What Makes a Law School “Effective”? Research on Outcomes

By Larry Krieger

With regard to the current discussion of improving curricula and pedagogy in law schools, it might be worth seeing our article (with Kennon Sheldon, Ph.D) in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2007: Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory (Law and SDT). The study incorporates Self-determination theory, which posits (and this study confirmed, in two law student populations) that human beings require regular experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to thrive and maximize their positive motivation. In other words, people need to feel that they are good at what they do or at least can become good at it (competence); that they are doing what they choose and want to be doing, that is, what they enjoy or at least believe in (autonomy); and that they are relating meaningfully to others in the process, that is, connecting with the selves of other people (relatedness).

These theories were applied in a test comparing two law schools that have different pedagogical theories, and probably as a result, have quite different “rankings” in the national legal community. Law school 1 (LS 1) is a second-tier school (USNWR) and focuses on scholarly production, while law school 2 (LS 2) is in the fourth tier and focuses more on practical experience. Toward this end, LS 2 provides more skills training and clinics for students, and hires and trains faculty in large part for their teaching ability; while LS 1 focuses more on theoretical teaching and much more on the scholarly output of faculty. The study compared GPA, subjective well-being, need satisfaction, self determined career motivation, and perceived autonomy support among students. (Id. at 886).

The results showed that, at the time of graduation, students at LS 2 had broadly better outcomes compared to LS 1, including higher satisfaction and subjective well being (“happiness” measurements), more service-oriented motivation for their first job (which predicts continuing increases in satisfaction and well being), and much better results in the same sitting of the Multistate Bar Examination, which indicates that the students at LS 2 learned and tested better than the students at LS 1. This was true even though the latter students had higher LSAT scores and undergraduate gpa’s when entering law school.

This study demonstrated conclusively that the critical difference that created the varying outcomes at the two schools was autonomy support, the level of respect and understanding that students felt from their faculty members. Perceived autonomy support was significantly higher at the more effective law school, which then generated a greater sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness among the students. This heightened level of basic need satisfaction then created the improvements in well being, satisfaction, internal motivation, and learning/testing performance.

 Some law schools are moving toward a law school experience with more clinical opportunities, more effective teaching, and more equality of faculty status, all of which were factors at the more successful law school in this study. More data are needed to show that these factors were causative in increasing autonomy support, but it certainly makes sense since (a) the students are attending to actually become lawyers, which these programs teach; and (b) the clinical faculty actually are lawyers (whereas much of the rest of the faculty is purely academic at most schools), so that if students perceive the former to be subordinated by status, they likely sense a lack of respect for the students’ own goals and desires.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin is considered the #2 personality/social psych journal in the country, and this article was their most downloaded article for that entire year. The article shows graphically the importance of humanistic support factors in teaching, relative to more traditional, formalistic ways of approaching the educational process.

Larry K.




2 Responses

  1. I have no doubt that the initial conclusions of the Krieger/Sheldon study will be verified when more research is completed. In the Best Practices book, we put “support student autonomy” second (after “do no harm to students”) among the factors that help create and maintain effective and healthy teaching and learning environments. Pages 110-129.

    I hope that Larry or someone else will put together a handbook of specific things that schools and teachers can do to support student autonomy.

    In the Best Practices book (p. 114), we included the following examples: “involve students in curricular and other institutional decisions that affect students; give students as much choice as possible within the constraints of providing effective educational experiences; explain the rationale for teaching methodologies and assignments, assessments, school policies and rules, and anything else that affects students’ lives in which they have no choice; and demonstrate in word, deed, and spirit that the point of view of each student is welcomed and valued.”

    A description of more specific ttecnniques and policies would be helpful to everyone who wants to improve legal education.

  2. Wow! That’s really exciting. It was clear to me from the day I entered law school the humanity was missing and that I would probably be much more successful if I felt connected and competent in what I was doing.

    For more about reimagining what it law school could (or should) be I hope you’ll check out reconstructinglawschool.blogspot.com

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