October 29, 2003

law school vs. medical school

People often ask "what's the difference?" between law school and medical school.

Well, I can only answer based on my own experiences and interpretations, but here's one difference:

A few months into my first year of medical school, I began to realize that I wasn't getting very much out of the classes. I felt in virtually every case that if I had skipped class and spent that hour reading my notes or reading a textbook, I could have learned more than I did by listening to the lecture in class. (Of course, this doesn't apply to anatomy lab, which doesn't count as a "class" or a "lecture" in my opinion. Anatomy lab is a whole different kind of fish.)

In law school, I'm often tempted to skip class. But unlike in medical school, I'm finding it difficult to justify skipping class in favor of just doing more reading on my own.

Law school classes, so far, seem more valuable than the preclinical medical school classes.

Why? My law school classes seem to offer something "beyond the textbook" in a way that medical school lectures never did. Take today's torts lecture, for example. We were discussing the doctrine of respondeat superior and vicarious liability, under which an employer is liable for the negligent actions of an employee even if the employer itself did nothing wrong. We'd seen the doctrine applied in a few cases from the casebook, and the casebook editor had discussed a few wrinkles, such as what happens when the negligent party isn't an employee but instead is an independent contractor? All that was fine and good. But in class, we didn't just rehash the discussion in the textbook. Instead, we asked "Why?" Why does this doctrine make sense? Should we keep it, or get rid of it? Using the cases in the book as weapons for our arguments, we advanced our understanding of the legal doctrine in a way that would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, if we had just stayed home and reread the casebook.

I don't want to glorify my law classes (God forbid). Very often the rhythm of the professor's voice starts to put me to sleep, and my eyes glaze over when we stop to discuss a point I don't find very interesting. I get tired of straining to hear a student who's been called on and is giving a cautious, timid answer that doesn't move the discussion forward but just bogs it down and slows it up.

But it is true that if I try to stay alert, I'll almost always find a way to make the hour irreplaceable in a way my medical school lectures never were.

There could be many reasons for this. Medical textbooks could just be superior to law casebooks. Medical lecturers could be inferior to law lecturers. The Socratic method may make the law classroom a much more active place than the medical classroom ever was. All these could explain the difference, but I don't think they do.

Here's the difference, in my opinion: in medical school the most significant goal by far was memorization. The lectures didn't help me to memorize anything, so they were, to put it bluntly, superfluous.

In law school, although we need to memorize things, the real goal is making cogent arguments. And I find that attending class, listening to the professor, responding to the questions, and listening to classmates helps me to form and use arguments to a greater extent than it would help me to skip class in favor of rereading the casebook.

I'm sure I'll start to notice some other differences between law school and medical school, and when I do, you can rest assured that I'll point them out on this blog...

Posted by Carey at October 29, 2003 03:15 PM