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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Should we be teaching more?

There has been a lot of conversation about the existence of a legal education bubble, and I have zero expertise on those dynamics.  I do know quite a bit about me, though, so my thoughts at these times naturally turn to the question, what would the post-bubble legal education world have to look like for me to jump back into private practice?

Now perhaps the post-bubble world means non-existence for some law schools, particularly the new ones, which could hasten my return to practice.  I don't think we're in any danger on that front at St. Thomas (having raised nearly $100 million in our short lifespan), so my mind turns to the reasons why life as a law prof is like having found "a loophole in life."  In particular, what could make it seem less like a "loophole" and more like, to put it delicately, what is known as "a job?"

[At this point, I would like my dean -- or anyone who might become my dean down the road -- to stop reading.]  My sense, if my views are remotely typical, is that law schools have quite a bit of cost-saving leeway before they start losing faculty back to the practice world. At St. Thomas, our teaching load is 10 credits per year.  That was a factor (though by no means the most important factor) in getting me to come here from St. John's, where the teaching load was 12 credits.  But even at 12 credits, folks have plenty of time to engage in scholarship throughout the year.  If my school raised teaching loads to 16 credits, would I bolt to a firm?  My mom is a tenured professor at a liberal arts college, and she teaches 18 credits every year.  She still has time to work on scholarship during the semester, though not nearly as much as I do.  Would I be unhappy to lose that extra time?  Yes.  Would I leave teaching?  No.  Does the value that flows from my extra time for scholarship accrue to the school so as to justify having to hire more faculty to cover courses?  I'd like to think so, but I'm not sure.  If teaching loads became so heavy that I had no significant time to engage in scholarship outside the summer, would I bolt?  I would seriously consider it.  Though I enjoy the teaching, I would not stay in teaching simply for the teaching.

Could my school cut my pay and still keep me around?  In past years, I would probably have given a reflexive "yes," since if we cared a whole lot about money, we wouldn't be teaching.  But as I'm starting to do those online college savings calculators, I will admit that I do have a breaking point on money.  I'm not sure where it is, but it's there.

I think there's more room to maneuver on teaching loads, but the obvious caveat is that it depends on what competitor schools are doing.  For the thirty or so schools that purport to be in the top 10, I wouldn't expect much movement on teaching loads given competitive pressures.  But isn't it reasonably foreseeable over the next ten years or so that, faced with significant downward pressure on tuition, a good number of schools outside the top tier will take serious looks at increasing our teaching loads?  And once a critical mass heads that direction, is there any reason why a dean figuring out how to make ends meet shouldn't join them?

Posted by Rob Vischer on February 10, 2009 at 11:14 AM | Permalink


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Though insane hours teaching are still fulfilling - which makes a huge difference, if not all the difference.

Posted by: Brian J. Foley | Feb 10, 2009 11:18:11 PM

I'd imagine that for a lot of people, the question surrounding an increased hours-taught requirement would be whether there's a concomitant reduced expectation of the amount of scholarship produced. A rebalancing might bother some people based on their view of the professor's role (on a sliding scale); a pure increase would likely reduce the lifestyle differences (insane hours) between teaching and working at a large firm.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 10, 2009 5:25:52 PM

I am aware of St. Thomas from having been on the board of the International Centre for Law and Healing led by David Link and talked to him as he began the effort to establish the law school there. I actually co-facilitated a weekend retreat for midwest law school deans and faculty for the center at the Fetzer Institute on "Reforming Legal Education".

I wanted to respond by saying it isn't just a question of increasing the hours.

According to the MacCrate Report, the first issue is whether law school professors are teaching the ten fundamental skills (having found that only two are taught) and the four fundamental values needed to be a competent practitioner and the second issue is how are the courses being taught? What is the teaching method employed? Does the school rely primarily on the socratic method with a few clinics or has it begun to infuse the curriculum with experiential/simulatiion courses, non-clinics where students are presented with a concept, given an opportunity to perform and given feedback and evaluated?

I would also suggest that the time devoted to scholarship might very well be reduced but only because staff who have in the past taken over the duties of the faculty might be eliminated. What is likely to occur is that students will be assigned a faculty member whose duty it is to be the mentee's primary professional development guide and career planner.

The duty of the faculty member during the two years (the third year of law school will soon be eliminated as an acknowledged waste of money) will be to meet with each mentee twice a month to help with coursework, help the mentee choose a field of interest, give financial guidance, suggest an appropriate summer position, provide contacts for the mentee, suggest courses for the next year and revisit the process leading to the mentee finding a position consistent with the mentee's professional goals and personal values (one of MacCrate's four fundamental values).

Should you be interested in reading more in this line you could take a look at a recent article in which I propose that I be appointed the Law School Industry Czar
and an older article entitled Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places: Choosing the Best Law School.

Comments are welcome on the blog or by e-mail

Posted by: Ron Fox | Feb 10, 2009 4:06:49 PM

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