Versions of the expression that “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it” have been attributed to Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, and George Santayana. In any event, people who do not learn the lessons from the past might not understood how they can avoid similar mistakes in the future, and it is useful to learn history to have a solid foundation for making choices in the present. Legal history is likely not a required course in many — if any — law schools, but lawyers should know about the history of the legal profession so that they can avoid making bad choices.
I have always been a history buff. I got my master’s degree in American history during my senior year of college, and while in law school, I took a few legal history classes. One of the best resources of Above the Law is that it is a solid chronicle of recent legal history, and I regularly google recent legal history events and see ATL articles discussing them.
However, many lawyers might not know some recent events in the legal profession, which could make it more difficult for these attorneys to learn from the lessons of the past. A while ago, I was at a party, and I met a lawyer who was around the same age as I was but who had entered the legal profession much later in life. We were discussing large law firms and the conversation took us to law firms that no longer existed.
At one point I mentioned the dearly departed Dewey LeBoeuf, and how I knew a bunch of lawyers who were impacted by the collapse of that firm. The lawyer confessed that he had never heard of Dewey LeBoeuf, likely because he had only entered the legal profession in the past few years. This was unfortunate, since many lessons can be learned from that episode, including how law firms should not grow too quickly or promise partners too much money, and how lawyers should not manipulate numbers to make it look like a law firm is operating better than it actually is.
Of course, I cannot really fault this lawyer for not knowing about an episode that occurred in the profession years because that person became an attorney. What happened to Dewey LeBoeuf definitely did not break into the mainstream news cycle, and legal news outlets were likely the only ones to cover this story heavily. However, this cautionary tale should be known by more lawyers as an example of what law firm leaders should not do so that they can avoid a similar blowup in the future.
As another example, I met a recent law student not too long ago, and we were talking about our experiences in law school more than a decade apart. I talked about how when I was in law school, the law students were forced to do book research in the law library even though all of the students were given free accounts to Lexis and Westlaw. This involved us using reporters and digests to look up cases, and double-checking summaries to ensure that authority was still good law.
This recent law school graduate did not need to do book research in school, which makes complete sense since almost no lawyers still consult reporters and books when writing legal papers. As we further talked, this recent graduate conveyed that he did not realize that legal citations were made to reporters that used to be printed and consulted in law libraries. Of course, this is not a big deal, but not learning about antecedent practices in the legal profession might make it more difficult to operate in the present in some circumstances.
I am not calling for law schools to mandate classes in legal history, and understanding the history of the legal profession might only provide marginal benefits to legal practitioners. However, more lawyers should know about the history of the legal profession so they have a foundation to respond to situations they face in the present.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at [email protected].