Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Changing Law School

A job candidate today called our attention to a study called "Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The study observes—and this is hardly a secret—that "legal education typically pays relatively little attention to direct training in professional practice." In this regard, law school is unlike other postgraduate education, particularly medical school. My understanding is that after a year or two of medical school, medical students actually know how to do some real, useful, professional things—say, how to set a broken bone. A second year law student, by contrast, might have no idea how to file an actual complaint or interview a client. The Carnegie study suggests that law schools need an "integrated curriculum" that teaches doctrine, skills, and ethics, and in which all faculty teach both doctrinal and practical courses.

Sounds lovely, doesn't it? People are always encouraging change in law school education. And it's not that the Carnegie study's suggestions are so bad. But I do have two fundamental problems with them.

First of all, I have always disagreed with critics who complain that law school is disconnected from the development of actual legal practice skills. It's not that the critics are substantively incorrect—law school is rather disconnected from actual legal practice skills—but I have never regarded that as a terrible problem. A lawyer has her whole life to learn how to practice. But never again will she have the luxury of taking the time necessary to think about big theoretical and doctrinal issues. A lot of legal practice is a continual series of meeting deadlines. The three years of law school are a magical opportunity to think about issues. Sure, lawyers think about issues too, but rarely with the time and breadth available in law school. I regard that as good, not bad.

A second fundamental issue with the Carnegie report and with other big-picture plans to revamp law school is that the incentives are all wrong. I'm willing to assume that some of the suggestions in the Carnegie report could improve student experiences (although I didn't see much data to support this claim). But it would be a lot of work. And it would be a lot of work related to teaching. And work related to teaching is not rewarded.

That's a fundamental problem with legal education. I happen to teach at a school that takes teaching more seriously than any other school I know of the same or better quality. We have a culture of working hard at teaching and doing it well. I'll match my teaching evaluations against anybody's. And teaching well is intrinsically satisfying; I enjoy doing it. But the career value? Basically, zero. It certainly does nothing for one's reputation in the legal academy generally. People at other schools can't even observe your teaching; they can only read your scholarship. Indeed, some people seem to think that if you're a really good teacher, that's a negative, because it means you must not be spending enough time on scholarship.

So I would say that the Carnegie study's suggestions can't possibly be achieved without a fundamental change in the reward system for legal academics. And it's hard for me to see how that change could occur. Even if an individual school chooses to reward good teaching, it can't affect the external incentives that academia as a whole creates.

Posted 2-13-07 4:20 pm

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find your notion of "reward" interesting.
Long ago my former law Dean and I had a discussion about what was then called clinical studies. It was my contention that the role of the law school was to provide the theory and the law firm or Bar the training in the practice of law. I did not think of it until reading your comment, but the firm that trains well will achieve a reward because its lawyers will be more valuable. Or at least know how to bill and collect (which, come to think about it, I wish was covered by a law school class.)