Podcast with Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D., Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University and Dr. John Duncan, Law Professor, Florida A&M
Are you thinking about going to law school? What’s the difference between law school and graduate school? In this podcast, APU professor Dr. Gary Deel talks to Dr. John Duncan, a law professor with a distinguished career as a JAG in the Air Force, about what students can expect from law school. Learn how to prepare for law school, and how it will transform your critical thinking skills and teach you how to constantly learn. Also, hear about the frustrations and challenges you are likely to encounter in law school and how to overcome them.
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Read the Transcript
Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about the transformative experience of law school.
My guest today is John Duncan. John is a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel with 28 years of decorated service. John was trained as a JAG and served in special operations in Vietnam, as Legal Advisor for the United Nations Command in Korea, as a Staff Judge Advocate in Greece, and in the Pentagon as Legal Advisor for the Intelligence Oversight to the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense.
John has also served as a professor of law for several law schools, including Florida A&M University, where he currently teaches. John holds a Ph.D. in anthropological linguistics from Stanford University and a J.D. in Law from Yale University. John also holds a Master of Business and Public Administration, a Master of Arts in English as a Second Language, and a Master of Science in Audiology and Speech Pathology. John, welcome to Intellectible and thank you for being our guest today.
Dr. John Duncan: Thank you very much.
Dr. Gary Deel: Wonderful. We’re here to talk about law school, and in full disclosure to our listeners, I invited you as a previous acquaintance and as my professor in law school. I attended Florida A&M University between 2009 and 2012 and had you as a professor for several classes.
I found the experience to be transformative for me from the standpoint of critical thinking development and humility and respect for how complicated the world really is. So I guess I would start by saying that most of our listeners here at APU — American Public University — obviously sponsors our podcast, and most of our students are undergraduate students.
I remember in school one of the lessons that I learned from you early on as a 1L is that law school is not undergrad. In fact, and I will say in advance, that mimicry is, of course, the most sincere form of flattery.
But a friend of mine who was also in your class, and we became good friends together, whenever we would walk through the door before class started, we’d smile at each other and exchange a glance and whisper, “This is not undergrad.”
And so, I’ll leave it at that. And I’d like to just get your thoughts on how the law school process is not undergrad, and what students can expect from that experience and what it means to be in law school.
Dr. John Duncan: Well, first of all, I’m very proud to be here, and you were one of my really, really good students. On top of that, I’m impressed with what you have been doing post-law school, after law school. So let me get back to your question.
One of the first things I typically say to my first-year law classes, and we have an evening program which is four years, and which tends to be people who have been out of school for a bit, not always, and/or have a job during the day. So the evening program is for students who usually have other things that they’re doing during the day.
The day program is usually three years, and that’s typically for students fresh out of undergrad. But there are differences, but I want to lay that out. Next thing. Yes, law school is not undergrad, nor is it grad school. I have a bachelor’s, couple of masters, as well as a Ph.D., and nothing was like law school.
By the way, I’ve had in my class or classes, M.D.s, as well as students who have gone to other law schools that is out of state. But in Florida, you have to pass the Florida bar.
Every now and then I have a student who has gone to another state school and wants to practice in Florida. Even those students have found my class somewhat challenging.
Now, I do that for a reason. In undergrad, and typically grad school, many of them, you have what’s known as a textbook, which means everything is laid out for you.
And you’d master that and you do well. Another problem that I have with undergrad, and many times with graduate school, but not always all grad schools or grad subjects, people try to do the minimum. That doesn’t mean they don’t study hard, but just enough to do well.
Law school is almost, I hate to say, the opposite. In other words, you will learn and have to do much more than you think you need to know.
And so, what I do in law school, and I’m now going to explain the difference between a textbook, which I just described, versus a case book. A case book re-enacts cases, and each case is different. But cases cover a variety of law school subjects. And the subject that I am talking about or that I teach is contracts.
There’s also constitutional law, what we call tort law. I’ll let Gary talk about that because he’s more recently out of law school than I am. But I will say this… I should say Dr. Deel, excuse me, sir. The case book is a very different approach. You learn the law through studying of cases.
The facts of each case may differ, but you look for the subjects that cut across the particular case, that bear on what you learn as the law itself. I’ll let Gary explain that also some more. I keep saying, Gary, I keep meaning to say Dr. Deel.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s quite all right. We’re friends here.
Start a legal studies degree at American Public University.
Dr. John Duncan: The point I’m trying to make is, people have to get used to studying the law through the case method approach. Students dislike it, and I am even worse because I don’t allow the students to ask questions in class. I do the asking of questions. That’s called the Socratic method.
