Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What are Your Thoughts about Law School?

My last two posts have been about student behavior in class, and in particular about the potential pitfalls of cell phones and computers in class. The posts can be found here and here. There were some very good comments to both posts, so be sure to check them out as well.

Ultimately, both posts were concerned with disruptions or distractions in class, as well as the importance of facilitating classroom discussion and student interest. Of course, no use of snazzy technology or bans on phones or computers will make a bad class good. But this got me to thinking: what do the readers of this blog think were the really good and really bad things about their law school classes? I'd really like to hear your thoughts.

So what was it? Were the classes too big? Did the Socratic method (or whatever approach the profs used) stink? What could have been done better? Did law school prepare you at all for your career in law? What did did you find particularly beneficial? Was there something you really enjoyed about law school? Etc. etc.

Basically, this is an open invitation to rant (or rave, if you have positive things to say). As someone who cares about the educational experience of law school, I'd really like to hear what you have to say.


shell said...

I'm taken aback by this invitation to rant...er...I meant, to discuss my thoughts (as a law student) on law school, etc. Of course, this being an open-ended question, will require some thought (possibly a long response) on my part. I will think about it later this week (huge workload until Thursday).

I do really appreciate your concern about your student's (and law students in general) educational experience.

John Feeney (Bluegil) said...

Very Interesting reading. These comments come from a Vendor supporting legal firms on technology issues.

1) Cell Phones - no brainer. It is totally un-acceptable in a "business envirnoment". Try an have a client relation meeting with your phone going off. You send a msg too your client without saying a word. THATS BUSINESS.

2) Computers - unless your running multimedia presentations for interactive debat or heaven help us teach someone how to actually imploy "DISCOVERY" tactics or showing how modern day IP rights are abused. Turn them off.

Correct me if I'm wrong, Lawyer I'm not, but your business is based on "INTERPETATION". That means Human interaction. The #1 fundamental skill lacking everyone. Business Development is a key function of any Lawyers job today, in some cases Mandatory. Listening is a skill. Habits developed in school carry over.

LPM Committee
Dupage Bar Assoc

Anonymous said...

I had the same thought when I was in law school that I do now that I'm teaching at one: this would be great if it weren't for all the people who have _zero_ interest in any of this material and are only here because the ABA has managed to capture the entry gates to the profession (in nearly all states) to reduce competition and raise salaries.

I am a second-career attorney and I enjoyed law school greatly, because I knew something my 20-something peers did not: that there is precious little time to read and reflect in the working world--but that's about the only reason.

But having spent many years in the military and seen hundreds of barely literate high-schoolers develop into adults capable of making good decisions and performing complex operations correctly under great stress, I was also aware that the mystique of law school is mainly bogus ego-tripping.

The law school method of instruction is where, rather than being fixed, a dysfunctional pedagogy only serves to build mystique of the law as something fantastically complex and subtle (and, therefore, those who can master it must be fantastically bright people capable of mastering deep subtleties . . . and worth the insane salaries lavished upon them).

Law school in American society serves the same function as Latin did in pre-Gutenberg Europe: it keeps the laity out so that the professionals can prosper. And just as the church made publication of the Bible in the vernacular a crime, the law schools and the ABA have managed to prohibit anyone from becoming a lawyer without paying toll of $100,000 (and three years) to an accredited law school.

Those questioning this system are treated to endless explanations about how it is to "protect the clients from incompetent lawyers," even as the bar weeklies all over the country are filled with discipline reports on lawyers -- law school grads all -- who prey on their clients.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts about law school? Now this is a very thought-provoking topic!

Since I could think and write about this all day long, and because I have only a brief amount of free time at the moment, I will return periodically to post more comments. In the meantime, here are a couple of random thoughts that I have:

- Along with the usual academic requirements of most law schools – such as 1L courses, upper level writing, appellate advocacy, professional responsibility, etc. – serious consideration should be given for the institution of mandatory “field trips” to a local trial court (including the clerk’s office), a federal court, a large law firm, a small firm, a solo practictioner’s office, and a public interest office. The trips would take a mere couple of hours for the student to see and get a feel for “what happens” at these places. The number of young attorneys who, for example, have no idea where to deliver pleadings to a court, don’t know where the counsel tables are located in a court room, don’t understand the formalism inherent in a large firm, or are absent-minded about the realities of the poor who are seeking legal help, is astounding. They come out of law school knowing what negligence is and understanding the formation of a contract, but they are lost on so many simple practical things that attorneys must know.

