Did Malcolm Gladwell Fix Legal Education in a Podcast?

Woman looking surprised as she listens to a podcast on her smartphone
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on July 15, 2019 3:17 PM

“A tortoise and a hare take the LSAT” is not the start of some terrible joke. It’s the premise of a recent two-part Revisionist History podcast hosted by Malcolm Gladwell on the LSAT and legal education in the U.S. generally. His starting premise is that the LSAT unduly rewards quick-thinkers and punishes people who take their time to work out solutions. In fact, Gladwell argues, it is the plodding and deliberate thinkers who make the best lawyers.

The LSAT Is Just the Beginning of the Problem

Gladwell’s argument that the LSAT arbitrarily winnows the applicant pool for law schools then leads to broader criticisms of legal education. Top schools overvalue LSAT scores when selecting their students. Top firms then prefer applicants who are graduates of these schools. Yet — at least according to Gladwell — where a lawyer got their J.D. means little to how good of an attorney they are.

How he reaches his conclusions is suspect, largely relying on anecdotal evidence and with no discussion about the vastly different day-to-day responsibilities found in the legal industry. Other valid criticisms can be made. Professor Orin S. Kerr at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law took issue with the somewhat discombobulated arguments Gladwell offered, which you can read over at the Volokh Conspiracy. As one example, Gladwell starts the podcast by worrying that he will do worse than his assistant, Camille, who is a quick thinker compared to his more deliberate approach. Yet (spoiler alert) they get the same score. This seems to at least somewhat negate the original premise the series is based on, but the podcast brushes over it.

A Grand Unified Theory

Regardless of how convincing you find his arguments, Gladwell raises interesting points. And, true to his word, he offers a “grand unified theory to fix legal education” at the close of the podcast. His solution seems to be twofold:

  • The most prestigious law schools should accept more applicants
  • No one should ever put down where they went to law school on their resumes.

It is more of a pointed statement than a legitimate proposal. Yet the idea that the legal education is a bit too hierarchical, and a bit too focused on U.S. News and World Report rankings, likely resonates with many lawyers, regardless of where they went to law school. 

Revisionist History is currently in the midst of its fourth season. It’s worth a listen.

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