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Justice Scalia reflects on the future of the legal academy

  • On becoming 'learned in the law'
    On becoming 'learned in the law'  Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court addresses graduates, their families, and friends at the Law School's May 11 Diploma Ceremony.  Photo by Gretchen Bedell
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Justice says traditional three-year course of study essential to becoming 'learned in the law'

Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking at William & Mary Law School's May 11 Diploma Ceremony, rendered his opinion on proposals to shorten the graduate study of law from three years to two, and also addressed what he saw as the root causes for resurgence of the discussion.

"To say you are a lawyer is to say you are learned in the law, and ... you can't do that in two years," he told Class of 2014 graduates who invited him to speak at the event, held at Lake Matoaka Amphitheatre before a crowd of about 2,000 family members and friends.

Scalia noted that the discussion is not new. In New York state, for example, beginning in 1882, only two years of legal study were required to become a lawyer for those who already had earned a college degree, a rule changed to three years by the New York Court of Appeals in 1911. Notable figures such as the presidents of Harvard and the University of Chicago in the 1970s, Judge Richard Posner in 1999, and, most recently, President Obama in 2013 have found merit in a shorter period of classroom study. "A big surprise," however, Scalia said, was the ABA's Task Force on the Future of Legal Education "joining the chorus" earlier this year.

"I vigorously dissent," he said, a phrase that signaled to the audience that he was about to share his arguments.

"It seems to me that the law-school-in-two-years proposal rests on the premise that law school is -- or ought to be -- a trade school," he said. "It is not. It is a school preparing men and women not for a trade but for a profession -- the profession of law."

He noted that the graduates' diplomas did not certify them as expert in any one area of the law. "You are instead receiving degrees that attest to your successful completion of a sustained three-year study of law," he said. "The mastery of that subject is what turns the student into a legal professional."

A number of factors have allowed the proposals to gain traction, Scalia said.  Among these factors are law schools that "increasingly abstain" from requiring their students to take courses thought by earlier generations of faculty to be essential to a lawyer's education, the rise of "boutique" courses that consume faculty resources at the expense of traditional requirements, and a belief that a "skills-based experience outside of the law school" provides more value than a third year in the classroom.

"Legal learning," the justice said, "is what only law schools can effectively convey."

The justice closed with observations about the ever-rising cost of law school, the choices facing the legal academy, and congratulations to the graduates.

"You ... have had what I consider not the luxury but the necessity of soaking in the law for three full years," he said. "Welcome to the ranks of -- not tradesmen, but men and women learned in the law."