On Incomplete Information
Let me set the scene for you: it’s my first week of class. I’m a journalism major with a political communications background, my last math class was a “Statistics for Dummies”-esque course in the fall of my freshman year, and I like it that way.
The professor is shepherding a room full of 90 1Ls through some of the basic principles of contract law, patiently forcing students to realize the words “fair” and “just” don’t cut it anymore, that we need to back up our notion of “fairness” with adequate arguments. As an example, he throws out some market mumbo-jumbo…something about transaction costs, and incomplete information, and value-maximizing behavior.
I panic—I’m talking cold-sweat, heart-in-mouth, darting-eyes panic. Why are all these other students in the room nodding along like they just understood what he said? What’s this graph he’s drawing on the board? Those squiggles look suspiciously like numbers…but this is law school!
Thus I was introduced to the beautiful, sometimes terrifying world of “Law and Economics.”
A lot of schools talk about L&E as an academic touchstone of their institution (especially a certain unnamed Midwest NYU peer school). There’s a reason for that, of course: it’s one of the major contemporary schools of legal thought. No matter where you go to law school, you will run into it, whether in discussing the value-maximizing transaction role of contract law or tort law’s goal of incentivizing actors to internalize the costs of their behavior. It is inescapable.
It is also perfectly understandable. Even for arithmophobic journalism majors such as myself.
Here’s why: L&E is not (necessarily) a brutally empirical, numbers-centric analysis of cases and statutes requiring extensive training in econometrics and arcane statistics. It is exactly what it is purported to be: a school of thought, a way of interpreting and explaining this idea called “The Law” that we’re all supposed to be studying. Sure, there are some words you have to connect to concepts, and sure, those concepts can be a bit atmospheric in scope…but practice makes perfect. Or, in this case, practice makes marginally competent.
And if you’re sitting in class a month in and still start grasping at straws every time the conversation turns to “optimal deterrence” or “transaction costs” (like I was), there’s support available to you. The professors at NYU (in my and other 1Ls’ experience) go out of their way to make themselves available outside of class. For example, my contracts professor’s syllabus reads, in relevant part: “I can generally be found in my office, Room 411C of Vanderbilt Hall, during daytime hours. Please feel free to stop by.” He means that. No bi-weekly, half-hour window or byzantine sign-up mechanism. Drop in, sit down, and ask questions. Your professors want you to understand the material.
Then there’s the other 89 people in your section. I’ll go into more detail on this front in a future post, but never underestimate the collective knowledge of your classmates. That kid who sits behind you in Civil Procedure just might be carrying a Ph.D. in chemistry in his back pocket, or might have worked for an industry trade group for three years before coming back to law school. Make friends, join study groups, do things with people that aren’t law-related…and don’t be afraid to pull someone aside, point at a hole in your notes, and say “I was lost. You weren’t. Help.”
Now don’t get me wrong. If you’re reading this post as a sophomore in undergrad, I want you to:
- Stop worrying about law school and live your life
- Register for a couple of survey economics courses.
Being able to call upon a basic knowledge of the way markets work, and the way “rational agents” function in said markets, will be a boon in your 1L year. But one of the beauties of a legal education is that you’re touching concepts across numerous disciplines, from economics to philosophy to history to political science. No one undergraduate degree provides the “best” pre-law preparation; no one skill set is dispositive of a successful three years in law.
So as you’re researching law schools, don’t let the words “Law and Economics” scare you. You’re going to face them no matter where you go. And once you have, you’ll discover they aren’t nearly as terrifying as you once thought.