After All These Years: Another Bar Exam Over, Another Entering Class, but Still a Disconnect between the Licensing Exam and What We Need Lawyers to Be and Do

I was never a Journey fan but I truly am astonished that after all these years of preparing lawyers for practice, and after two years of an unprecedented undermining of  the rule of law in our nation, law schools still live with a disconnect between the profession’s  licensing exam and what business, government and society needs lawyers to be and do, which includes protecting  the rule of law. 

The National Law Journal recently discussed two new major studies which will analyze whether the current exam is the best measure of new lawyer competence.  The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) is in the midst of a three year study  to “ensure that the bar examination continues to test the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for competent entry-level legal practice in the 21st century.”  (Hmm, continues? that’s a bit biased) and has already held 30 listening sessions.  

The second study, “Building a Better Bar: Capturing Minimum Competence” is an initiative of  the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System in partnership with Ohio State Law Professor Deborah Merritt, and aspires to develop a “fair, evidence-based definition of minimum competence” to improve the current licensing process.  Funded by Access-Lex, the researchers:

will be holding 60 focus groups in 12 locations around the country. While these focus group participants will primarily be new lawyers, we will also hold a number of specialized groups with supervisors. Additional specialized groups will include only women and only people of color, as well as groups in rural areas; traditional job analyses can mask the views of these lawyers, yet their perspectives are essential to create a more fully representative view of minimum competence and how to test for it effectively. Through these focus groups, we will be able to capture key information from a diversity of perspectives and provide concrete data on the definition of minimum competence that the profession can use to improve the bar exam and how lawyers are licensed.

 

Readers may remember that IAALS has provided helpful research in the past through its Foundations for Practice  research, which identified the  competencies over 24,000 legal employers value in new hires (most of which go untested by the current licensing process) as well as the evaluation of the graduates of the Daniel Websters Honors alternative to the bar exam in “Ahead of the Curve:  turning Law Students into Lawyers

I suppose I should be delighted that more studies are being launched. They are addressing the exact issues so many of us have raised for decades. However, my reaction is uncharacteristically pessimistic.  (Readers here who have tolerated my enthusiastic use of exclamation points and emphasis will agree it is uncharacteristic).  Perhaps it is the August humidity. Perhaps, it is the sorrow surrounding our nation after a week of grief from senseless gun violence But more likely, it is the fact that I am feeling frustrated that we have already studied this to death! For example, working with state bar associations The Foundations for Practice Project already studied new lawyer competencies with 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states participating and found

… the foundations that entry-level lawyers need to launch successful careers in the legal profession.

In a first-of-its-kind survey, we asked, “What makes a new lawyer successful?” More than 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states answered.

What we learned is that new lawyers need more than IQ and EQ to be successful. They also need CQ: Character Quotient. In fact, 76% of characteristics (thinks like integrity, work ethic, common sense, and resilience) were identified by a majority of respondents as necessary right out of law school.

Beyond character, new lawyers are successful when they come to the job with a broad blend of legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics that comprise what we call the “whole lawyer.”

So why is the NCBE, who clearly has a stake in the outcome, refusing to respond to the outcome of that 3 year old study but instead promising only to do its own study. JEESH! We tweak here and there, we add more pro bono or experiential requirements, but no one truly influential will admit that our insistence on anchoring the gateway to the profession to a timed, written exam instead of clinical excellence is the problem.

Starting as early as 2008, this blog has discussed the problems with the bar exam and its role as an unhelpful, anxiety producing, discriminatory, skewed, and unnecessarily speeded, gate-keeping device.  For a sporadic history of posts between then and now, in fairly chronological order, click on the links below.

Did You Know That “Bar Courses” Don’t Matter? 

New Article: No Excuses Left for Failing to Reform Legal Education

Working with State Bar Associations on Best Practices

Bar Passage and Best Practices for Legal Education

One BAR to rule them all?

The Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program

NYSBA Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession Report

New Requirements for Bar Exam Stress Clinical Education

Existential Crisis and Bar Exams: what is really cruelest?

