Best Practices Makes The Chronicle

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Print: Due Processors: Educators Seek a Digital Upgrade for Teaching Law –


In 1871, Christopher Columbus Langdell, a prominent jurist who had joined the law faculty at Harvard University, hit on the idea of compiling thick, imposing “casebooks” with hundreds of appeals-court rulings on particular areas of law–contracts, constitutional law, torts, and other areas.

Today, the hefty tomes and related works have become the foundations of legal teaching.

They have also become hopelessly outmoded and block effective teaching and learning, according to participants in a workshop held this week at Seattle University School of Law, on “the Future of the Legal Course Book.” After more than a century, law professors, publishers, and other attendees concluded, it is high time to update this creaky model.

Law education had been slow to adopt modern technologies, said Kellye Y. Testy, the law school’s dean. That’s not true of legal practice, which has embraced the digital age, she said. “So many fields of law are very advanced in those ways, and yet it seems that in law education, we’ve fallen behind,” she said.

The event here brought together about 40 legal scholars, lawbook publishers, pedagogy experts, and bar examiners. Participants agreed to form a loose consortium to prepare and promote electronic course materials. The traditional array of instructional tools, including casebooks supplemented by textbooks, study guides, course outlines, flashcards, and other aids, could benefit from the dynamism that electronic and online publishing could provide, and yet digitized course material is emerging only slowly, said Ronald K.L. Collins, a scholar at the Washington, D.C., office of the First Amendment Center, who organized the event here with Ms. Testye, Edward L. Rubin, the dean of law at Vanderbilt University, and David Skover, a professor of law at Seattle University.

The Case for Change

They were motivated in part, they said, by two 2007 reports, “Educating Lawyers,” published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and “Best Practices for Legal Education,” published by the Clinical Legal Education Association. The reports complained that teaching legal doctrines, while essential, is insufficient to prepare law students for practice, and called for far more attention to professional preparation through the use of innovative teaching. “Our workshop dovetails with those reports,” said Mr. Collins. “We’re saying, bring it on, let’s not have more reports, let’s do it, and when we thought about doing it, the first place to start has to be these casebooks.”

One change that would surely be welcomed by students, said Mr. Skover, would be to relieve them of some of the cost and the burden of casebooks. He noted that in their first year at law school alone, students typically spend more than $1,000 just for casebooks, and the books are up to 1,000 pages long, weigh in at a combined 28 pounds, and run to a combined length of more than 8,700 pages, a sizable portion of which professors never assign and students never read.

An electronic course book could deliver just what many law professors say stands between them and innovative teaching: a versatile, easy-to-use, updated set of teaching materials that permits them to fashion courses with material selected from a variety of sources, said Mr. Skover. Professors and other authors might create, and publishers might publish, a wide variety of electronic materials, including cases, statutes, secondary sources, and audiovisual materials. Publishers or even participants could add materials in collaborative databases that could guide study, including podcasts and other multimedia products containing interviews of clients, police reports, depositions, and much else. They could link to, say, annotated court rulings, legislative statutes, legislative histories, administrative regulations, and topical overviews.

In practical terms, said Mr. Skover, publishers or keepers of a database of material might provide professors with templates for, say, a torts, contracts, or property course; and the professors could then choose and attach additional material. “I can conceive of a world where no single course book looked like another, unless people opted to choose that,” said Mr. Skover.

Multiple Digital Paths

Managers of such a scheme would determine and levy charges for various components that professors and students downloaded, he and Mr. Collins said. They claimed the cost and effort would be worthwhile because class time could then be better spent on developing key skills.

Publishers or purchasers of online material could link to material providing insights from any field that bore on legal issues, said Mr. Collins. In such an open format, he said, “we’re not just talking about taking print books and making them electronic. You can reconceptualize what a book is, and how it interacts with readers.”

In the current typical construction of legal education, students cram on the case method for the first two years of their degrees, and then spend some of their final, third year working in a legal clinic and taking such professional courses as legal writing. Reports on reform have spoken of the need for better training in legal skills, ideally through learning by experience. But to date, few law texts have reflected well the reality of legal practice, so a goal of new, electronic materials should be to make the study of law better and more engagingly reflect its practice, participants here agreed.

Authors could do that by providing students with more imaginative scenarios, such as fictional, online towns where legal issues arise and are transacted. Those elements need not be particularly sophisticated, said John Mitchell, a professor of law at Seattle University. He said he had long set, for example, his criminal-law courses in make-believe towns where citizens interact as citizens do: in ways that lead to criminal-law issues. He has fed his students police reports, legal complaints, and jury instructions. He has asked his students to plan interviews, conduct witness examinations, and draft jury instructions.

In a memorandum distributed electronically to participants, Gene Koo, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said that computer-managed simulations could permit law professors to enhance the beneficial outcomes of such improvisations and to offer students experiences relating to legal practice that have not been available until now. Such digital replicas of real-practice situations could augment current clinical practice, which tends to be expensive and uneven, he wrote. But “computer-managed simulations” could also provide experience of areas of practice rarely available to law students, such as complex corporate transactions.

He noted that by computer simulations, he didn’t necessarily mean some “3D World of Warcraft knockoff,” but rather materials found in “the virtual world of a typical law firm” through such resources as e-mail, the World Wide Web, and electronic legal texts from providers like LexisNexis and Westlaw.

Practicing Law, Virtually

But some participants did favor a Warcraft approach. Gregory Silverman, an associate professor of law at Seattle University, called on his colleagues to “embrace the full potential of virtual spaces for legal education” by thinking in terms of the “dynamic ecosystems” possible in virtual space.

It might well be possible to engage modern students, who are increasingly familiar with virtual worlds, using a legal-education equivalent of World of Warcraft, with different levels of attainment based on mastery of course material, he said. “One can even imagine school rivalries developing with each school’s standing based upon its students’ leveling and completion of myriad missions,” he suggested in another of several memorandums circulated among workshop participants.

Not that such devices would be simple or inexpensive to create, Mr. Silverman acknowledged. After all, modern college students also demand high production values of their digital instruction. Attaining those might well require complex collaborations among law professors, law schools, and publishers, he suggested.

Some lawbook publishers are beginning to provide a growing range of digital bells and whistles, such as graphics, animations, and audio and video content. But much remains to be done to create a concerted, widely accepted approach to such innovation, participants agreed. Law schools, bar examiners, and producers of study aids would all need to adapt to the developments, in some cases by restructuring such conventions as fee structures and professional incentives, said Mr. Collins and Mr. Skover.

As important a caution as any, some participants said, was that developers should not forget that many law professors, now and for some years to come, will not take kindly, or courageously, to the new devices. “I don’t think any of my colleagues like the casebooks the way they are,” said David C. Vladeck, a professor of law at Georgetown University. But, he said, “many of our colleagues are going to want something that looks like and is organized like a casebook, and they’re going to be fearful of going to a Web site and pushing buttons.”

It is not wise or necessary to abandon all of traditionalism just because the digital age has arrived, he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be Socrates versus Bill Gates.”

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