Comparing Norman Rockwell’s Law Student of 1927 and the Law Student of 2011

May 20th, 2011

In 1927, Normal Rockwell painted a classic portrait of a law student in honor of Abraham Lincoln; let’s call this student Abe. Sitting on a stool, with a barrel for a table, Abe is crouched over a crinkled law book, illuminated by the dim glow of a small lamp. He looks studiously at the book, with his hand on his head, trying to grasp the complicated concepts in the tome. Nothing else is on his mind, but that book, and finishing the reading.

Although we don’t have a portrait of Abein class, I’m sure we can guess how he would behave; In class, Abe would sit assiduously, taking notes, engaging in the Socratic dialogue, and focusing on nothing but what the Professor says. The Professor is the Langdellian Oracle, the mentor, the leader, and Abe is but a follower.

The portrait of a law student studying today could not be more different. The student likely has his books laid out on a desk. Rather than taking any notes by hand, everything is typed into a laptop. The student’s focus is not solely on the book. Instead, he is distracted by a bevy of stimuli; listening to music, watching videos on youtube, chatting on Google Talk, replying to emails, etcs.

In class students sit behind their laptops, dazed and glazed, doing a million and one things, and maybe, pay attention to the professor. Professors shake their heads at a student’s poor verbal communication skills, and inability to focus on anything for more than a few seconds.

To many, the portrait Rockwell painted–like all of his Americana–represents a vaunted image of what a law student should be. Indeed, many would hold up this image as an ideal, a golden age of sorts, that law students today should aspire too; focus intently on a reading, and stick with the law books assigned to you. Turn off your computer; Abe didn’t have one, and he did fine. That is how you can learn to be a lawyer. People tend to venerate nostalgia, whether it is warranted, or not.

But how would Abe fare in today’s legal environment? No doubt he would be astounded, and confounded by the idea of a computer. In his generation, all communication between an attorney and the client took place in person, or through a lengthy correspondence letters. These communiques would be deliberate, well thought out, and planned. The notion of a client emailing a lawyer, and the lawyer replying on his Blackberry within minutes a short, sentence-long email would be unheard of, and likely uncouth. Indeed, even the thought of a telephone conference with a client in 1927 would be unheard of for a country lawyer.

Legal research would also be a mystery for Abe. He would be used to billing clients for engaging in voluminous research in a musty dusty law library to find some rare treatise that might have an answer. Today, using WestLaw or Lexis, an associate can find a similar answer in a manner of seconds without leaving his desk.

The law student of today, relying on the tech-induced behavior and mentalities professors discourage, would have no problem with either of these tasks.

While seasoned members of the professoriate may wax nostalgia for the era of Abe, and wish to have a classroom full of Abes, the fact remains that the needs of lawyers today differ from those of 1927. A different breed of lawyer, equipped with different societal skills, and different level of training is necessary.

Now, look ahead. Compare the lawyer of 2011 with the lawyer of 2021; 2031; 2041; 2051 (technological development accelerates much quicker with each successive decade that passes by). What are the types of social and technological skills attorneys of these eras will need? What will the role of an attorney even be? Will the legal profession remain intact as we know it today?

Opposition to legal education reforms are often quite myopic. I am to broaden the focus. By developing a sense of history of where the legal profession was in the past, and where it will go in the upcoming decades–and what skills lawyers will need–a clearer picture of the future of legal education emerges.

In my article, I hope to elucidate and illuminate that future, and explore how the classroom of today can evolve into the classroom of tomorrow.