The Bar Exam Inhibits Curricular Reform

NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION VIGOROUSLY OPPOSES PROPOSAL TO BRING UBE TO NY THIS JULY

Preparing Students for the Multistate Bar Exam

Musings on the Bar Exam and Legal Education’s Attitude toward it

Bar Exam Musings, Part II: Skillfully Changing the Bar Exam Narrative

Experts in the Legal Field Question the Bar Exam…

What’s going on in California? “TFARR- recommended” 15 credits of competency training

New York Proposes “Experiential Learning Requirements” as Condition of Licensure: CLEA and NYS Bar Committee Respond

Examining the Bar

Keeping an experiential identity in bar passage reform

Whither Clinical Courses and Bar Passage – by Prof. Robert Kuehn

DO LAW SCHOOLS ADEQUATELY PREPARE STUDENTS FOR PRACTICE? SURVEYS SAY . . . NO! – Robert Kuehn, Washington University School of Law

Professor Merritt’s Blog post on attorney discipline and bar exam WORTH A READ!

Studying Better Ways to Test Bar Applicants for Minimum Competence: Another Reason to Care about the California Bar Exam (Besides the Cut Score Debate)

Scholarship on Bar Exam Alternatives Needed

ABA Commission on Future of the Profession & ABA Vote on Bar Passage Proposal

Drafting Exams With Test-Taking Speed in MindConcrete Suggestions for Bar Exam Reform

We have to talk about the bar exam

What can Law Schools Learn about Bar Passage from Medical Schools’ Approach to Studying Students Who Struggle with Licensing Exams?

More Resources Re Teaching, Learning, and Bar Passage

A Fresh Look at the Uniform Bar Examination

Letters raise concerns about changes to the bar pass accreditation standard

Time to Remedy the Ills Afflicting ABA Council’s Standard 316 Proposal

Are the Students Failing the Bar Exam Today Canaries in the Coal Mine warning us of a More General Need to Change Legal Education?

Shifting the Focus of Legal Education Back to Just That: Education

How Practice Tests Reduce Anxiety in Bar Preparation and the Exam

Quite a listing, huh? I suspect that the IAALS and Merritt project will provide us with extraordinarily helpful insights into measuring minimum competence. But political clout is also needed. Will this BLOG simply be adding more posts for years to come on the unfairness and inappropriateness of a slightly modified, unnecessarily stressful, timed, bar exam — a continued hazing tradition?  I hope the NCBE and other institutional influencers proves me wrong.

Best Wellness Practices: Student Edition

Before I started my first year of law school, I was warned countless times about the grueling workload, the lack of sleep, the long days, and the overall toll that school would take on my physical/mental health. I was told that I would be kissing my social life goodbye and I would not be able to keep up with my daily exercise routines. While I definitely agree that 1L was a huge adjustment, I decided to take some simple, yet effective steps to ensure that I did not neglect my well-being and I did just fine! My hope is that other 1L professors reading this can pass some of these ideas along to the new students as suggestions.

  1. I made sure to get enough sleep (usually)
    First, I’ll admit that I didn’t sleep too well the first few weeks, but I think that’s pretty normal. I definitely wasn’t used to the reading and case briefing, so it ate up most of my time in the beginning. But after I started to figure it out a little more, I decided if I’m tired, I won’t be focusing on class and if I’m not focusing on class, my grades will suffer. For most of my semester, I swear I was getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night (disclaimer: midterms and finals weeks don’t necessarily apply here). I realized that there is plenty of time for reading and assignments if you capitalize on breaks in between classes and head to the library immediately after the last class of the day. I was really able to maximize my time this way, which brings me to my next point:
  2. I made myself a morning person
    Let me start off by saying I am not a morning person. That being said, I found that waking up earlier helped me prepare for class. I also found that I was more productive in the mornings. I could usually finish my readings the night before, but I started waking up early to review my cases, which did two things. First, it helped ease the anxiety of the infamous cold calling. Second, I was actually awake by the time I sat down for class (pending I had my coffee at least).
  3. I watched an episode of my favorite show before bed every night
    Every student deserves at least one mindless, non-law school related activity every day! Your brain will appreciate this since it is probably working somewhere around 100 mph every other second of the day! I made it a ritual to watch an episode of my favorite show every night, which happens to only be about 23 minutes long. It helped me wind down and get a few laughs in after a long day.
  4. I took my dog on long walks every day
    Not everyone has a dog, but just going outside in the fresh air and getting some exercise made all the difference. Sometimes, I’d listen to music or podcasts too, giving me yet another brain break!
  5. I utilized the school’s free counseling services and mentorship programs
    I can’t emphasize this one enough. If your school offers either of these services, encourage your students to use it – especially if it’s free! The free counselor provided by the school helped me with 1L anxiety and my mentor has given me invaluable advice.
  6. I kept a planner
    There are a lot of readings and assignments the first year, so this was a simple, inexpensive way to keep up with everything. The workload can seem very overwhelming, but having it all out in front of me helped me plan out my day and decrease the anxiety. I personally like to keep a written notebook, but there are also free apps available for your phone.
  7. *I gave myself off one day a week*
    I think this is arguably the most important thing I did to survive the first year. In recognition of the fact that I am only human, I felt it was important to do something “un-law-related” each week. With the exception of midterms, some big papers, and finals, I always gave myself one day a week to get away from school completely. In the warmer months, I’d often go on hikes or hang out with friends outside of school and in the winter, I’d go snowboarding for a day. Anything to get a full day away!