- I suspect there are a number of people who go through law school and fall into what I call the “end of 1L trap.” What is this? It is the experience of the student who concludes the spring semester of his first year, and after some reflection, opines that he really doesn’t like law school and/or the law very much (or at least not as much as before he came to law school), maybe his grades are mediocre or low, or maybe he just flat out hates law school. So he must come to a decision, and his line of thinking goes something like this:

“1L they scare you to death, 2L they work you to death, 3L they . . . . Okay, the scary part is over, and perhaps the toughest part of it is over too. One year down, just two more to go if I stay with it. I’ve already spent $XX,XXX on this, so I might as well plunge forward and get the JD. However, I’m really not too sure if a law career is for me. Well, I handled the first year, and I can handle the next two. I guess I’ll stay in school.”

The student plows through his upper level coursework but remains uncertain whether he really wants to practice law, whether he will be good it at if he does, whether he can find a job after graduation, etc.. So after graduation, he finds himself confused, unhappy, in enormous debt from student loans, and he takes a job as an associate. He doesn’t like the job, despises the work hours, and concludes that “law practice sucks.” Hence, the downfall of a once-motivated individual is in its prime, and the legal profession gets a bad rap because “there are so many unhappy lawyers out there.”

To avoid the “end of 1L trap” for those students who are prone to fall prey to it, law schools should have some kind of career interview and counseling program immediately at the conclusion of the first year. This program would help school officials identify the students who didn’t enjoy the first year and/or those who are unsure about whether pursuing a law career is for them, and then maybe the career counseling officals could give them useful advice on “what to do and where to go” from there.

Just a couple of thoughts.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Excellent comments so far. I'll look forward to seeing what others might have to say as well. For someone like me who is in the business of education, this is all very useful and thought-provoking input.

Anonymous said...

As one of your 1L students, I think we struggle a bit with the class size. The socratic method isn't what we thought, and their is always the feeling that you are under prepared. The consequence for being unprepared is always made public, but a good job is never praised in anyway. This always leaves a feeling of ambivalent inadequacy. If one does a good job, it is unknown.

As far as the "time to quit taking notes" improves classroom discussion, I feel that it does so because it changes the pace of the class. Rather than focusing on what we are going to miss, we are given assurance that we will not miss anything so that we can actually internalize and develop our thoughts. I think that by posting your powerpoint on TWEN and providing use with handouts, you give use more time to develop thoughts for classroom discussion.

As well, I think a faux midterm is a really good idea. By having faux midterms in two different classes I am forced to go ahead and memorize about 1/4 of the information for finals way ahead of time.

The biggest question on my mind right now is "How am I doing?" Am I under preparing? Over prepairing? Or am I on the right track? Any input on why we are only given one exam per semester?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Thanks to all for their thoughtful comments. More comments are welcome, but let me say a few words about what has been said so far. I can't really be inclusive, but I can promise that what has been said is being thought about by me, and it may show up in future posts.

John Feeney's comment emphasized the importance of human interaction and listening. That's very true, and listening is a critical skill for the "real world." But maybe, as one of the Anonymous commenters pointed out, simply telling students to "put your pens down and stop writing" might be one way to achieve this in class, especially early on in law school. Until students are more comfortable in their roles as law students, the urge to take notes incessantly may be overwhelming and may get in the way of thinking in class.

Anonymous #1 eloquently lays out an attack on law schools and the legal profession. Much of it I disagree with (check out my earlier posts, such as "Is the Third Year of Law School a Waste of Time and Money?" (1/5/2006) and "Is Law School Itself a Waste of Time?" (1/7/2006)). But I don't disagree with all of it--especially the part about law school being a wonderful educational opportunity. And whether I disagree or not is really beside the point. I want to hear what you think, not to tell you why all my views are right and your's are wrong.

Anonymous #2's suggestion of mandatory field trips of some sort is a good one. I would have loved that when I was a law student.