The reason why I do that is because, having taught in undergrad and grad schools, students, I find, typically, well, they didn’t get it the first or maybe the second reading. They say, “Well, I’ll just ask the teach.” I’ll use that term. It should be teacher or professor.
But, in the law, you better keep digging, digging and digging. My students come out of my classes, which I tell them, “Dig, dig, dig.” All of my students will see me and that’s almost the first thing they say before they say, “Hi, Professor Duncan.” So the point that I’m trying to make is, you keep at it.
Now let me jump into something else that I like to talk about. Think of the Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court, you have lower courts, that is courts that you go through before you get to the Supreme Court.
But at the Supreme Court, you usually have two superstars going up against each other. That means they’re both superstars. I mean, both very good.
But guess what? Just like in the World Series, the top two teams meet each other; one wins and one loses in the end.
Now you don’t have four chances. I mean, it’s not four out of seven, it’s the one case at the Supreme Court. But the point I’m trying to make is, even people at that level end up not necessarily winning the case. That doesn’t mean that they’re a bad lawyer. There are other things.
One, did they do the proper arguments? Usually, that’s the case. Did they handle themselves well? Yes, that’s usually the case. But there are other factors that come in. I’m throwing all of this out to let you know how different the law is from just learning a subject.
For example, Dr. Deel just indicated that I have a master’s in audiology and speech pathology. I do. But that was a lot easier, in a sense, because I either knew the stuff or I didn’t. The law, both people know things, but you get to things so that…You’ll often hear lawyers say, “Well, it could be this or it could be that.” It sounds like they’re backing out of something.
Well, that’s not true. There are other factors. For example, I’m going back to the Supreme Court. Who are the judges? Notice why it’s so important about where’s the judges coming from? What is their background? What is their proclivity?
And then notice something else that you will see over the years. In some courts, over the years, someone that came on as a conservative may become liberal, and the reverse may be true.
So there are so many other things that go into how a decision is made, and a good lawyer has to know all of that. In other words, a good lawyer knows the judge. Not necessarily as a friend, but how the judge thinks.
That’s part of also knowing your client and what you’re working with. So I’m using that to start off with what I make students go through. Again, I’ll get back to Dr. Deel.
I was a terror, and I say that in some jest, only because the students were frustrated in my classes because I would keep asking them questions, and they would get more frustrated. But that’s what happens in the law.
That means the attorney has to know, not only how to ask questions, but know the client, get to know the subject that they’re dealing with, and know it well. I’ll turn it back to Dr. Deel just now, if he wants me to elaborate on what I’ve said so far.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sure. Well, thank you very much. And please feel free to call me Gary. If anything, I should have referred to you as Dr. Duncan in the intro. So, thank you again for being here. Hearing you discuss this brings back some sense of nostalgic PTSD from my 1L days and —
Dr. John Duncan: He’s being very nice, but go ahead.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think what was most impactful for me as a law school student was the appreciation for nuance and how a lack of objectivity to the law creates a lot of different precedents and changes over time.
Dr. John Duncan: Let me jump in. Each lawyer tries to be what they call objective, but the problem is how you see things. I think we’re seeing that in today’s world, as you listen to the Democrats and Republicans going back and forth at each other. But I’m totally with you, Dr. Deel. Keep going.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. We were joking about this before we began the recording, but I remember distinctly my first grade in law school.
If I recall correctly, it came from your class. I remember earning a 14. I wrote about this in an article that I had published previously for APUS, and I thought to myself, having come out of undergrad and not really having had to try terribly hard and doing pretty well throughout that process, I thought, “Okay, this must be a 14 out of 15, or a 14 out of 20.”
Only after analyzing the situation, did I realize, no, it was a 14 out of a hundred. And of course, a curve is applied in law school that balances things out. But I found it interesting, part of the product of that experience is that almost everybody fails almost every law exam in law school.
It’s only the best worst grade are those folks that end up with an A at the end of the day. But there’s a certain sense of humility that is imparted in that process that I think is really important for people to appreciate that you will not be good at this at first. It will be difficult.
Dr. John Duncan: Let me jump in here, and I want to go over this. Grades are important in law school, but grades are not like they are in undergrad, and certainly not like they are in grad school where most people get an A or a B. I’ve often heard, which happened to be in grad school. I was very happy to receive a C in statistics.
Well, sometimes in law school, you’re going to be happy to just receive the C. Usually, in a class of, let’s say, 50 or 60, I may only have two, maybe three, every now and then four or five As. That means, on a regular curve, I may have close to that in terms of those that don’t quite make it.
