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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Should Colleges Offer a "Law School Course" for Prospective Law Students?

Gobs of 1Ls started law school across the country about a month ago. Before then, they probably watched several legal movies and/or TV shows. They might have leafed through Scott Turow's One L. They could have tried to crack the law in a nutshell series. A few might have tried to get to maybe. Some might have attended a law school class or two as part of an admitted student weekend or otherwise. Some majored in pre-law or took law-related courses in college, but those courses probably bore little resemblance to law school courses.

During orientation and the first few weeks of classes, these new 1Ls are exposed to many new things: IRACbriefing cases, and the Socratic Method, to name a few. For many (most?), that 1st semester is a perpetual game of catch-up, and the pieces of the puzzle often don't come together until after 1Ls have taken their first (or even second) set of exams, which are unlike any exams they have taken before.

So, here's a question: Should colleges offer a "law school course" for prospective law students that resembles and actual law school course? 

Should Colleges Offer a "Law School Course" for Prospective Law Students?
pollcode.com free polls 

Here's the way I envision it: A professor from the law school connected to the college or a local law school would teach the course. The course could either cover a core law school subject or a "fun" subject like sports law, entertainment law, or First Amendment. It's not the subject, though, that's important. The professor would teach the course like a regular law school course except at a slower pace and with more exposition. It would sort of be like a DVD commentary track.

In initial class sessions, the professor would provide an introduction to the American legal system. She would explain how to brief cases and later turn those briefs into outlines. The professor would maybe bring a few law students to class or show a recording of part of a law school class to demonstrate the Socratic Method. All of this would take several weeks, but after those first several weeks, the course would start to resemble a typical law school course. 

At about the midpoint of the course, the professor would give students an ungraded midterm that looks like a law school exam. The professor would explain IRAC and how to write a law school exam. After the students take the exam, the professor would review their answers and give them feedback. A model answer would be discussed in class. At the end of the semester, students would take a standard-issue law school exam.

I think that offering a "law school course" for prospective law students would benefit both the students and the professor. Students who took the class would be (much) better prepared for 1L year. Their anxiety levels would be lower because they would have a better idea of what to expect. Of course, some students' anxiety levels would rise while taking the course, and they would realize that law school was not for them. But better they learn that then instead of after they started law school. 

I also think that the course would benefit the professor teaching the class. I think that it's easy for professors to fall into the trap of "assuming facts not in evidence." In other words, we often assume that students know more than they do and jump from A to E without sufficiently explaining B, C, and D. I think this especially plagues those who bounce between teaching 1L and upper-level classes. Whenever working with non-law students, I think that professors really realize the value of methodically breaking things down and offering clear explications of complex topics. I am currently working with some high school students on a research paper, and I feel that this work has led me to re-calibrate the way that I am teaching this semester in a good way. I imagine that teaching a "law school course" to college students would have a similar effect.

So, is offering a "law school course" for prospective law students a good idea? A bad idea? Something some colleges are already doing?

-Colin Miller

Posted by Evidence ProfBlogger on September 27, 2011 at 08:50 AM | Permalink


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Our experiences with AP may well differ, but I found them to be much more focused on giving advanced students the opportunity to get ahead on substantive *material* rather than giving them a preview of college pedagogy techniques. My AP courses, at least, still met every day; often had a more high-school evaluation scheme (much more weight put on homework and frequent quizzes, less on exams and long writing assignments), took attendance, had a high ratio of in class to out of class expectations, etc.

But I guess I'll revise my original statement and say this: I think there's definitely room for an AP-style system that allows students to get law school credit while still enrolled in undergraduate institutions. However, I think such a system should focus on substantive learning, and any exposure to pedagogical techniques should be a secondary matter.

Really, what it comes down to is that generally well-educated people should be able to enter law school and do well, without specific technical training in undergraduate institutions. I don't see a justification in law for moving towards the med school model.

And so, if the way law schools are currently teaching isn't working well for 1Ls, law schools should look into revising their own pedagogy, rather than assuming that all of their students will have the foresight or opportunity to get training in specific things before going to law school.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 29, 2011 12:22:05 PM

Colin, it's not a bad idea at all. Too many law students learn the hard way --as in not doing well on their first semester exams-- that they don't really understand how to read cases and write answers to hypothetical questions. And I don't think a week-long orientation will take care of the problem. You need to practice what you've been told to do over time and the first semester of law school is overwhelming in so many different ways.

I just don't see how it could be implemented at most undergraduate institutions.

