Be Careful What You Wish For

So I’m probably the only one who missed this interesting development in the ongoing saga of reform of the ABA Standards for the Approval of Law Schools. There has been much hoo-ha and concern about the Special Committee Reports on Security of Position and Outcome Measures, but did you know: in August 2008, the Standards Review Committee of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar circulated for notice and comment two proposed changes to the Standards, one of which is to delete Interpretations 402-1 and 402-2 relating to student-faculty ratio. (The proposed changes are published on the Section’s website, The Standards Review Committee is soliciting comments by letter, e-mail or through appearance at a hearing to be held on January 9, 2009 at 3:15 p.m., at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront during the AALS Annual Meeting. Written comments and requests to speak at the hearing should be directed to Becky Stretch at the ABA’s Chicago office, at Comments are due no later than December 15, 2008.

So, is this ironic or what? One of the major critiques of the ABA Standards, echoed in Best Practices for Legal Education (“BP”), has been their undue focus on inputs rather than outcomes: on the numbers of library books and chairs instead of on the graduates’ competence and caliber. Of all the “input-centered measures” I wouldn’t have anticipated to bite the dust, student-faculty ratio is about the top of the heap. The Standard itself — “A law school shall have a sufficient number of full-time faculty to fulfill the requirements of the Standards and meet the goals of its educational program” — will remain intact; only the Interpretations which have, it would seem, given real content to the Standard with their presumptive compliance at a ratio of 20-1 and noncompliance at 30-1, are to be dispensed with.

The accompanying memorandum of reasons for dumping these specific numbers makes a good deal of sense, not least in its support for the removal of the unpleasant “three-fifths clause” in Interpretation 402-1. (“Clinicians and legal writing instructors not on tenure track or its equivalent who teach a full load [count as] 0.7 [of a faculty member]” – although, as the memorandum concedes, that clause has been the impetus for placing clinicians and legal writing instructors on tenure track who otherwise might never have gotten there.) Essentially, the proponents of this change say that a definite, numeric, student-faculty ratio tells us nothing new or different about a law school; it is only a means to an end, not an end in itself, and has become obsolete.

I suppose one could say that about every piece of quantitative data the ABA Site Teams collect about a law school: none of it is an end in itself, it’s all ultimately intended to enhance the probability that a school will produce competent, ethical lawyers prepared for the practice of law. Unfortunately, we are still not quite ready to determine that outcome with sufficient consistency and predictability to use it as an accreditation tool. We continue to need lesser, intermediate benchmarks. So, is a student-faculty ratio (actually a range of ratios, which is what the Interpretations embody) more useful than not? I don’t know my way around adult education science well enough even to mount, let alone win, an argument about the utility of a higher proportion of full-time faculty for professional learning. So I turned to my trusty BP to see what it would say about this proposal. (I’ve noticed that in certain contexts BP is taking on a somewhat Talmudic or perhaps I Ching-like quality. Or is that just me?)

To my retrospective surprise, nowhere in BP is a certain baseline student-faculty ratio identified as a good in itself; right at the beginning, at pp. 4-5, BP does observe: “Graduate professional education should have lower student-faculty ratios than the current norm in law schools in the United States” and “Certainly, schools that decide to offer the best possible learning experiences for their students may want to have smaller student-faculty ratios than today’s typical law school.” And on p. 179, BP of course acknowledges the special faculty-student ratio appropriate for clinical courses.

Next, on p. 115, BP reiterates the results of the 2006 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which reinforce the importance of sufficient student-faculty interaction. The report stated that “[p]rofessors are important role models. The nature of the student-faculty relationship affects students’ perceptions of the degree to which they have developed a sense of professional ethics, how much they study, and their overall satisfaction with law school.” The report reached the remarkable conclusion that “[s]tudent-faculty interaction was more strongly related to students’ self-reported gains in analytical ability than time spent studying, cocurricular activities, or even the amount of academic effort put forth.”

Finally, on p. 118, frequency of student-faculty contact is identified as a critical component of the faculty’s collective obligation to “Foster a Supportive Environment.” BP describes numerous elements of a supportive teaching and learning environment, all of which seem to demand a robust student-teacher ratio:

Learn students’ names. This is perhaps the single most important thing a teacher can do to create a positive climate in the classroom. Call students by name in and out of the classroom. Do not allow them to be anonymous, to feel they can fade out without anyone’s knowing or caring.

Learn about students’ experiences and use them in class. Ask students to provide you with information about themselves: where they are from, undergraduate school and major, graduate degrees, work experience, other experience related to the course, hobbies, and anything else they want you to know. Ask students to share their experiences at relevant times in the course.

Let students get to know you. Introduce yourself at the beginning of the course, letting students know about your professional and personal interests. Fill out the same informational survey you ask the students to complete. Go to lunch with students and attend student events.

* * * * *

Frequent student-faculty contact. Substantial research documents the importance of student-faculty contact. Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of class is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students’ intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans.

Contact with faculty can also have a positive impact on students’ intellectual and personal development. “Students who were identified as having more frequent contact with faculty scored higher on tests designed to measure intellectual development, defined as including a higher tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty as well as intellectual independence.” “Informal contact with faculty . . . may be particularly helpful in moving students away from notions of black-letter law to the more nuanced process of legal analysis. Contact with faculty may also motivate a student to think more deeply.”

Since I can’t see a Site Team literally counting student-faculty contacts or policing the use of student names or prelaw experiences in class, I’m left to wonder what really will be the substitute for student-faculty ratio. Even if it is a crude measure, as the Committee Report itself recognizes, in the absence of an alternative, is it responsible and helpful to eliminate it?

Rarely am I unsure of what I think, but this is one of those times. I invite the BP Blog community to tell me, tell us all, what you think. Should a stalwart BPer support or oppose the Committee’s proposal?


Vanessa Merton





3 Responses

  1. Thanks, Vanessa, for bringing this to our attention. For all the reasons you suggest, I think we should oppose this change.

    In one sense, a mandatory student-faculty ratio is meaningless for accomplishing positive outcomes. A school could have a 5 to 1 ratio, but it would not guarantee a good educational experience if the faculty did not keep office hours, seek opportunities to spend time with students outside of class, or otherwise participate in law school community activities. Without some controls over student:faculty ratios, however, some schools will be tempted to become law degree factories with little regard to quality education.

    I remember when the interpretations were adopted that the people who accomplished that feat believed these were among the most important changes ever made to the standards. And they still allow law schools to operate with much bigger student:faculty ratios than other graduate education programs.

    I do not know where the impetus to delete the interpretations came from, but in the absence of alternative proposals that would better accomplish the objectives that mandatory student:faculty ratios are intended to support, I think the interpretations should stay put.


  2. I have two reactions to Professor Merton’s provocative and comprehensive post. The first is – I think the spirit and call of Best Practices would suggest that we should oppose this change. There is no suggestion in Carnegie or BP that focusing on lower faculty-student ratio inhibits the preparation for the profession and practice. As Professor Merton explains BP applauds the kind of interasction with students that require a lower facutly student ratio. My second reaction will be the topic of my next post. Should we have ongoing “supplements” to BP which respond to the ongoing moves in legal education especially in difficult budget times.

  3. […] Like Human Beings Vanessa Merton at the “Best Practices for Legal Education” blog gives us a view at the ABA’s “Best Practices” standards for legal education: Learn students’ […]

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