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The Radical of Washington Square

Vivia Chen

January 31, 2013

Che&EstreicherI knew professor Samuel Estreicher of NYU School of Law long before he became an agitator for legal education reform. After penning a recent New York Times editorial (his coauthor was Daniel B. Rodriguez, dean at Northwestern University School of Law), Estreicher has emerged as a leading proponent/prophet of the two-year law school option.

As a first-year student in his civil procedure class, I found Estreicher scary smart—and plain scary. He was ruthless in deploying the Socratic method. (It didn't help that he called the seating chart his "power to compel.")

Estreicher never struck me as a renegade—which is why I was intrigued about why he's taking on the legal education industrial complex.

I nearly fell off my chair when I read your Times editorial. You came across like a bleeding heart liberal—arguing that law school be shortened to make it more accessible to the little people. What happened? I thought you were part of the establishment.
Oh, Vivia, I don't know where you got that idea. . . . I've always been an outside-of-the-box person. I've thought about this issue for a long time. I'm concerned about two things: the debt load of the kids coming out of law schools, and the fact that everyday people are badly served by the legal system.

You sound like you're on a crusade.
I am. This profession is too elite; 95 percent of the people are not getting the representation they need and deserve. Look, medical students aren't trained just to be concierge doctors to serve only people with homes in Southampton. But that's the way we train law students; they go and don't learn a thing. It's an ACLU view of the world: You sit there and decide who to sue. That's fun, but that's not what most people need. If you want to help someone navigate Medicare—good luck.

It's ironic that you're railing against academic elitism when you're part of that sect yourself--editor in chief of Columbia Law Review, former U.S. Supreme Court clerk, etc. Now you're making the case for law schools to hire lawyers with practical experience. But aren't schools more focused than ever on rarefied academics?
I call it New Havenization. No law school wants you [on its faculty] if you've practiced. Even if you've done great clerkships and have great ideas, we won't be interested if you've practiced—except maybe for an adjunct role. We all pretend we're part of the department of sociology. All law schools want to be Yale.

So no law school with notions of grandeur would touch anyone who can teach anything useful. What are the chances they'll buy into this two-year idea?
I'm not going to change places like Harvard, NYU, or Yale. Law schools that get 90 percent of their graduates into big law firms won't care about this. And the students [at those schools] won't care whether they learn anything in their third year because the brand is what's important to them. The early takers [of the two-year idea] will be law schools with lower rankings.

What kind of reactions have you gotten from your colleagues?
Some like it; some don't. You'll have to talk to them. I'm hoping this will win over clinicians and legal service providers.

Clinicians and legal service providers? Wow, you are really allying yourself with the proletarians.
I'm not forcing anyone to do this. The two-year law school is a choice. I know students are not getting jobs, and when kids practice on their own, they don't know squat. We're just creating some options and asking law schools to think harder.

And how do you think Big Law will react?
Ultimately, I think this will win over big firms. Right now, they're funding the third year of law school with their inflated first-year salaries.

You have a tall agenda—winning over law schools, state bars, and Big Law. Any other radical proposals in the works—like abolishing the Socratic method?
The Socratic method doesn't work very well at NYU anymore. It's now a feel-good law school.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected] 

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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