Now, different law schools handle grades differently, but it’s not like undergrad or grad school. So I do want to talk about that. Now, there’s a saying that we hear from Harvard and Yale, especially. The A students tend to teach law school. Those that make the money tend to be Bs and Cs. I’ve had a lot of friends that end up practicing, and we keep going back and forth in terms of who’s the best lawyer.
And so, that’s just one of the things that we talk about somewhat in jest. But that doesn’t mean that a C — and I’m not trying to say that you should look for a C — I’m trying to say that you look for the A.
You’ll be fortunate if you get the A, but at the same time, you put as much thing as you do into it. People come to law school with totally different backgrounds. That needs to be taken into account, and their professors realize that.
Also, there’s a lot more to law school than just criminal law which you see on TV. I’ll throw this in, and again, Dr. Deel and I were talking about this just before we got started, people will often ask, “What’s the best preparation for law school?”
Well, so many people think criminal law. Well, I have to admit, I’m not against criminal law, but I think the best preparation for law school is philosophy. People sit back and wonder, “What? Philosophy? That’s because it makes you think, okay? All right?” It’s a different process, and I think that goes into the law.
Now, I have to admit. Before I went to law school, I had a doctorate in linguistics. How did that help? Well, when you study foreign languages and things like that, you have to look up words. That’s law school first year. You almost have to look up — I’m teasing — almost every other word. But it’s learning the language of the law, but most important, as you will hear constantly, you will learn to think like a lawyer.
That’s another thing that I like to point out. People look for friends who think like they do. I advise my first-year students, look for somebody that you disagree with — and I’m teasing — and you almost hate. So you learn to hear both sides of the argument. That’s how you learn to become a good lawyer, so you anticipate the other side.
But even in law firms, not everybody in the law firm, typically sizeable law firms, don’t think, not as a group, thinks the same way. And you learn more by talking to someone who you don’t quite agree with, but be understanding. That makes a good lawyer. I think Dr. Deel can elaborate on that somewhat. Go ahead.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I think that part of the transformative process, for me, in entering law school, is unlearning the expectation that if I deliver what I consider to be acceptable work, which might, in a more objective sense, be mediocrity, that I’m deserving or entitled to some type of passing grade. And that was a rude awakening, but I’m grateful for that.
When I talk to my students who are considering law school at the various universities where I teach, I tell them it will be difficult. It will be frustrating, and there will be times when you’ll want to quit.
I remember distinctly. But nothing worth having comes easy. I started with a law school class in the night program at Florida A&M University of about a hundred students, and I graduated with 34. So that gives you a sense.
I think it was Dr. Duncan, if I’m not mistaken, who on day one gave that baptism by fire speech of “Look to your left, look to your right. Both of these people will be gone by the time you finish.”
Dr. John Duncan: Now, let me jump in, because I’ve got to defend Florida A&M University here.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sure.
Dr. John Duncan: My Dean may get on me. We don’t try to flunk people out. In fact, we want people to stay, and we want good lawyers. That’s the key term. Good lawyers.
The other thing is, I wouldn’t say that that’s every law school. I was talking to Gary before we got started, I keep saying Gary, I mean, Dr. Deel, the difference between Harvard and Yale.
I went to Yale Law School, and others went….I mean, not every lawyer went to Yale and not every lawyer went to Harvard. Harvard’s first-year classes are around a thousand. Yale’s entire law school is 500. So different law schools have different approaches.
However, it is rigorous, no matter where you go to law school. So I did want to point that out. I don’t try to flunk people.
In fact, we want to help people through law school. But my way of helping is not to hold a hand and insert where they should have learned on their own. By on their own, what I mean is to keep at it.
And so many people say, “Well, I didn’t get it. What’s the answer, teach?” I use that example. Well, that’s not the way you learn the law. When you get out of law school and you practice, and there’s something that they call continuing legal education, which helps lawyers stay up to date with things. However, there are new cases, new situations, and there may be something that nobody has seen or thought about and you have to work on on your own.
When you go against other superstars, you’re going against the best. And it may not even be a superstar.
So the point I’m trying to make is learning to learn. And that’s a constancy in the law. Don’t forget, what I like to tell my students, commencement. People think of that as the end. Commencement means the beginning, to commence something. So keep that in mind.
You want to constantly do it. And good lawyers do that. They’re constantly learning, taking continuing legal education, talking to other lawyers, working with other lawyers.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t get a break. But realize it is consuming, and it’s enjoyable.