A few more thoughts. Many undergraduate institutions aren't connected or don't have access to law schools and therefore, won't have a law professor to teach such a course. Many political science departments do not have faculty members who teach public law classes the way that a law professor would teach it. Many of those departments do not really care about preparing their undergraduates for law school. In fact, many of them --and yes, I'm talking about research institutions-- don't care that much about undergraduate education more generally.

Posted by: Ronald C. Den Otter | Sep 28, 2011 12:47:45 PM

Andrew, that's a fair point with regard to high school, but isn't what I'm proposing sort of like Advanced Placement courses in high school? From what I recall, high school teachers taught these like college courses, and I felt more prepared for college having taken them. Indeed, if you do well enough on AP exams, you actually get college credit for the class.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Sep 28, 2011 6:58:45 AM

And since the transition to undergraduate life is tough, we should have college-like courses in high school. And high school-like courses in middle school. And...

All in all, I don't think this would serve much of a purpose. The resources are already widely available for undergraduates to learn about how law school functions, if they're interested in doing so, and most schools probably allow undergraduates to take or audit courses in their law school, if the students want to. Given that, I don't see much point in confusing the role of undergraduate education and law school, and pushing the responsibilities of law schools to teach their students how to function in the law school environment back onto undergraduate institutions.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 28, 2011 2:15:17 AM

Most good colleges have a con law course that's taught like a regular con law course. At Duke, where I went, Chemerinsky used to teach it before he left for UC Irvine. The only difference was the lack of cold calling. But really, there's no need to prepare people for cold calling when it doesn't play any real role in grading.

Other than that, I would strenuously, strenuously object to IRAC actually being taught. It's a terrible way to write exams, and people schooled in IRAC tend to let the method creep into their memos, briefs and, if they clerk, opinions.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Sep 28, 2011 12:43:49 AM

Anon 3:56 - rather than adding the remedial courses you propose to the 1L curriculum, I think it'd be better for law schools to adopt prerequisite course requirements, as med schools have. Med schools require substantive undergraduate coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, and math. If law schools were to adopt a similar requirement, universally mandating coursework in history, economics, political science, and perhaps a course in formal logic, I think it would allow the law school curriculum to be taught more rigorously and rewardingly.

Anon 11:16: it sounds as though, unlike Turow, you didn't go to HLS. A+s were extremely rarely awarded under the HLS letter-grade system (recently abolished). While there were lots of outlines from previous years floating around, most were not A+ or A caliber, because most students did not receive A+s or As. Until a couple of years ago, HLS grades were A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C, D, F. Most people received A-s, B+s, and Bs, and I'd estimate that most readily available outlines were at the B+ level. I also assure you that HLS courses were not taught at the high school level and were not a piece of cake. Similarly, for HLS students, there is comparatively little challenge - even today - in finding a job and managing their law school debt. It sounds as though you went to a very different law school than did Turow - one that posed a wholly distinct set of challenges.

Posted by: PreLawCourses | Sep 27, 2011 4:20:32 PM

Rather than add a summer course, shouldn't the 1L curriculum change? Instead of 2 semesters, how about 3 trimesters? In the 1st, every student would take:

civ pro (not jurisdiction, but procedure)
intro to law (incl. lots of legal vocabulary)
U.S. history (only what's relevant, i.e. 1789, 1868, New Deal)
economics (esp. agency, moral hazard, Coase)

The next 2 trimesters would cover the remainder of the 1L curriculum.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 27, 2011 3:56:05 PM

p.s.- that is the caee, is suspect, because a lot of students seem to make the decision to go to law school at the last minute.

In many political science departments, those who teach public law classes don't have J.D.s and therefore, haven't had the law school experience and are less likely to teach the way that a law professor would teach (Socratic method, hypothetical questions on exams, and so on).

Posted by: Ronald C. Den Otter | Sep 27, 2011 3:15:24 PM

"But I think that most anyone who planned to go to law school would want to take a class to see exactly what they were getting into."

Oddly enough, Colin, in my experience teaching undergraduate public law courses at four different universities over a ten-year period, this often isn't true.

Posted by: Ronald C. Den Otter | Sep 27, 2011 3:12:22 PM

I took 2 semesters of Con Law as an undergraduate, taught by a Political Science Phd/JD professor. He used a normal law school casebook, case-based assignments and issue-spotting midterm and final exam (though not the Socratic method of teaching). I enjoyed it. I can't imagine what I would have done if I hadn't, though.

