“You Can’t Say that About Law School”

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

By Nelson P. Miller

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law, notes a distinction between business school and law school. 

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff, who did not earn an M.B.A. before taking the corner office at his multi-billion-dollar company, said about B-school, “It’s just a really expensive way to take a break.”

You sure can’t say the same about law school.

Mr. Rascoff’s quote is plainly a headline grabber.   In context, he meant that some who go to business school do not belong there.  And he added that your work finding a job in business begins in earnest as soon as you enter business school.  In that respect at least, business school is no walk in the park.

But his quote nonetheless highlights interesting contrasts between business school and law school.

Mr. Rascoff himself is proof that you can succeed at the highest levels in business without an M.B.A.  Zillow is a remarkably complex and successful business.  Mr. Rascoff earned his top job there.

Yet the same is not true for opportunity in law without a J.D. degree.  You cannot go anywhere in law without the J.D. degree that remains the gold standard for any career law-related.

Law school is also no break.  Law school is arduous for a reason.  Its purpose is to create for students an effective new mind and professional persona, while preserving and even amplifying the best of their social ambitions.

You cannot accomplish so much while on a break from life.    Personal excellence is the product of challenge.  Character is the product of striving.  Law school pushes students to achieve things that they know are worthwhile but may think are not necessarily possible.  The best of programs then give students the support and guidance to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Business school is worthwhile.  Business is fascinating and important.  Business careers are desirable and meaningful much in the same way that law careers are desirable and meaningful.  Business school is also harder than Mr. Rascoff’s out-of-context quote makes it seem.

Yet some truth still lies latent in the contrast.  Few if any law students graduate after coasting.  The coasters leave after the first term or year.  The graduates are those who persevere.

The education’s goals demand it.  Law school must transform students.  To be effective, law school must make lawyers different from non-lawyers.  Lawyers must be deeper, more grounded, more knowledgeable, wiser, sounder, and more discerning.  They must know the ways of business and the rest of the social world while being able to stand just apart from those ways in order to be able to judge them.  Lawyers must be able to help their clients study and shape their circumstances to redeem themselves out of those circumstances.

Law school has too much to accomplish for its students to allow any coasters.  Law school cannot suffer fools gladly.  Law is serious business, the kind of weighty matter that lawyers just hunger to shoulder and carry for their clients.

Taken properly, Mr. Rascoff’s message is a sound one.  Not everyone belongs in business school, just as not everyone belongs in law school.  Both schools have their place.  Both schools share some goals.  They are also rather fundamentally different in their aims.  Appreciate both schools, and know their differences.

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Filed under Alumni Stories and News, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics, The Value of a Legal Education

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