Another thing that I like to throw out is, many of you that have learned instruments, piano. I played the trumpet for a while. I was horrible. Then I kept at it, and finally, I learned how to play taps. I probably should have played taps for me earlier on in the learning of the trumpet. But the point that I’m trying to make is, it takes a while to get good at something.
It’s like a sport, learning to shoot a basketball, hit a baseball, field and things like that. Well, the law is like that, but even more consuming. After a while, it gets to be fun. You can’t wait to dig something, that is look for something, work with it, try different arguments.
This is what makes the law so fulfilling in the end. But you have to go through the process. And believe it or not, we try to do that in law school. Keep this in mind.
Before we had law schools, those that wanted to become lawyers would just read the law under a lawyer. That had been way back when. It’s a different process for becoming a lawyer.
That took years, many times. Law school helps you to get through that process. But it’s not that you stop. It helps you to learn how to learn and to continue learning as you go. That’s where you have good lawyers.
And believe me, some of you may already know you don’t want a bad lawyer. But realize it is a bit of a game, but it’s also the knowledge and effort that you put into it during law school and practicing law.
Dr. Gary Deel: Perfect. I just discovered we have one more thing in common. I played trumpet in junior high school and high school.
Dr. John Duncan: Oh, my goodness. What a duo or duet we might have been. One of us would have been off key, probably me.
Dr. Gary Deel: Sounds like a missed opportunity. I should say, in defense of FAMU as well, that when I discussed earlier, because I am proud of my alma mater, and with respect to the students in my law class, at least as my memory serves, most of those who did not finish, it was not a product of 100% effort and just not making the cut. It was a “This is too much for me. I’m making the decision to back out of this and hit the abort button” at some point in the 1, 2, 3L period. You would just see the class get thinner and thinner.
I know, from having talked with these students, that it wasn’t a product of “I can’t make the grade.” It was just “This is way more challenging than I ever expected that it would be.” And I think that that was a catalyst to them choosing another career.
Dr. John Duncan: Yeah. I’m not trying to dissuade people from law school, but I want people to know that the law is consuming, and you have to put the time in.
For example, another statement that I like to make is, I remember undergrad and grad school. In those days, I could cram for my exam at the last minute.
As a matter of fact, I’ll tell you a quick story. I was taking audiology and speech pathology, and my advisor said, “Well, why don’t you take a career broadening course? Say, why don’t you take linguistics?” I said, “Linguistics? What in the world is that?” “Yeah, try it.” So I did.
Problem is I didn’t go to class. I thought I was young and smart.
One day, I said, “I better go to this class that I signed up for. I walked into class, and the teacher was passing out the mid-term. I said, “Oh, dot, dot, dot.” I won’t say what I actually said. Ended up I had the second highest grade in the class when the exam… I said, “This is the field for me.”
So that taught me something. However, in that field, I could cram for the exam, and I did okay. Law school, you may see people stay up all night, but it’s not cramming. It’s the last-minute review. I don’t suggest that. It’s just like studying for the bar.
Here’s another thing that I want to throw in, having mentioned the bar. I maintain to my students, there are three things about becoming a lawyer. Getting into law school. That’s not an easy process. Getting through law school. That’s where I step into the ball game, okay?
You need to be challenged, and that helps you. But that is not total preparation for the bar exam. Some few people try to take the bar exam without going through a bar review course. That’s not easy. Look at different states, and those that pass, and the different rates of passage in each state.
Florida is a pretty tough state. So, I’m just saying to you, getting into law school, getting through law school, and passing the bar. Three different ball games, but they all end up making you a much better, not only lawyer, but I think a better person.
Dr. Gary Deel: I would absolutely agree. I think that was perhaps the most transformative element of all, in that concept of people use the term common sense in daily life. They try to use this as a defense without really any merit to say that something ought to be a certain way. It’s just common sense. I think the appreciation for the fact that common sense is a vacuous term, was what I took away from law school that made me a better critical thinker in everything else that I do.
I remember distinctly, and this is from the property law class. I know that that’s not generally a class that you typically teach, but there’s a concept in property law called adverse possession. And I struggled with this for two semesters because I could not wrap my head around the idea that someone could illegally trespass on my property that I own, according to county records.
And if they just hang out there long enough and doing all the right things, they will own my property without having to pay me a dime. And I just could not understand it, until you look at the reason why there are legal precedents around this. It really is organized in the interest of fairness. It’s just that you’re not considering all the possibilities under which someone might end up on somebody else’s property and have an interest there.
