Dental and legal theory

Years ago, when I was caught in the post-college headwinds of 2009, I entertained the thought of law school. I knew two people who had gotten into T1 schools and seemed to be enjoying it, so I looked into the application process and outlook. I soon came across a site called Third Tier Reality that was dedicated to shaming law schools that had admitted so many students only to leave them saddled with debt and few career prospects.

One of the posts I remember was about comparing dental schools and law schools, particularly how the latter were obsessed with rankings and the former were not. There are also relatively few dental schools in the U.S., whereas a law school requires virtually no infrastructure other than a lecture hall and library. The comparison honed in on how law schools were flooding the market with J.D.s while not ensuring that everyone had the education or guidance needed for a remunerative career afterward.

Years later, a comment on the site also pointed out how weird legal education is compared to fields like dentistry and medicine:

“What most people do not know, unless you have gone to law school is that law school teaches very little about the actual practice of law …  If dental schools were like law school, dentists would not know how to do a filling when they graduated.”

Dental theory? It’s a thing, but hardly something that by being mastered by itself would qualify someone to enter the world as a dentist. Whereas lawyers learn the nuts and bolts of legal practice on the job and over the course of many years, it is weird (and more than a little horrifying, if one has the imagination for it) to think about dentists doing a filling or root canal for the first time on a real patient, having only been acquainted with theory beforehand.

Which brings me to a passage that made me smile, from David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, a novel I just finished:

“This story concerns a man who is presented as the most phenomenally successful theoretical dentist of the twentieth century.”

“Theoretical dentist?”

“A scientist specializing in dental theory and in high-level abstract reasoning from empirical cases involving anything at all dental.”


Another cool parallel between the dental and legal worlds involves their respective admissions bubbles. Dental school enrollment surged throughout the 1970s, but collapsed in the 1980s, causing some universities to close their schools. Fluoridation of water, high debt loads, and lack of federal funding all contributed to the collapse. Law school enrollment peaked a few years ago, post-recession, and by 2013 volume had dropped one-quarter from 2010. Hard times for theory all around, whether dental or legal.

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