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Five Ways to Make Law School More Rigorous and Engaging

Next year will be year 30 since I graduated from law school. It will also mark 15 years since I began teaching law. What is perhaps most remarkably similar about both experiences is how little curriculum design and teaching methods have changed over the course of this time. Sad to say (and even harder to admit) is that law school is often neither rigorous in its methods nor very engaging the content it offers.

The format of a typical course, from a student perspective, is to read through a punishing amount of turgid prose found in judicial decisions, passively listen to a lecturer present the material, and then write a 100% final exam for which your only feedback is (normally inflated) letter grade. I am not a legal education expert – and of course the starting point for any curriculum change should begin with a review of the literature on how students learn and a cataloguing and analysis of best teaching methods – but my experience leads me to think that a the following five points of reform should be considered.

1. Skills based evaluation

Probably the most indefensible thing that we, as law professors, do is to give 100% final exams. To my knowledge, this is not done in any other academic department or professional school. Two obvious limitations of this method are, first, that it causes unnecessary stress for students and, second, it fails to develop any kind of discernible practical skill. No feedback on what was done right – or wrong – is offered. One less obvious limitation is that encourages passive learning: you need not apply or understand or apply concepts (or even show up to class) until you cram for the exam at the end of term. Evaluation of assignments (even exams) of different kinds during the term – with feedback to students – allows them to develop skills and know their mistakes or weaknesses. To facilitate this added work – for instructors and students – course loads should be lessened. It is better to have 4 more rigorous courses each term than 5 of the kind described above.

2. Modifying the case study method

Learning how to read and understand cases is an important skill. But do we really need to inundate students with so many cases? Why not mix it up with some interesting, well-written pieces that engage student interest? Also (and this is part of a bigger problem) once you teach essential concepts such as precedent and analogy, the law should not be an otherworldly creation understandable only to chosen few. Good arguments are good arguments that are usually based on policy or consequential analysis of different interpretations of law. We need to teach this so that the law is more accessible and less arcane to both the profession and the public. One way to do this is to give examples of good legal writing and argument in our readings and ask students to emulate it through various kinds of written assignments.

3. Avoid obsessions with comprehensive coverage of and within courses

To have compulsory courses beyond first year makes no sense. There is no principled basis for emphasizing one area of the law over others. Indeed, I am not even sure that all first year courses (or at least the ones normally offered) are essential, at least as compared with other subject matter. Within courses, instructors often feel like they have to cover every issue connected with the subject matter. Again, the emphasis should not be on knowledge (which changes) but on skills development. This should also mean that essential skills, such as learning legal methodology, should be presented in a rigorous manner. There is little point to courses like legal process or foundations to law if they are cursory treatments of the concept of precedent or present statutory interpretation as a one class explanation of various maxims of construction. This is a waste of time and energy for all involved. Subject matter should not be a check box item but rather skills should be properly developed.

4. Greater discretion to grade students below the curve

Grading needs to be more rigorous. At my institution, I cannot fail more than 5% of the class nor deviate from a bell curve set in the B range. Marks should not be dictated in this way. If students submit below average work, instructors should not be forced to give a B. Nor, for obvious reasons, should instructors pass students who just do not demonstrate basic competency in a subject matter.

5. Create the right incentives

Frankly, there are no incentives to do any of the above or, as an instructor, instill greater rigor in courses. Students do not generally want more work to do, and instructors do not want to do more marking. There is also a huge first mover disadvantage for anyone who deviates from this model. To mark and grade harder or to create higher expectations in other ways invites student dissatisfaction which often (at least at the institution I work at) leads to criticism, at annual performance time, of one’s teaching via student evaluations. The assumption is that, if you get great student evaluations, you are an effective teacher and, if you don’t, then you are somehow lacking. The incentive then is to fit the mold of general student expectation and in fact, the easier you make it for them, the more you will be liked and rewarded.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. “[T]o give 100% final exams […] causes unnecessary stress for students and […] fails to develop any kind of discernible practical skill.”

