William F. Buckley once quipped that he’d rather be ruled by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty. Well, if Walter Olson’s to be believed, we’re already being ruled by the Harvard faculty – or at least Harvard’s law school faculty – it’s just that most of us don’t know it.
Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of Overlawyered.com, one of the oldest and most heavily trafficked legal blogs, and a prominent proponent of tort reform. I’ve been critical of some of his work in the past – in particular his lack of positive proposals for compensating the victims of mass torts – while supportive of some of the newer elements of his legal program, such as advocating for the reform of existing copyright and patent law and his criticisms of certain overzealous federal criminal prosecutions.
Olson’s latest work, “Schools For Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America” has just been published by Encounter books and I had the opportunity to read an advance copy a few weeks ago. In “Misrule,” Olson turns his sights from the tangles of legal practice to what he regards as the seedbed of pernicious legal ideas – the American law school. Olson believes the ideas that permeate the legal academy should concern us all because:
“Bad ideas in the law schools have a way of not remaining abstract. They tend to mature, if that is the right word, into bad real-life proposals. Bad ideas in university French departments are of self-limiting importance, given that people on the outside are likely to go on speaking French in the usual way. Bad law can take away your liberty, your property, or your family.”
Whatever else you might think about “Schools For Misrule,” Olson is surely right in arguing that the ideas incubated in law schools can have a lot of real world significance. At least in my experience, Olson is also correct in arguing that law school faculty members are overwhelmingly liberal and law school instruction has a left-leaning bias. I part company with Olson on the issue of whether these facts should be cause for alarm, but, whether you agree with Olson’s conclusions or not, there is a lot that you can learn from “Schools For Misrule.”
For starters, Olson’s new work is a valuable corrective for those of us who tend to believe that law school pedagogy has remained essentially frozen in amber since Christopher Columbus Langdell instituted the use of the Socratic method and case study at Harvard in the late nineteenth century. “Schools For Misrule” points up exactly how much legal education has changed since Langdell’s time.