I like this idea of seeing a law school style/content course, but I do object to thinking it should be a "fun" subject like first amendment, entertainment or sport law. With all due respect, while it sounds fun to you, those are upper level courses that rely on students already knowing a significant body of law. It is hard enough to teach students as 2Ls, when they may not have had exposure to enough legal content to have any context for the industry-specific or otherwise advanced law they are learning. It would be extremely inappropriate to try to teach the case method or other aspects of the law school course via any of those subject matters/courses.

Posted by: Anon Prof | Sep 27, 2011 2:59:28 PM

I would think a better goal for an undergrad course would be to expose students to what studying law is like so that they could decide whether they enjoyed it enough to want to do more of it. My impression is that many colleges offer undergraduate law courses taught out of casebooks, often by instructors with legal expertise. As a sophomore in college, I took a course in constitutional law, using the Gunther casebook. (Ten years later, I took con law at Columbia, using the same casebook. The substance of the constitution as interpreted by the Court had changed markedly in that particular decade, but that was the most notable difference.)

Posted by: Jessica Litman | Sep 27, 2011 2:51:00 PM

I also see the value of the proposed course as not just giving students a leg up on law school, but on informing whether they even want to go. If you hate reading cases and discussing them in an undergraduate environment, that's a pretty good indicator you'll hate it in a law school environment too. Conversely, if you love it and are good at it, that's a better sign you'll do well in law school than a lot of what law school applicants tend to go on these days.

Posted by: Kim | Sep 27, 2011 2:43:51 PM

Orin, that's a good point, but I question the effectiveness of the current model. I think that orientation/1L year eventually gets law students up to speed on how to be law students and take law school exams. From what I've seen, though, for most students, all of this doesn't sink in until after 1st semester final exams at the earliest. There are just so many new things thrown at law students in their first several weeks/months that are different from anything they've seen before.

The goal of my proposed undergraduate course would not be to displace what goes on during orientation/1L year. It would just be to give undergraduate student a basic understanding of what makes law school tick so that they have a pre-existing base of knowledge when everything new is being tossed at them.

As for who would take the class, certainly some students would want to take it to get a leg up on their fellow future law students. But I think that most anyone who planned to go to law school would want to take a class to see exactly what they were getting into.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Sep 27, 2011 2:08:39 PM

While not directly on point (because they are not usually taught in the same manner as a traditional law school course), most undergraduate business programs require students to take a general business law, or "Legal Environment" course, which is essentially a survey course covering the U.S. legal system and how it regulates business activity (i.e., property, contract, tort, IP, employment law, etc.). I've always thought such a course would be valuable for anyone getting a college degree.

More directly relevant to this post, however, many of these same departments will also offer more specialized, upper-level courses in employment or contract law, which will often more closely a traditional lawschool course.

Posted by: Anonity | Sep 27, 2011 1:39:12 PM

Isn't this the goal of the first few weeks of law school? Students arrive in late August, and they start with a one-week orientation that introduces them to reading cases and case-briefing. They then have four classes in which they know at the outset that they have 13 or so weeks to figure out how to study law before they are tested. Often, in one class, there is a midterm exam so students get practice at exam-taking where the stakes are rather low. There is lots of attention to learning basic skills, exam-taking, IRAC, and reviewing old exams. It seems to me that law school already does what you propose.

I suppose one difference with your proposal is that the gunner pre-law types who will do anything to get ahead will be more likely to take this class, and will therefore come in with a possible advantage over everyone else. But if that is true, I would ask if that is a feature or a bug.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 27, 2011 1:35:51 PM

I took a class like that as an undergraduate. It was actually a bit less about law school and more a law school simulation. We had one day where it was explained to us what to expect, and then on day 2, it was "Mr. Hart. Please state the facts of Hawkins v. McGee." It helped me tremendously in my transition to law school, even if I retain no substantive law, because at least I am not afraid of the socratic method or case briefing.

I know there's some mysticism about how only law professors in a law school can teach a law class in the US, and I'm sure that's motivating a lot of the no votes, but I think that's kind of silly. It also blows my mind that 1L grades are the most important for a person's career, but they are being tested more on their ability to absorb information from others about what the hell they're supposed to be doing rather than their ability to actually learn.

Of course, there's also the fact that it really doesn't matter what 1Ls know when they enter school because of the curve. Prepare them or don't prepare them. They'll get the same grades either way.

Posted by: Justin | Sep 27, 2011 11:12:07 AM

Boston College runs a program somewhat like this in which two law students teach an environmental law course to undergraduates (supervised by Prof. Zyg Plater at the law school). It seemed to do a good job of introducing law school-type courses to undergrads and giving them a good idea of what they'd be in for if they went that route, in addition to also giving law students teaching experience.

Posted by: Kim | Sep 27, 2011 10:30:25 AM

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