well on it are inclined to think well of the test.
comment by Pattern · 2020-04-12T02:20:07.842Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
And "the real skill we teach them is how to learn anything" is probably just something they tell themselves to sleep better at night.

How would you teach someone how to learn things (better)?

comment by Quintor · 2020-04-13T07:25:00.287Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm similarly positioned to you, but have the opposite impression: I feel like I learned a lot from law school.

One possibility is that your "don't remember anything" is measuring something different than my "learned a lot." It's certainly true that I can't recall on command the three parts of X test that I haven't used since law school. Indeed, I most likely couldn't name all of the courses I took in law school!


1. If I see a very brief overview of something I learned in law school, a lot of other information that I couldn't recall on cue will snap back into place.

2. When an issue that touches on something I learned in law school comes up in my litigation practice, I may not remember what the rule I learned in law school was, but I remember that there is a rule and roughly where/how to find it.

3. With regard to learning how to learn, I can much more easily understand new areas of law than I could early in law school. I would describe this as being due to a combination of the skill of "learning how to learn" and background knowledge. It's true that no one in law school explicitly tried to teach me how to learn, much less gave me feedback on it. But it's nonetheless something I picked up from law school.

Alternative hypotheses:

1. This reflects that fact that, at least by Biglaw standards, my day to day work is relatively similar to law school (lots of appellate work and research/brief writing, which is far closer to what law school typically teaches than discovery heavy pre-trial work or transactional lawyering).

2. I did much more and/or different studying. Almost all of my learning in a class came from time-intensive process of making an outline for the class (no flash cards or spaced repetition, but my tests were almost all open-note, so memorization was never the goal). My impression was that classmates who simply read their notes and outlines made by other people did not learn as much contemporaneously, and I would definitely expect they forgot more over time.

comment by gjm · 2020-04-13T01:09:24.544Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you now working as a lawyer?

I think I can still remember a lot of what I learned when studying mathematics at university. But (to whatever extent it's actually true; I haven't tested myself) that may be because after studying mathematics at university I did a PhD in mathematics, and then some mathematics research, and I now work in the allegedly-real world as a mathematician (though in practice that work uses very very little of what I studied at university). If I'd finished my mathematics degree and then gone off to become a painter or bricklayer or chef or something, I would probably now remember a lot less of the mathematics.

(The comparison may be unfair; my impression is that learning law and learning mathematics are quite different, and that one way they're different is that learning law involves a much larger proportion of memorizing brute facts that one couldn't deduce from other things one knows. Whereas in principle a sufficiently hyperintelligent being wouldn't need to learn anything in mathematics other than definitions, terminology and notation; the actual theorems could all be deduced from first principles. It seems plausible to me that the first kind of knowledge decays faster when not in active use than the second.)

comment by ketchupduck · 2020-04-22T23:47:52.711Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with this. A lot of the things I do remember are things I regularly use for my job.

comment by lifelonglearner · 2020-04-12T01:20:30.628Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also related to your points on not-learning-enough: You should always assume that the forgetting curve applies to you. What you don't reinforce dies out.

I think that there are some skills for which the above doesn't necessarily apply (e.g. riding a bike), but I haven't thought enough to figure out what distinguishes these skills (maybe things more mechanical / physical in nature).

comment by Aaron Franklin Esq (aaron-franklin-esq) · 2020-04-14T00:38:05.870Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

" Fairness " In RED. This seems implausible. Notice. Opportunity to be heard.

I highly doubt you forgot that.

comment by gbear605 · 2020-04-13T07:05:56.359Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One cause is that you learned skills that aren't meta skills but also aren't simple facts. For instance, you might have learned the general methods that you follow to do your job. I'm not a lawyer, but in my field, I got a lot out of my classes, even though I don't remember anything from many of them.

these classes quickly devolve into base concerns of "How do we fix this client's problem?" rather than the lofty aim of "Let's learn how to learn."

I'd guess that perhaps what the class what trying to teach you was "How do we fix this client's problem?," and it sounds like you learned that, even if you don't remember the details. Those are easily relearnable. Learning the methodology though is much more difficult. I wouldn't have the first clue what to do as a lawyer, but you were ready after law school to go and be one, so you clearly learned something very useful.

In addition, a lot of material you cover in class is to reinforce the core concepts. Much of what a student in calculus learns isn't actually relevant (hardly anyone needs to have memorized the formula for finding the volume of a shell) but is instead practice of the core materials (finding the volume of a shell helps you learn how to integrate).

comment by RedMan · 2020-04-12T11:51:34.795Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So three years with a good anki deck would be more valuable than sitting classes in terms of remembering the useful stuff?

comment by gbear605 · 2020-04-13T06:56:15.710Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem with Anki (or any flash card system) is that they help you memorize but don't teach you. I don't know anything about law school, but when you're learning a language, you can learn the vocab from flash card, but you need much more than that to actually learn the language - grammar, culture, pronunciation, and speaking, reading, and writing practice. Some of those you could encode in a flash card ("whenever you see this card, write a paragraph in your target language") but you still need some form of teacher.

comment by cousin_it · 2020-04-13T09:15:24.573Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For language learning I think I've found "one weird trick": watch a youtube video of someone reading a text in the language (with the text onscreen), mimic the pronunciation of each sentence after hearing it, and look up each unfamiliar word in google translate as you go. Last year I did that with German, spending about 5 minutes every weekday morning before going to work. Basically each video would take me a few weeks to get through and then I'd switch to another one. Other than that, I did absolutely nothing - no grammar, no flashcards, no teachers. Then signed up for an official test (reading+writing+listening+talking) and passed it easily.