Dr. John Duncan: I have to jump in. I love to hear this when it’s expressed this way. Students, don’t try it. It doesn’t work. Okay. Go ahead. I’m sorry.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. No, it’s those kinds of things when people think the world ought to be black and white or simple, and it just isn’t. We’re wrestling with difficult issues, and socio-cultural and socioeconomic change in our society today.
I just had a podcast a few weeks ago on the concept of affirmative action, and when it’s appropriate, and how, and it seems like there are two and only two dichotomous opinions in this country on affirmative action: It’s either always or never. And when you really understand the nuances of a policy that is as complex as affirmative action, you realize that there’s all of these different dimensions that have to be considered.
It’s not easy. It’s very complicated. But the world is under no obligation to conform to your preconceived notions of what it should be. I think that that’s what I took away from law school that made me appreciate the world in a deeper way.
Dr. John Duncan: We could have another whole discussion on affirmative action. These topics like that come up in different classes. And you have different professors that may have different viewpoints. It’s just like in law school, and I’ve found some of the firms that I interview with, and that I have worked with, there are different viewpoints on the same subject.
Let me say something else about law school. There are three of us currently that teach the subjects that I enjoy teaching, although I teach other subjects also, contracts. Two of us use the same case book and the other person doesn’t use the same case book.
It happens that I’m probably more in sync with the person that doesn’t use the same case book versus the other person who does use the same book. So you have different viewpoints, different professors, and it’s going to be interesting. And this is what you will find in the law.
Two people that you think would think alike may not think alike. That’s when I say to my students, and my students also walk out of class hearing me say, “Welcome to the law.” I think you recall that, Dr. Deel. You may have said…You’re smiling. Keep talking.
Dr. Gary Deel: Once or twice, once or twice. I think the encouragement in that vein of why you reason the arguments that you reason, in fact, one of the things that I distinctly remember from your class is, number one, you’d ask a question, and I’d say, “Well, basically…”
And you’d cut me off and say, “That means nothing. Just tell me what happened.” And so, it encourages you to think quickly and to think clearly so that you’re not offering meaningless conjecture in your arguments.
I think the second component is, I remember distinctly, me and others in the class, we would say, “Well, I feel like…” And you would cut us off and say, “The law doesn’t care what you feel like. It’s what is your reasoning and why, what is your argument?”
I think that’s really important because when people are arguing, whether about a legal matter or anything, any political stance or perspective they have on society and the world, they’re inclined to say, “Well, this is how I feel,” and that’s not an evidentiary argument. That’s not something off of which someone should be persuaded. It shouldn’t inform policy in theory. Your argument should be based on the evidence.
Dr. John Duncan: Yeah. Let me jump in here. It’s not that law professors and lawyers are without feeling, and that feelings aren’t important. However, we’re talking about reasoning.
Now, sometimes there’s feelings, leads to your reason. In fact, it’s almost like which came first, the chicken or the egg? Okay? So there’s no doubt that feelings are of some importance.
But what we want in the court is the reasoning that leads you to why or why not. I think these are things that we like to talk about when we talk about the law.
Let me shift to something else here. I also teach administrative law, and I am a believer that administrative law should be a required course. By the way, there’s some courses that are required in law schools, and different law schools tend to have very similar required courses. But there are others that some law schools do require and others don’t.
But anyhow, a course that I love to teach is administrative law, which is the law of the various agencies of the government. And it’s broader than that, but that’s a good way of starting the conversation.
I’m a bit different in that course. By that time, students have already been through their first year and typically know how to brief a case. And that’s very important, which I didn’t really go into any detail. But briefing the case is another subject that we might talk about shortly.
But students, typically, in their second, third, and fourth year, if they’re in the evening or just second and third year during the day students’ time, know how to do generally by the time they’re second year.
However, it’s a constant renewal in terms of how to brief a case of what to do, but they typically know how to brief a case going into the second year or third. I am a bit different in that, and here we’re getting not so much how to read and learn the law, but what we do with the law, and what we can work with in the law, and the breadth of the law.
And that’s where, I think, you’re starting to enjoy law school at that point. How would you advise it? I say it from my view, not only as a student, but over the years, because I’m continuously learning, but as a law professor.
I like having a teaching assistant who’s typically a student, because students and teachers don’t always see things the same way. And I think we need to try to understand each other. Back to you, Dr. Deel, and I’m proud to say Dr. Deel.
Dr. Gary Deel: Well, absolutely, and I appreciate it. I think the reason, the analysis skills that come from law school are some of the most important components of that experience. I remember the case briefing, there are different acronyms used by different schools. We mostly relied on IRAC, I-R-A-C, which is-
Dr. John Duncan: No, no. Not A-R, I-R-A-C.
