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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Update on "Teaching Legal Ethics in a Recession"

I wanted to put up a quick teaching note, especially for those who teach Legal Profession/Legal Ethics courses, since I talked a while back about teaching legal ethics in a recession, or more broadly in a period in which there are serious questions about the legal economy and about law schools themselves. 

As I said in that discussion, last year I found that the very fact of the economy made many students resist the entire class altogether.  I use a problem-based method more or less, and the students 1) felt alienated from the exercise of pretending to be a lawyer, when jobs themselves were so scarce; and 2) were more inclined to choose courses of conduct that would make sure they didn't lose a client or their jobs, even if that conduct skirted ethical lines or might be harmful to their reputation and career in the long run.  So this year, I started on the first day of class by discussing the economy, the law schools, and students' own hopes and expectations before and since entering law school; that included assigning relevant internet material about the legal economy and about recent critiques of law school dishonesty and so on.  I made a kind of bargain with them: I would make sure those issues were not forgotten or ignored in class, and would bring their complaints about the Law School itself to the administration; and they would try to enter into the spirit of the enterprise, thinking not only about their short-term prospects but about what might help build their reputations and make their work more rewarding over the long term. 

I kept my end of the bargain, but more importantly the students kept up their end quite splendidly. 

I've just gotten through grading their exams and short-papers (I had each student, over the course of the semester, write a five-page single-spaced paper engaging in deep analysis and reflection concerning one of the assigned problems), and they were of very high quality.  So was class discussion.  For those of us who grade on a curve, it can sometimes be easy to forget that our goal is to actually teach, not just to assign grades.  This year, regardless of what the curve says, it was evident to me that the students had really grasped and dug into the material.  It was a very rewarding experience for me, I must say, and the credit goes to them.  I'm not willing to draw too many conclusions from this experience, but I will say a couple of things:

1) For many students, having a professor who actually talks about the legal economy, the general economy, the job hunt, and problems with law school in general and their own law school in particular, is like finding water in the desert.  I don't mean that in a self-aggrandizing way; the point is that students are keenly aware of these issues and would like to feel that someone is listening to them and their concerns.  Talking about these issues, and being willing to report students' concerns "up the chain," was in my view not only relevant and part of my duty as a teacher, but also a fundamental aspect of the mutual trust and commitment that I felt in this classroom last semester.

2) Talking about these issues, and even reading fairly cynical Internet sources, didn't turn my students into Legal Ethics cynics or cynics about the law and legal education in general.  That doesn't mean they don't have complaints, or that they aren't hunting hard for scarce jobs.  It's just that 1) actually talking about these issues helped the students feel they weren't being ignored, and 2) by putting them on the table, students were also willing to think about the building of a career, a professional identity, and a reputation over the long run. 

3) This is a narrow and obvious pedagogical point, but 100-percent MPRE-like finals are a terrible idea for Legal Profession classes (just as 100 percent finals in general are a terrible idea for other law school classes).  The students really came alive in their short papers, digging deep into particualr problems, using a variety of sources well, and often adding valuable personal reflections based on their own experience in the law or elsewhere. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 18, 2012 at 01:05 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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