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Monday, April 16, 2018

Legal Ed's Past

Last week, I suggested that there have been a lot of changes to legal education over the last century (and much of that has been much more recent). I wanted to offer a slightly contrarian perspective to the "Legal Ed's Future" series that Dean Dan Rodriguez so thoughtfully compiled. That is: Legal Ed's Past.

Each change I identified (depending on your math, around 38 of them, of varying degrees of significance, of course) came because of something. Something prompted "legal education," to the extent we can define it, to... well, do something. Respond to a perceived problem. Act.

Before moving too quickly (more on this adverb below) into the future, it might be worthwhile to consider changes from the past, and evaluating whether they are working effectively. While there is often a race to the next big change, there is, in my view, extraordinarily little (or, at least, we might agree, relatively little) critical evaluation of changes in the past. Taking the time to evaluate whether these changes are as effective as we believe them to be, or whether they are achieving our desired goals, is a worthwhile endeavor.

I'll start with a few changes. One concern, at least one I've thought about, is that it may be that we are distracting our students with ever more things. The simplicity of earlier curricula has given way to increasingly-frenzied schedules. (In my location in greater Los Angeles, for instance, it’s not uncommon for my students to commute more than an hour a day for their externships.) Intensive courses, travel to advocacy competitions, periodic interim in-class assessments, meetings with administrators—the list grows seemingly each year. But as bar passage rates decline (not always explainable by declines in credentials), or if student attendance and participation may be suffering, might distraction or being stretched too thin be components in challenges facing law students today?

Or what about the single biggest complaint that I hear from employers time and again when I ask about what we as educators can do to help prepare our students for the profession—writing? Is the labor-intensive work of writing and editing—not to mention the labor-intensive work of teaching and grading those things—given insufficient attention or, worse, being pushed behind other expectations for our students? (Ed.: Rambling blog posts don’t help!) If the big ideas to change legal education aren't addressing the big complaint from employers, then are we missing something? And why is it that our existing changes--including robust legal writing courses and more elective upper-division drafting courses--have not been a sufficient cure?

One more: "practice-ready" graduates. We've saturated the curriculum with, as I mentioned, clinical courses, experiential courses, simulated courses, practicums, externships, and part-time jobs. Aren't these making our students "practice-ready"? If not, why is the answer, more or different? Are some of these working better than others? Do employers think some of these are working better than others? Recent graduates?

My confession is... I'm not confident on how to answer many of these questions. I have some hunches, but they are just that. Which leads me to two things that, I think, law schools should be doing before instituting new changes or anticipating how to develop programs for the future.

First, a very hard internal assessment of existing programs should take place. That includes evaluating what each program is supposed to do and whether it’s achieving what it was designed to do—or, if it’s not doing that, whether it can be improved, altered, or, perhaps, shut down. That probably includes some longitudinal studies of alumni. But these seem to be exceedingly rare. (One rare exception, in my mind: an important survey was a 2011 survey of George Washington University alumni on the most valuable elective courses. Others, like After the JD, have been valuable, but often at a macr0 level.)

Second, schools should reexamination the role of administrators. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in administrators in higher education generally and in law schools (at least when compared to faculty) specifically. Administrators (in my humble opinion) ought to view their objectives as reducing barriers or complications in students’ lives—greasing the skids, if you will, to make the student experience more seamless and providing greater opportunities to engage in the more meaningful activities, from deep thinking to rigorous writing to professional excellence. To the extent that administrators are adding more requirements to students (ed.: or faculty?)—taking precious hours from their days through lunch-hour presentations, reporting requirements, or other compulsory time-consuming activities, for instance—the law school does a disservice to its students. That’s not to say that students might need something new that hasn’t been done. But that should go through rigorous vetting and should only consume student time once the administration has figured out how to minimize the burden on student time.

Now, to "quickly," as in, "Before moving too quickly...." Many from the Legal Ed's Future posts might laugh out loud at this preface. The posts often had an urgency to them, critical of existing legal education perspectives and structures--change is too slow, the market is changing faster than legal education, we risk being left behind, etc.

I confess, I'm more Burkean when it comes to these matters. I think we may (may!) often get more mileage out of doing an existing thing better than chasing a new thing to incorporate into our catalog. I think that many of the changes over the last century reflect an episodic and, accordingly, incomplete view of what legal education ought to be. As each new thing is added or changed, it is usually in pursuit of a particular end that is no longer in sight, or that the means adopted do not meaningfully address that desired end. Legal education now contains vestigial changes of added cost and complexity with dubious value. Before lunging ahead into more such stuff, then, I think a little caution and perspective is in order.

Sure, such words can be the words of the obstructionist who demands "caution" as a means for inaction or to protect the status quo. But, for me, at least, I ask for a little charity. I'm not in a kind of "get off my lawn," "there's only one way to do things, the way we've always done them." I am whole-heartedly willing to embrace changes to legal education when a sufficient case has been made (and it's my instinct, occasionally with a little evidence, that many such changes in the last century have been for the better--for instance, moving away from a mostly-required curriculum where we expect students to memorize most of the existing law gave way once we saw the increasing complexity of law, the variety of ways it might be practiced, and increased specialization--even if I wonder whether our existing curriculum is the right balance of stuff). but I'd also like to look a little more comprehensively and with a greater appreciation of history than, I think, may be occurring in many of our well-intentioned and well-meaning debates.

Posted by Derek Muller on April 16, 2018 at 09:16 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink

Comments

Hi, Derek. I agree that we need to be more efficient with our shrinking faculty resources--too much of them just evaporate.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Apr 17, 2018 7:14:01 AM

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