Dr. Gary Deel: I-R, yes. Yes, sir. For those who are not familiar, this is essentially just the way to look at a problem in the law and analyze what the proper way forward is. And so, you look at I, the issue, R the rule, A, the analysis of that situation, and C is your conclusion.
There’s pitfalls at each step along that process where you can make a wrong turn and end up at the wrong conclusion if you’re not careful. I teach classes that are not necessarily, they’re contextual to the law, but they’re not law classes in law schools, obviously.
But one thing I tell my students and I’m not shy about is that I really believe, if the world, and I’m not deaf or blind to the fact that there are cost considerations and time considerations with going to law school that make it challenging, if not impossible for many people. But if everybody could go to law school, I feel like we’d have a much better functioning society, in the sense that the general public would be reasoning its analysis and discussions, its positions and standpoints, on the way we move society forward in a much more profound and well thought out way.
Dr. John Duncan: Let me bring back what I was going to talk about, and I’ll just speak briefly, and it’s called briefing the case. Briefing a case is not easy, and that is also a thinking process. When a client comes into the lawyer’s office, he or she says what the problem is.
Well, the lawyer has to figure out, well, what is the problem and how may I assist you, the client? And that’s a process unto itself. In so doing, you go through all the facts and even feelings, what’s going on here and what’s going on there. Well, I just want people to know what the lawyer does when someone comes into his or her office.
Now, briefing the case in law school means you have the case as it is reported, and you’ll find out where cases are reported and how they are reported. But this is what we look at in especially most law school, what we call case books. That’s why I say briefing the case.
Now, in so doing, there’s a lot in the case. And in law school, we divide various subjects we have, which I said earlier, contracts, torts, constitutional law, property as Dr. Deel was giving an example of. And each case book tends to talk about cases that fall within that particular area.
When you read the case, there’s a lot more in the case than you need to brief the basic facts of the case to get to the point that you want to make, in terms of the summary of the case. It’s brief, which means just enough to know what the case is about, but you need to read all the facts to understand that.
And that’s where briefing comes in. And as he was saying, IRAC, which he just went through. There are other ways and other acronyms that people use to brief a case. That lets you know the elements that you need to know about the case.
However, in spite of that, you still need to know other facts that go along with the case. So briefing a case gets to be a technique to help you know how to read cases so you may brief a number of cases for the case that you may be working on when you come out of law school. So briefing a case and learning how to do that is a very important factor of going to law school. Did that summarize it? As a student, you may want to restate it to me.
Dr. Gary Deel: No, absolutely. I think that that’s an accurate summary, and it’s an integral process of being a law school student. We’ve been speaking with Professor John Duncan here about the transformative process of law school.
I wanted to give undergraduate students, as part of the purpose of this talk, a sense of what law school is like so there are no delusions about what to expect. If there are students listening to this podcast who are not currently law school students, but think that they might like to be, what advice would you have for them in terms of how to prepare?
Dr. John Duncan: Okay. Before we get into that, and I think that’s very good, and I want to get back to that. So you may need to repeat that for me. I did want to bring up something else.
As I was saying, I teach contract law, which is a basic course in just about every law school, and administrative law, which I think should be a required course. But I also teach several other courses. Two of them are national security law and international law. I say that because, growing up as a military brat, my father was in the army, and I rebelled against dad and retired from the Air Force after 28 years.
I did a lot of that when I was in the Air Force, international law, having been stationed in Korea, where I was the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate for all of the U.S. Forces, as well as having sat at the table in Panmunjom with the admiral or general who sat across from his North Korean and Chinese counterpart. And I was a legal advisor during the time that I served there.
The other course that goes along with that is international law. And of course, that too came up during that time.
I like to talk about those courses. Those are what used to say at another law school, typically, the professor will teach one for the Dean, that’s a required course, and one for oneself, and that’s the particularly area that the professor has a greater interest in.
So I just thought I would throw that out. Those are usually smaller classes, and many times people may or may not write papers depending upon the professor, but often papers. And it’s a more, I guess I would say, informal class with a more back and forth interaction between the professor and the student. I especially enjoy those, but I just thought I’d add that in to let you know, that’s really where a lot of my interests are.
Dr. Gary Deel: I didn’t mention this earlier, but I should have, and that is, thank you for your distinguished service. I know that your military career was long and successful, and we really appreciate your contribution to our national security there. And I’m sure it was very influential on your future career as a lawyer and a law professor.