    In light of the major emphasis on student wellness programs in law schools, I highly encourage professors to remind students that it’s okay to slow down and take a break. Even if students feel as though they don’t have the time to participate in specific wellness programs offered by the school, there are the small things students can do in their own lives to keep happy and healthy – yes, even during 1L!

Leading Edge Conference: Facing and Forming Legal Education’s Future with Insights, Data and Inclusive Thinking

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the 6th annual Leading Edge Conference hosted by Wolters Kluwer (WK) in Riverwoods, Illinois. It was my first experience with this particular conference. Using an unconference format and with a balance of old-timers and new attendees, WK brought together approximately 30 “thought leaders” for two+ days of intense discussion. Participants included professors and deans from a wide variety of law schools, representatives from law related entities such as LSAC, NITA and IAALS, education or pro-bono related entrepreneurs, and digitalization pioneers.

In addition to the conference, WK hosts the Leading Edge Webinar Series and just announced its 2nd annual Leading Edge prize. Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000) will be awarded to two winning teams “to help implement their visions of improving student outcomes or expanding educational opportunities for law students.” Proposals are due August 15th.

I left the conferences with many “take-aways,” that I am only beginning to fully digest, and with a better sense of the continuing challenges facing legal education and our profession. Bernard A. Burk, Jerome M. Organ and Emma B. Rasiel recently published in the Nevada Law Review “Competitive Coping Strategies in the American Legal Academy: An Empirical Study”. Their research examined the response of law schools “to the substantial fall off in both the number and the conventional qualifications of applicants to law school that began after 2010.”

The “Competitive Coping Strategies” research also explains why more law schools have not closed and emphasizes the “widened distance” between current students’ needs and current school resources. The study found that in the face of plunging applications to law school, “Reputationally stronger schools” generally chose to preserve their entering Class Profile. This meant “thousands of viable candidates remained available to other law schools, effectively preventing the closing of as many as twenty Reputationally Weaker schools.”

Second, the study points out the implications of shrinking Class Size and discounting Tuition to preserve entering class profile. “As a practical matter, then, law schools ‘invested’ in Profile rather than in expanding their faculties, facilities or their access to clinical and experiential education. We encourage discussion of the implications of this investment choice.”

Third, the study noted that “some Reputationally Weaker law schools perversely were able to maintain or raise their average Net Tuition” and “the students with the least promising prospects for obtaining or making any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them. These inequalities expanded significantly after 2010.”

Fourth, the study highlights the millions of dollars in forgone Tuition Revenue “unavailable to meet the needs of students who at many law schools are significantly less prepared” than their predecessors and suggests this widening gap underlies the declining Bar Exam pass rate.

We seem to have reached a plateau in declining admissions to law school. But that plateau is not a place for us to settle in and rest. There are too many hard questions about where we are now.

How do we address the inequalities which have expanded since 2010 in law schools? What is the value we provide to those with the “least promising prospects?” Is it immoral that those least likely to make “any economically sustainable use of their law degrees are paying the highest prices to obtain them?” or that they may be undertaking crippling debt to obtain a law degree?

On the other hand, if we narrow the pathway into law schools even further, rejecting any who come to law school less credentialed or less prepared, will we be rejecting the dreams and hopes of those who desire a professional pathway? Will we be rejecting many who will find an economically sustainable and good life for themselves? Will we be playing God with students from less advantaged backgrounds just because we don’t know who will make it and who won’t? Will we be eliminating first generation students in larger numbers? Will we be amplifying the lack of diversity in our profession?

And what about the role of law schools in the community at large at this moment in our nation’s fledgling history? Shouldn’t we continue to exist as community laboratories which encourage civil discussion, uphold the rule of law, critique unjust legal systems and decisions, work to sustain democratic institutions and constitutional checks and balances, and produce new ideas about the role of law and legal systems in society?

