Friday, February 09, 2007

Improving Law Schools

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is finalizing a report entitled Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law. The full report will be available in March 2007, but there is a very useful 16 page summary of the report available right now for free. It can be accessed here. Thanks to my colleague Jeff Jackson for bringing the report to my attention.

Previous posts and comments on Law Career Blog pertain to the strengths and shortcomings of American legal education. (See, e.g., Is the Third Year of Law School a Waste of Time and Money? and Is Law School Itself a Waste of Time?) The summary and pending full Carnegie report address this topic too, and the summary makes for very interesting reading. One thematic commonality that runs through it is that "[t]he dramatic results of the first year of law school's emphasis on well-honed skills of legal analysis should be matched by similarly strong skill in serving clients and a solid ethical grounding."

In other words, this study concluded that the first year of law school provides a solid doctrinal underpinning for students, who learn legal analysis--how to "think like a lawyer." This educational experience needs to be matched, however, by similar efforts in the second and third year to educate students not only about doctrine, but also about legal practice. By so doing, law schools could teach students more and prepare them better for the practice of law.

I've posted on the question of whether the third (and even second) year of law school is a waste of time (see the above links; my answer = no), and there has been some excellent commentary from readers on the subject. The Carnegie report suggests, and I tend to agree, that the problem is not that law school is not beneficial or should be shortened, but rather that upper level courses should focus on developing skills that complement the doctrinally-focused skills of the 1L curriculum.

This conclusion and recommendation speaks directly to the common practitioner complaint that new law school grads don't know anything about practicing law. I often think such complainers mean that law school's focus on doctrine is wrong--too much theory, too little skills training--but the Carnegie report does a nice job of emphasizing that you need both.

I encourage anyone interested in the subject to read the Carnegie report summary and post any comments you might have here.


Anonymous said...

What I think the Carnegie report misses is the need for training in teaching skills for professors of law.

This recommendation is radical and unlikely to be implemented, because law schools seek well-published scholars as professors, not effective teachers. Higher education in general overlooks the incredible improvements in the field of education that have taken place over the past fifteen years. Studies of different learning styles and effective questioning practice, are, I think, beyond the kin of most law professors.

In short, I think a few continuing education-type courses for professors which explore different ways of presenting material might make a substantial difference in the classroom. For example, I have read that a lot of high schools have gone to scripted curriculums. Now, giving a law professor a pre-scripted curriculum would not work, but I find that the professors whose lectures seem the most "scripted" (by the professors themselves, of course) are the most clear, logical, and satisfying.

Is it ridiculous to expect a professor to take a course in learning how to teach? I think not, but many seem to think that it's simply an inherent skill. I disagree, and think that if professors were to receive training in this area, we might see an increase in students' ability to relate the theoretical to the practical. At the least, it might make the entire law school experience a little less mystifying.

shell said...

The European legal education system is definitely worth a look. Under this system, a law student still completes the necessary studies of blackletter law and earn a rudimentary degree.

After the completion of basic education, the student moves onto an apprentice program in which a law firm or a court trains the student on how to apply practical skills.

If a student is interested in a specialization (say, teaching, research, or a notary lawyer), he or she may return to the academic institution to earn an advanced degree.

The downside to the European model is that it takes a student twice as long to complete the necessary education and practical training just to qualify for sitting in the bar-equivalent examination. A student must be very focused and know for certain by the end of high school what he or she wants to do.

With all due respect to professors, a classroom is just that - it provides a forum for explanation and discussion of legal theories. What you learn in a workplace cannot be provided in a classroom setting, and a novice cannot enter the workplace without proper basic training.

It all comes down to values -- spend more time in the classroom? Or spend more time outside the classroom? At what point should certification be given? Perhaps the best way is to require 3 years of schooling and one year of apprenticeship before one could sit in for the bar exam.

Just a thought.