Thursday, January 19, 2006

How to Teach a Law School Class

For some reason, this week I have had some trouble figuring out what to post about. Usually, my problem is just the opposite--too much to say, too little time. And then it hit me: talk about what I think a law professor is really supposed to do in the classroom.

Now, if you are in law school, you're probably interested in this, so read on. But if you are not in law school, please bear with me anyway--this applies to you too.

My basic belief about teaching is very simple: the proper relationship between professor and student is very much like the proper relationship between attorney and client.

That's it. I am probably not the first person to express this thought, but I am the first one I know of. No one ever told this to me in law school. Yet this is a proposition worth exploring, because it works on different levels. In fact, looking back at my time in law school, the really great professors I had were invariably modeling proper lawyer behavior.

How are professors like lawyers in practice? For starters, let's not forget that law school is about training people to practice law. There are other elements too, of course--it's not just a trade school--but practical training is an essential element. And I don't just mean learning how to "think like a lawyer," as the saying goes. Rather, law school is also about learning how to behave like a good lawyer. There are a lot of lawyers out there who don't know how to behave like lawyers should, and it is detrimental to the profession and society. Proper lawyer behavior and mindsets can be taught in clinical or practical courses like Appellate Advocacy or Law Practice Management, but in my view it is just as important--more important, even--to teach proper lawyering behavior in all courses in law school.

So, for example, I strive to always be on time. Not all professors do that, unfortunately, and it sends the wrong message--that you are not a professional. And I am prepared. Always. I have seen classes in my educational career in which the professor shot from the hip and conducted a disjointed class. No, no, no. If you are a lawyer billing $300 or more an hour, is a client really going to put up with that? Of course not. This is simple stuff, really, but it is powerful.

In addition, professors should always treat students with respect, just like you would treat a client. Law is called a service professions for a reason. This is an easy one, too, and most professors I have ever known have treated their students with respect, but there have been a few bad apples--self-important grandstanders, or know-it-alls like the adjunct professor I had in law school who first told me there was no such thing as a stupid question and then berated me in class for asking what he considered a stupid question. That one still burns me up. I learned a lot from him about how not to practice law or teach law.

So I am on time, and prepared, and respectful. Students key in on that, and they appreciate it--just like clients do. The best professors I ever had in law school always did this, and they taught through their actions. So, thank you Marty Redish, Stephen Presser and Ken Abbott.

How are students like clients? This one is a lot easier. Students, just like clients, typically get out of a project what they put into it. If I had a dollar for every client who did not follow my legal advice and then came back 4 months later, screaming and in trouble, I would be a rich man. It's the same with students. There is no guarantee of a good grade, of course, but there is an incredibly strong correlation between how hard you work to understand a course and how well you do on the exam. Students who wait until the last minute and cram (contrary to my explicit advice in class) typically do not do as well. And like most law professors, I grade my exams anonymously. But when I match up the grades with the names, lo and behold! The people who came to class and were prepared typically do a lot better than those who try to just slide by. Just like with clients in the real world.

There is so much more to teaching than this, of course. There's the substantive law, legal theory, use of cutting edge scholarship in class, use of different teaching methods, and so on. But modeling professional and ethical behavior is a good place to start. And if you are in law school, watch your professors and learn. Hopefully you will learn something good, but even a bad lesson is better than no lesson at all.


Anonymous said...

This is a nice read. I just started teaching law in a local university (two months). I've asked my students to write down comments and suggestions to improve my teaching after the midsems, and their opinions reflected some of the things you wrote (eg. treating them with respect). However, it's still a challenge to convince them to strive more.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Thanks for your comment; I'm glad you found the post useful. Trying to strike the appropriate balance in the classroom can be quite a challenge, and it's something I constantly think about and work on. Good luck with it!