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Saturday, August 05, 2006

More Advice for Law Students: It's Not You, It's Us

I like the advice to new law students from Orin and Brannon, but I would give a somewhat different twist to the “everyone feels lost” theme.  As I often tell first-years, they are dealing with a standard model of legal education that is poorly designed to facilitate their learning.  (With apologies to George Costanza, “it’s not you, it’s us.”)  The first semester of law school is not really about mastering any particular content, but acquiring certain essential lawyering skills: how to read a case, how to read a statute, how to reason analogically, how to construct a syllogism, etc.  Learning complex skills like these requires regular practice, preferably with individualized guidance and feedback from someone else who has already mastered the skills.  The standard first-year section in the large lecture hall, however, is incompatible with individualized teaching and encourages passivity by students.  Moreover, the hide-the-ball teaching methods that many of us picked up when we were students don’t help, either.  In the absence of any positive feedback, the feelings of being lost and inadequate can easily become self-perpetuating.  All of this, I think, lends greater urgency to Orin’s point about spending a little bit of time with professors outside the classroom.  Students, make sure you get some individualized feedback for yourself—the earlier in the semester, the better.  I would, for instance, ask a professor to read one of my case briefs in the first couple weeks of the semester.  This provides a nice opportunity for a focused conversation that is likely to include both some positive feedback and some tips for improvement.  (And prawfs, I think, should do their part by affirmatively encouraging first-years to submit a case brief for such informal feedback.)  In any event, being upfront with students about the deficiencies of the standard legal education model may not only save them from getting too down on themselves, but also help them to see what steps they can take to mitigate those deficiencies.

Posted by Michael O'Hear on August 5, 2006 at 11:06 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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"I'm grateful that you recognize the deficiencies of legal education. But shouldn't law professors start teaching the law rather than just encouraging students to mitigate the effects of not being taught?"

Well, consider what practicing lawyers expect out of continuing legal education.

It isn't socratic method, and they are often very, very intent on learning the material and on using it (I am).

However, teaching with real feedback, and engaging a class, is difficult. I've done it with 8-12 post graduate students. But once you break twenty or so, you can't do weekly feedback and correction and personal interaction with every student every week.

Some really good points here.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Aug 26, 2006 12:14:28 AM

Brian Leiter has some interesting comments about the value of the Socratic method (which he describes as a "pedagogical disaster") here. I tend to agree. In my experience, the value of class discussion is inversely related to the number of people in a class.

Posted by: Dave | Aug 7, 2006 6:35:43 PM

I went to Cornell Law School in 1988, at a time when Cornell was strictly Socratic, but other schools like were moving towards a more flexible or progressive approach. Still, I am not sure of what is considered the right way to do Socratic method? Is it to put one victim, er, student on display such that everyone watches? To take responses from lots of people in the class?

Also, does a skilled professor have the ability to do Socratic method on everyone. When I was in law school, none of the professors would call on me even if my hand was the only one waving in the class. I was a little outspoken back then and I guess they assumed that I would not respond properly to the Socratic method so they did not bother. Shouldn't a professor properly trained in Socratic be able to use it to teach even the unconventional students? And if law schools are moving away from Socratic, is it now getting to be a lost art?

Posted by: Carolyn Elefant | Aug 7, 2006 6:06:01 PM

It's not quite as effective as really individualized feedback, but it's also not quite as time intensive. With my criminal law class, I post sample questions on TWEN, and allow students to submit sample answers. I post very detailed feedback on those answers and take follow up questions on that feedback, too.

Posted by: Marcia McCormick | Aug 6, 2006 10:53:10 PM

I usually have about 80 in my Crim Law class.

Posted by: Michael O'Hear | Aug 6, 2006 2:12:17 PM

In 1L Con Law, I do two things somewhat similar to what Michael and Orin both suggested.

First, halfway through the semester, I give a practice exam (an exam question from a prior year) and while I dont give it a "grade," I do handwrite feedback on each exam.

Second, each student has one day in the semester when s/he has to write a roughly three-page "response paper" on any aspect of that day's assignment. I grade those check, check-plus, or check-minus. Some papers are out of left field (which makes for interesting class discussion!), but others are standard case analyses in which I spot good and bad legal thinking (and I handwrite comments noting that). They're not as useful as "practice briefings/tests" as Michael's assignments, but I figure the practice exam serves that purpose.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Aug 6, 2006 11:51:23 AM

Very thoughtful response, Michael. Thanks.

I'm curious -- how large is your crim class?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 5, 2006 7:13:50 PM

Thanks for the response, Orin. I like fake exams, too, and have used them in the past. More recently, I have switched to a different method of providing midsemester feedback. I give my first-year Criminal Law students a four-page writing assignment. They are required to submit a first draft to me, and I do give them individualized feedback--yes, it's very time-consuming, but, I think, worth it. This, not comments on case briefs, is what I regard as my principle vehicle for feedback. That said, I do think briefing cases can be very beneficial for first-semester students if it's done the right way (and I do spend a little bit of class time teaching how to brief cases, so when I encourage students to do it I am not just leaving them to their own devices). Finally (sorry for taking your points in reverse order), my comment on passivity was that it is encouraged by large sections, not Socratic instruction per se. I agree that Socratic, done the right way, can help make a big section feel much smaller. But there is that tricky qualifier, "done the right way"--I've been at this a few years now, and I, for one, would not yet claim mastery of the Method.

Posted by: Michael O'Hear | Aug 5, 2006 5:33:14 PM

Guys, guys, please. With all this advice on the blogosphere telling entering students to go to office hours, some students may actually -- drumroll, please -- come to office hours. And that, like practice exam grading, takes time -- time away from the things in the job that truly matter. (Hint: teaching those pesky little, tuition-paying, attention-hungry lawyer want-to-bes just ain't one of them.) But that said, thinking about ways students can be helped is lovely. It really is.

Posted by: Anon. | Aug 5, 2006 3:15:13 PM


I'm not sure I understand why traditional teaching encourages passivity. I tend to think it's the opposite: the Socratic Method, when done effectively, encourages every student to be very active in class. Of course, maybe the real question is how to do the Socratic Method effectively.

I'm also not sure about professors reviewing students' case briefs, for the reason that it would seem to encourage students to focus a bit too much on case briefs. I think students should jot down notes about each case, but I tend to think that a formal case brief is often less than helpful. I would worry that having official approval of case briefs would overemphasize their importance.

The better answer, I think: fake exams, short optional tests given to students after a few weeks of class to acclimate them to law school examinations. I have done this and released a model answer, although probably the most effective way (albeit very time consuming) would be to "grade" the fake exam and offer individualized feedback to every student about their performance.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 5, 2006 3:03:33 PM

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin has added more (good) advice. Among other things, I tell my first year students to (a) keep reading good fiction and (b) find places to socialize over appropriate hopped adult beverages that don't come in plastic cups.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Aug 5, 2006 1:14:08 PM

I'm grateful that you recognize the deficiencies of legal education. But shouldn't law professors start teaching the law rather than just encouraging students to mitigate the effects of not being taught?

Posted by: Guest | Aug 5, 2006 12:48:42 PM

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