Dr. John Duncan: Well, I thank you. I’m very proud of it, but I’m also happy to be teaching the law, and it’s opened my mind. Interesting, it’s a different world. But I did want to throw that in because I think it’s important to let students know. Law school can be very enjoyable. It’s work, but guess what? When you get out of law school, it’s work, but you will enjoy it.
Dr. Gary Deel: No, absolutely. I think it was an immersive experience while I was there. I appreciated the fact, as a night student, that I was able to continue working in the industry, which, for me, my background is in hospitality. And so, I was working for hotels and resorts here in Orlando, and attending school at night.
That’s certainly a challenge as a night student because it’s a lot on your plate. But I appreciated that flexibility, that I didn’t have to choose between my industry experience, my professional work, and my education, my studies in law school. So there was a flexible way to do that. And that’s not uncommon for law schools to have an opportunity for you to do both, although it’s a lot to take on.
What I wanted to ask about is, because I suspect that, look, law school’s not for everybody. But there may be some students who, and I hope, this is my goal from this conversation, is that there are some students listening to this podcast who might be inspired.
And after listening to our discussion, think to themselves, “This is something I might like to try and I might be interested in.” Again, we can’t overstate the fact that it is a lot of work, but it is worth it, in my experience. And I’m sure you would agree.
The question is, if there are undergraduate students out there listening to this podcast, really anybody who’s not already in law school and is interested, how should they start that process? Is it just to get an LSAT prep book and open to page one, or are there other steps that they should be taking to prepare themselves?
I suggest that you talk with people, go around talking with lawyers, even paralegals. Another mistake that many people think is that a paralegal will have an easier time in law school. Not necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with being a paralegal, but I have found that non-paralegals and paralegals end up doing about the same. Now, there’s some knowledge that you have, but don’t forget, each person brings his or her own background to law school. And so, people aren’t the same.
In terms of the LSAT, the Law School Admissions Test, I think everyone should try to take an LSAT prep course, which is offered. It may cost a bit. I don’t know what the costs are, but it’s not an easy test to take.
But GMAT and all of those tests are the same thing, for the MCAT, for the medical school. But it is well worth it. So I highly recommend that one take that.
Dr. Gary Deel: So if there are students who are either undeclared or perhaps they’ve not chosen pre-law as their undergraduate, is that really important to the process?
Dr. John Duncan: I don’t think so. In fact, I’m not a big admirer of pre-law, but different professors have different views on that. I think you should take whatever you’re interested in as an undergrad.
Here’s another interesting thing that I have found. I’m not sure that there are any statistics on it. But interestingly enough, I have found that music majors somehow do rather well in law school. I’ve never figured that one out yet, but anyhow, that’s what I have seen.
I’m not a big fan of criminal law as a best major, but there are professors that vehemently disagree with me. That’s just a viewpoint. I think one should take what one is interested in, okay?
Another thing, let me take off from there. People come out of law school, and I suggest you take the bar exam, pass the bar, and then many people go into law and become lawyers. And some work with big law firms, some become solo practitioners, and some do other things as a lawyer.
In fact, some people, after a period of years as a lawyer, go in to become heads of companies and do all kinds of things with the background that they have had in the law. So law prepares you for any number of things.
That’s one of the good things. The law is so broad. You just don’t realize what other opportunities there are when you have that law degree, and then you find what you’re interested in.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I know a lot of folks that hold a J.D., and I don’t know of anybody that I can think of off the top of my head who considers it to have been a waste of time. Even if they’re not practicing law, they’ve found some way to utilize it.
In my case, I teach law or some aspects of business law for different universities, and my J.D. enables me to do that. I also engage in consulting and expert witness work, and it certainly helps there.
I certainly would agree with you that if you can pass the bar immediately after law school, or as soon after law school as possible, it will probably be beneficial because it’s nice to have it in your back pocket in case you ever do want to practice. I think if I had to try to do it now, almost 10 years removed from my law school days, it would be far more difficult than when things are fresh in your mind, right after graduation. I passed in Florida and in Nevada. And if I had to sit for those exams again today, it would be brutal.
Dr. John Duncan: You want to do it as soon as you can. But there is another point that I wanted to make off of this, and that is coming out of undergrad, maybe grad school or not, and then coming back to law school is not a bad idea. That’s also a good way. I think, to be a good lawyer, the more experience you bring to the law, the more you get out of it.
Dr. Gary Deel: I was applying for doctoral programs, and this was a mentor of mine. He said, “Why don’t you go to law school?” I had never thought about it before. And I said, “Why would you say that?”
His experience with me, I guess, he said, “I think you have an analytical mind and I think you’d be good at it, and why not?” I think that kind of attitude toward education could be healthy because you never know where that road might take you.