As for Anonymous #3, I agree that large class sizes are not ideal. They are not uncommon, but I think most teachers ideally would prefer a smaller class than 100+ students. Class size also can get in the way of providing feedback on students' in-class performance, and it certainly limits opportunities for in-class participation. I do try to point out, however, when a comment or question in class was particularly insightful, and if someone briefs a case and enables the class discussion to move forward, personally I consider that a job well done.

As for the appropriate level of preparation, you will get a better sense of whether you are over-preparing or under-preparing as you progress through law school. (But that's not much help right now, I know.) The question about having 1 exam I will have to defer for another day.

shell said...

I've written a long (and somewhat arduous) response to your question here.

Moral S. Aminority said...

My two cents...

Cell phones: One law professor I had made it a rule - actually included it in his syllabus - that if a phone went off during his lecture, the owner of said phone would be asked to leave. The theory being, that if it was important enough to have the class interrupted (and disrupted) by a telephone call then it must be extremely important and that the recipient of the call had better things to do. In regard to discriminating against "non-traditional" students with children and other obligations, if a call comes from a sick child/spouse/relative needing assistance, etc., whomever received that call will most likely leave class to tend to their other responsibilities anyway. I would think that the same is true for any other circumstance that might be seen as pressing enough to interrupt a class. I personally made it a habit to tell everyone I knew not to call between x o'clock and x o'clock. Obsessive-compulsiveness aside, I made it a habit to turn off my phone prior to the start of that class (and all others for that matter). Phones ringing in class is unprofessional and rude.

Laptops: Hey, please play Solitaire, check email, IM a friend, post a blog reply, do whatever, but don't expect me to explain what the "barren cow" case was all about in December. I sat in a class the other day watching this kid play pinball the WHOLE period. He even carried on a conversation with the prof. - not looking up for any extended period of time during the exchange, mind you - guess he was going for a new record. Oh, and did I mention she was 5 feet from him! WOW! Totally unacceptable.

Are we there: If there is student disconnect, why does it exist? I think that Knowles' theory of andragogy (applies to adult specific learning), adapted accordingly, in lieu of one of a pedagogical nature, as enunciated by Anonymous could be of some assistance to the educational process.

Law School:
Maybe its b/c I'm too, shall we say idealistic, old school, or maybe just old-fashioned? Whatever label you prefer aside, it seems to me not having to suffer the ups and downs of the law school "experience" is an extreme injustice (excuse the pun). I want my brain to hurt when the class ends. I want to feel like my mind, my sense of reason and logic, have all been pushed. I want to be challenged. I welcome, no, enjoy, the process because at the end of the day, as I drift off to sleep, I will do so with the knowledge that I put forth my best effort, met the challenge head on, came face to face with the "demons", and am one step closer to the ultimate end.

It's a personal battle really; it's about having a work ethic, perseverance, dedication, a desire to succeed. In all career decisions, don't we all choose our own poison? And that, I think, is the critical point. I could go work as a greeter at Wally World, truth be told, I once had to take a second job at a fast food restaurant to help pay the mortgage, but (being idealistic again) what satisfaction would I have at the end of the day? What greater opportunity is there to be had than obtaining higher education? To that end, over two hundred years ago, a bunch guys got together and wrote down their thoughts, beliefs and desires. What result, I ask, if in the course of their writings they said, "This is hard, let's just forget it. The Crown's not really that bad."? To this I ask, lest we forget, what nobler footsteps could we as students of the law ask to follow in?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

The comments to this post remind me of what Dan Gillmor, author of the book "We the Media," has said about writing a book: that while an author might know more about her particular subject than any one of her readers, she will never know more than they do collectively about the subject's details. I teach, and I like to think I am good at it, but there will always, always, be someone out there with new ideas or perspectives from which I can learn. So thanks for the comments, and keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

Forgot one thing in my post -- the only two law schools that have a good reason to exist as such are the University of Wisconsin and Marquette, as graduation from either one gets you admitted to the bar in Wisconsin. That's the rule that all states should adopt--schools that specifically agree to prepare students for practice of law in a given state should equip those students to do so. Others may show equivalent preparation by passing a bar exam or waiving in.