    I disagree. In my case, the 100% exam developed the practical skill of aggregating legal concepts and arranging them in system for easy retrieval. When I prepare for court, I am most reminded of those 100% final exams, and I apply similar methods.

    “[The 100% final exam] encourages passive learning: you need not apply or understand or apply concepts (or even show up to class) until you cram for the exam at the end of term.”

    As one law graduate who did not attend certain classes, having failed none of them, I can say there was nothing passive about my exam preparation. It was the hardest work I have ever done.

    And for obvious reasons, I had to love the curve, because I spent three hair-raising years surfing it.

  2. David Schulze

    I did an LL.B. at Osgoode, followed by a year at Université de Montréal to get my civil law degree, during which I mostly did first year courses again. The striking difference was that while in a common law faculty, first year students are inundated with judgments, civil law students read a half-dozen judgments and mostly relied on a text, “doctrine” as civilians call it: a book that summarized the area of law, usually by the prof or another leading scholar. Obviously, this gave students a much more accessible overview and I’m not sure why common law teaching is so resistant to it.

  3. Excellent points. I’m about 4 years out of law school.

    Here’s what I learned:

    – 100% final exams, which were almost all open book at my school, reward those who can produce (in other words, get from another student) the best course outline and then memorize how to look things up in the outline for just long enough to pass the course. With an outline that was robust enough, you could hypothetically never show up to class (especially easy in first year) and still get a top mark. That’s unacceptable.

    – The number of cases that we had to read in most of the classes (again, mostly first year) was insane and not worthwhile, in my opinion. Honestly, we don’t need to read an entire judicial decision – especially if the judge is long-winded – in order to learn what the law is. Much more useful would have been a summary of the law with references, citations, and some key quotes. I want to know what the current state of the law is now. That’s the most critical information. Perhaps save some of the more esoteric case studies for historical courses.

    – you didn’t touch on this, but law school needs to be more practical. The fact is that most people in law school are training to become lawyers. Sure, some might want to stay in academics or pursue other careers. But most of us went to law school because we wanted to practice law. So why do so many law professors and law schools completely ignore the practical side of the law? Especially fundamentals like contracts, torts, property law, tax, etc.? I got through almost my entire law school education without actually seeing an entire contract (snippets in Supreme Court judgments don’t count), a Notice of Civil Claim, or a land title document.

    If I’m being honest, most of the skills and knowledge that I use in my practice I acquired during my last term of law school (where I worked full time in my school’s legal clinic), PLTC (the BC legal training course), and on the job.

  4. Also, the law society has a power of approval of law school curriculum. There’s tension between law schools and law societies as to what the aim of law school teaching should be. There should be more to law school than merely to produce “practice-ready lawyers.” The more law schools have to do to satisfy that standard, the less law societies have to do. So, don’t think law society benchers are purely objective and beyond the temptations as to serving self-interest. They’re busy practicing lawyers with clients’ demands upon their time, taste, and tension. Also, what that phrase means is constantly being reshaped like clouds in the wind, and neither law societies nor law schools can control that wind.
    See: Prof. Emeritus (of Osgoode Hall Law School) Harry Arthur’s article, “The Future of Law School: Three Visions and A Prediction,” (2014), 51:4 Alberta Law Review 705-716.
    Online: https://www.albertalawreview.com/index.php/ALR/article/view/33/33 .

  5. “If students submit below average work, instructors should not be forced to give a B. ”

    Typical, no mention of the corollary, what about giving more students grades of A+ if you happen to have a class that is particularly talented.

    After being out of law school 20+ years I can look back and say with it was a complete joke. Three prof’s well known for have sexual affairs with students. Getting high grades was all about gaming the prof not learning the law. Regurgitate back the nonsense that particular prof wants to read, add a spin for a bit of spice and an A is yours. A complete joke.

    For any students reading, never mind all the naval gazing crap, just get it done and get out. Your education in law will start when you start practising. A good mentor your first five years out of school will be the most valuable asset to your law training. The prof’s will be long gone and on to the next round of paying customers (a.k.a. students); they really are closer to whores than anything else.

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