If experience is any indication, any investment you make in your own education, I mean, obviously we’re here selling law school, but I’m not partial to that or biased in favor of one type of education over another. I think you can’t lose if you invest in your own education and development.
Dr. John Duncan: I like what you just said. I found that law school, at the end, made me realize, “Gee, I thought I had it tough before law school, until I hit law school.” And people have different approaches to that.
But, again, it’s what you want to do, what you have time for, and somewhat what you can afford. The good thing is that we have these opportunities, and I suggest that you take advantage of them when you can.
Now, let me say one more thing. Just school in general, one: today’s circumstances. That may indicate how we go to school. I think it’s nothing better than classroom teaching. Typically, law schools have not really espoused this virtual approach. Although, under the circumstances, that’s what is happening right now.
So a lot of things are going to be reconsidered as a result of today’s circumstances. But I will say to you, do what you want to do that’s going to be good for you. Sometimes what you want to do may not be good for you. So that’s why I quickly throw that in.
But I want to say to you, we have these opportunities. Take advantage of them. And you have, like I say, different law professors. Like I say, there are three of us that teach contracts. Each of us probably approaches it slightly differently. Unfortunately, you may not have your choice of whom.
It’s just like I found when I was in law school. If I had two teachers teaching the same course, I would ask other students what they thought. And usually the one everybody wanted was the one that everybody thought was easier, and I didn’t learn as much, because we ended up laughing and all that in the class.
I wanted the one that got right down to the facts and challenged you. I usually did better in those classes. Now, like I say, different strokes for different folks. Some that may relax them to learn more easily. Others, like me, I wanted to get to the basics and deal with it.
Having said that, notice, you may not have the choice. That’s when I say, “Welcome to the law,” and you’ve got to do what is required under the circumstances at that time. And you will learn to do that as a lawyer, as you’re also doing in life. That’s part of our constant growth.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. I would definitely agree with your experience, I would say. I’m finishing my ninth college degree at the moment, but nothing in my academic career has been as challenging as law school. But I think I appreciate that the most because it was a character-building experience for me. And that’s mainly why I wanted to invite you here today to convey that to our listeners. We’re coming to the end of our hour, but is there any other thing that you’d like to add or any comments you’d like to make before we close?
Dr. John Duncan: Well, I’m glad for this opportunity. I want people to know that I think law is one of the greatest areas to study. You’ll get a basis as well as basics that you will be able to work with. But it also gets you into the constancy of learning, and look how things are changing.
I’m having to learn things that I didn’t even want to learn as we go through life. It helps you to look at yourself as you deal with others. I’m glad for this opportunity. I really enjoy my students. And I have to admit, I am tougher on my first-year students. By that, I mean, I’m much more rigorous, but it helps them.
Many students, as I started off the program, come back and say thank you as a result of that. I think the law allows you to appreciate what is and what isn’t. I have one more thing that I might end up with. I was in the military in Korea, and we didn’t have the luxury of offices.
So where we were in Korea at the time, after I became a JAG, that’s a military lawyer, Judge Advocate General. I wasn’t a general, but that’s what they call military lawyers. The guy next to me was also a lawyer, and I’ve never forgotten this.
Someone came in to him, as most of our clients came in to see us, for different problems that they had. But this one stood out in my mind, and I happened to hear the guy next door to me saying to his client, “Young man, I heard what you said, and I’m glad you came in to see me, but I think you need to see the chaplain. The law is not going to resolve this one for you.” That’s how I’m going to end this.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s a great story. On behalf of your students, Dr. Duncan, let me just say thank you for what you do, and appreciate your service as a teacher. We also thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics, and thanks for joining me today for this episode of Intellectible.
Dr. John Duncan: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure, and I’m so proud of you, Dr. Deel.
Dr. Gary Deel: Thank you. Thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics and more by visiting the various blogs. Be well and stay safe, everyone.
About the Speakers
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
Dr. John Duncan is a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel with 28 years of decorated service. John was trained as a JAG and served in special operations in Vietnam, as Legal Advisor for the United Nations Command in Korea, as a Staff Judge Advocate in Greece, and in the Pentagon as Legal Advisor for the Intelligence Oversight, to the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense.
John has also served as a professor of law for several law schools, including Florida A&M University, where he currently teaches. John holds a Ph.D. in anthropological linguistics from Stanford University and a J.D. in Law from Yale University. John also holds a Master of Business and Public Administration, a Master of Arts in English as a Second Language, and a Master of Science in Audiology and Speech Pathology.