Why the Law

by James Somers, November 3, 2009

I’ve been trying to articulate why I would want to study the law, in part to prepare a “statement of purpose” for applications, but also as a way of selling the subject to people who might be cold to it, or who don’t understand its appeal. [1]

This is what I’ve come up with:

The law is a kind of intellectual cathedral — a massive structure filled with loosely related thought-artifacts, each carefully wrought and later refined, whose total impact easily exceeds the sum of its parts.

In that sense it’s not much different from any other discipline: we could say the same thing about economics, say, or philosophy.

But law has a few features which in my view set it apart:

1. It is mostly non-mathematical, i.e., the predominant idea-vehicle is English prose. So there is jargon but very few nonstandard symbols. For me this is critical simply because I don’t have as much patience for highly technical mathematical symbology as I do for highly technical prose; I just wouldn’t want my days to be filled deciphering that stuff. [2]

But the point is deeper than that: like many branches of contemporary philosophy, the law is at its core a kind of “language-game” in the Wittgensteinian sense — “doing law” amounts in large part to playing with words and tracing the boundaries between them: Does Martha’s grief constitute “severe emotional distress”? What sort of legislation is precluded by the “necessary and proper” clause? Is a tricycle a “vehicle”? Can an e-mail act as a “written agreement”?

I am attracted to a discipline whose most common form of puzzle-solving involves words. It’s familiar territory.

2. Maybe for this reason, lawyers tend to write exceptionally well. This may be surprising given that the subject is notorious for spewing “legalese,” but it’s important to realize that that type of tediously precise language is not what lawyers use to communicate among themselves. Law review articles do not read like contracts.

Instead, they are remarkably crisp. Which makes sense given that convincing arguments are the basic currency of the profession. [3]

3. I know very little of the law. So the raw information gain of a three-year J.D. program would probably edge out other options for me, especially if I’m excluding the hard sciences.

4. Philosophy seems like it would be an excellent rival: it, too, is essentially “about” language; its practitioners are extraordinary writers and thinkers; its students are trained to become argument-jedis; and it even makes heavy use of hypotheticals. Etc.

The difference, I think, is that the concept-taxonomy developed by philosophers — the particular way they have arranged the subject’s ideas and vocabulary into a loose hierarchy — is easily less instrumental than the law’s. By that I mean that if you rearranged some nodes in the “org. chart” of philosophy, your only real impact would be on the way philosophers talk and think; in that sense philosophy is wrapped up in itself in a way that the law is not.

Real people pay real damages when legal reasoning goes one way instead of another, and whether a person lives inside or outside of a cage in prison can depend on how exactly the facts of his case figure into a broad juridical narrative. Which is to say that it matters how you decide to cut up the conceptual space.

5. Like physicists, lawyers can in some sense “see the man behind the curtain,” i.e., they have a privileged, detailed understanding of forces that drive the everyday world we non-physicist non-lawyers take for granted.

A physicist, for example, can explain why a mirror seems to reverse left-and-right but not up-and-down, or how trains stay on the tracks, or why planes can fly upside down. Likewise a lawyer can explain whether you’re liable if you unwittingly let a thief into your building, or what you’re allowed to do if someone sucker-punches you at a bar, or what rights you have as a tenant.

Both types of knowledge play well at cocktail parties, and both are powerful, because they each expose the mechanics of complicated things: nature, for physics, and society for law.

6. The most common kind of law school exam question, I’m told ([4]), is what’s called an “issue-spotter,” in which you’re presented with a detailed hypothetical and are expected to discuss the operative ambiguities, i.e., the “issues” on which a legal judgment of the situation might turn.


Brandishing a large hunting knife, Melissa entered Gary’s elegant Coconut Grove mansion and threatened to stab him. Elliott, a free-lance director, was in Gary’s living room at the time shooting a commercial for Bedford Falls University, and he captured the moment on videotape. A week later, Suzanna, Gary’s fiancee, played a copy of Elliott’s tape on Gary’s VCR, mistakenly thinking that it was the couple’s favorite episode of *thirtysomething*. Upon viewing the tape, Suzanna suffered severe emotional distress, but no bodily injury. Can Suzanna prevail in a lawsuit against Melissa in a jurisdiction that treats ยง46 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts as highly persuasive? Why or why not? [4, pp. 289-290]

To answer these capably you need to know the relevant law so well that the mapping from key features of the situation:

A. Suzanna wasn’t in the room at the time of the incident;
B. Melissa knew she was being taped;
C. Gary and Suzanna weren’t married, just engaged

to the lines drawn by statutes or cases:

A. “…who is present at the time…”
B. “…intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress…”
C. “…to a member of such person’s immediate family…”

occurs to you almost naturally. Hence the heavy books, and hence my confidence that if nothing else law students acquire a huge volume of information.

Of course, once you map the territory and get good at identifying these “forks,” [4] or potential turning points, you still have the problem of weighing competing interpretations of each. Indeed that seems like the crux of the enterprise: since questions are designed to be tricky, odds are that every argument will come with qualifications. Which encourages a careful kind of adversarial thinking/writing — developing each claim in light of the fact that another lawyer, on whichever side you’re not, will play the devil’s advocate.

It adds up to excellent intellectual training, a gauntlet which actually sounds like fun, especially if you see it from the other side: the problem of generating good hypotheticals, those that awkwardly slice the law or stretch it in uncomfortable ways. [5]

I’m encouraged that such questions figure so centrally in the curriculum.

7. Lastly, a law student is asked a lot of “should” questions: Should Marcus have prevailed in yesterday’s case? Should universities consider race in their admissions decisions? How should the federal government compensate the owners of land taken under eminent domain?

In a way, you have to earn the right to be asked these questions, since absent exhaustive training you’d likely struggle to give the mere beginnings of an answer.

But for the prepared, this type of policy analysis — where you’re asked to consider a particular ruling or piece of legislation in its broader context, perhaps as the leading indicator of an important change — would become a battleground for the big ideas — Ethics, Equity, Justice — and an opportunity to articulate your picture of a more perfect world.


[1] I should say that there are plenty of reasons I’d be after a J.D. that have nothing to do with its appeal as an intellectual object. Example: the law quad at the U of M was its architectural sine qua non — inspiring on a purely aesthetic level. Also, because of how LSAT scores are weighted in the admissions process, I could plausibly attend a top 20 law school in spite of my low GPA, whereas if I wanted a philosophy Ph.D., say, I’d likely end up in a no-name program.

[2] This is somewhat strange given that I get along fine with computer code. Mind you I actually make regular use of math, and am happy to read symbol-laden papers — I’m just not willing to make a life of it. I’m far more comfortable with words.

[3] It may seem like a minor point, but a discipline’s writerly aesthetic becomes insanely important once you realize that you’ll be reading hundreds of thousands of pages of the stuff.

[4] Getting to Maybe: How to Excel on Law School Exams, by Richard Michael Fischl and Jeremy Paul (1999).

[5] This kind of thought-experimenting is a crucial cognitive skill, though it’s rarely emphasized outside of philosophy (“Yeah, but what if Mary had never seen a raven?”) or math (“Suppose G is a non-abelian group of order…”). I like that law school encourages you to constantly invent edge cases.