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Thursday, September 04, 2014

A New Vision For Legal Education—Starting From Day One

Under the theory that change brings opportunity, here begins a series of posts with some examples of what others are doing and some ideas of how we could adapt them to our own use.  And what better place to start than at the beginning.

Plato tells us that ““You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken....” yet it has taken a long time for professional education in the United States to take these words seriously.    In our own field of legal education, “Day One” ( which I appreciate is pretty much over for this year in the United States) in just about every classroom in the country starts with students reading a case they don’t understand, being called on by an authority figure and often being humiliated.   Not surprisingly, after three years of this we see evidence that while students are energized and invigorated, others suffer actual harm.   Larry Krieger and his team have been telling us that for years.   Here are some very thoughtful comments by Susannah Pollvogt about the effect of the “curve.”   And an important study by Ruth Ann McKinney.

  Moreover, there is no evidence that starting like this is beneficial, because there is no counter example.  Every lawyer alive was trained in more or less the same way, as were the two generations before them.

Medical school, the curriculum with which I am most familiar,  faced forced change about 30 years ago—the explosion in the volume of medical knowledge and the demand that doctors better at communicating with patients, they had to start in the middle—when the doctor met the patient, not when the disease started on the cellular level—and design a curriculum that created a framework for supporting knowledge both about the origin of disease but also about its diagnosis and treatment.  So they changed their curriculum.  Dramatically. 

We cannot simply graft a medical model onto what we are doing—because medical schools have something we lack, a government subsidized source of real people to practice on.  But we can start by looking at some of the things they do from day one, and compare them to what we do on day one.

At this point, just about every medical school in the U.S., and many overseas, start engaging students faster into the process of learning by creating opportunities for students to interact with patients immediately.  From “day one” as many medical schools like Johns Hopkins, Wisconsin and NYU,  now boast.  That became the model for a new kind of curriculum   where students go back and forth between class and clinic.

Note, these aren’t situations where first day medical students are treating patients-or even touching them.  I’m not suggesting that we adapt an even more expensive model where each law student is immersed in a practice setting from day one and acquires information as she needs it (although certainly, Steiner or Montessori Law School would be a wonderful experiment).  The task here is to introduce law students to clients—not necessarily to turn every class into a clinic.  In fact, one of the more frustrating aspects of the current calls for legal change is the implication that the existing professoriate has nothing to offer—and must somehow be replaced by individuals who can somehow more effectively make students “practice ready.”  This isn’t true, nor is it true that every Contracts Professor has to be able to teach drafting and every Torts Professor to teach how to cross-examine an expert witness.  There are places for many kinds of expertise—and a law faculty is if nothing else a collection of experts.  But there are things we all could do, regardless of the path that brought us to teaching, and we should consider how doing them might enrich our classrooms.

So what could we do to engage students earlier—here are some things that law professors are already doing (and by no means is it necessary to wait for "day one" to come around again to try some of these things)

  • Bring clients to class.  Have them tell their stories about a contract gone wrong, or an accident for which they could not get compensation.  Let those who are willing share with the students how their lawyer was helpful--or not.  What they wish she had understood.
  • Arrange for lawyers to visit classes with clients—to share their perspectives on a “routine” personal injury or divorce case
  • Bring students as observers to court, to intake centers at legal services offices, to staff meetings at law firms.
  • Incorporate narratives about what it’s like to be a client—here are some examples of how (and why) to use narratives from Binny Miller and Anthony Alfieri,(although consider that “narratives” can be unreliable and, as  John B. Mitchell tells us, have a “dark side” if viewed uncritically).

In the coming days and weeks, I hope to post more examples of what other professional schools are doing—not to suggest they are better than us but rather because circumstances have caused them to change faster than us.  And because I have great faith in the ability of law professors to take these examples as a basis of considering changes that makes sense for them based on their own subject matter and teaching expertise.  I will also open up the comments later so that those interested in sharing what they doing can do so.  Meanwhile, feel free to email and I will post the ideas that come in.

Posted by Jennifer Bard on September 4, 2014 at 03:12 PM | Permalink


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