Finally, if we espouse the “public good” values of my last two paragraphs as arguments for the continued existence of the legal academy and law schools, then do we prioritize these values in our faculty hiring, our strategic plans, and our prioritization of resources?
So, I leave you as I left the conference, with more questions than answers, but with a firm sense that we must continue to ask these important questions.

(Note: the author had her lodging, food and flights paid. She was not paid to write or post anything about the conference. Besides, she is pretty opinionated and not easily swayed.)

Dean Gerken’s Vision Versus Malcolm Gladwell’s Experience

“When we decide who is smart enough to be a lawyer, we use a stopwatch.”           Malcolm Gladwell

“Law school should be a time to luxuriate in ideas, to test their principles, and to think critically about the law and the profession.”  Dean Heather Gerken

On the same day I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating podcast about the LSAT and test-taking speed, I also read Yale Dean Heather Gerken’s insightful Commentary, “Resisting the Theory/Practice Divide: Why the “Theory School” Is Ambitious About Practice.” Both are wonderful.  Together, they shine light on a dialectic tension within legal education.

Dean Gerken’s article inspires us to think about legal education in its biggest and broadest sense.  She posits that, “At its best, a J.D. is a thinking degree, a problem-solving degree, a leadership degree” and she notes that for students, “law school should be a time to luxuriate in ideas, to test their principles, and to think critically about the law and the profession.”

She envisions law school as a place where students engage in deep critical thinking about the law and the profession – both in the classroom and in clinics, and she discusses the interdependent relationship between the deep learning that should occur in both.

Dean Gerken eschews a mechanistic approach to both classroom and clinical teaching.  She points out that as doctrinal and clinical faculty, our collective, and symbiotic, goal should be to train our students to read closely, think deeply, skeptically, and critically.  She notes that we should help our students learn to question legal rules and principles in context of messy facts, to challenge existing legal rules, and develop new rules or applications of those rules, or as Dean Gerken puts it, to spend as much time thinking about “the ought as the is”.

Contrast Dean Gerken’s understanding of legal education with Gladwell’s podcast about his experience taking the LSAT.  In it, he posits: “when we decide who is smart enough to be a lawyer, we use a stopwatch.”   He notes that who gets into law school, and what law school they get into, rests largely on LSAT score differences – differences that may depend in part upon one’s ability to answer questions quickly rather than thoughtfully.

Gladwell recounts his experience with an LSAT test prep coach who urged him not to read the passages closely because he had no time to do that.  Amazed, Gladwell reflects on how, to get the best score, he must not spend time truly thinking about the issues raised by the problems he must answer.

In the podcast, Gladwell talks to Professor Bill Henderson, the author of a seminal article providing empirical evidence that test-taking speed is an independent variable in both the LSAT and timed law school exams.  Henderson, a former firefighter, talks about the times in his life he felt most time pressured.  As Gladwell remarks, Professor Henderson’s most time-pressured performances were not when responding to life-threatening emergencies.  Instead, they were when he took the LSAT and law school exams.

Gladwell’s podcast meanders into the world of championship chess.  Gladwell analogizes how the chess world decided not to value speed, and how that decision changes who is a top-ranked international chess champion.  He notes that the arbitrary value placed upon speed when it comes to the LSAT and law school exams defines who we consider smart.  He wonders what would happen if the ability to answer questions quickly were not in the mix.  The podcast then returns to Professor Henderson who talks about how allowing law students more time to take law school exams can change the outcome of who gets the best grades in a law school class, and hence who thinks of themselves as a smart person, and who gets hired by top law firms, etc.

As I listened to Gladwell’s podcast, I thought about the bar exam.  In an article Professors Chomsky, Kaufman and I wrote, it took us nearly 500 words to deconstruct the analytical process one must go through to answer one tort multiple choice bar exam question.  That analytical process begins after examinees read a question.  Bar examinees have approximately 1.8 minutes to read and answer each of the exam’s 200 multiple choice questions.

While perhaps quickly identifying the correct response is a necessary skill for some litigators, speedy answers to legal problems are not the cornerstone of most good lawyering.  Yet, starting with the LSAT, continuing in law school, and ending with the bar exam, as Gladwell observes, we reward the hare instead of the tortoise.  He asks “why”?

Dean Gerken’s vision speaks to why I became a law professor.  Gladwell’s observations speak to the experience of my students.  I am not sure how to reconcile the two beyond noting that we must first acknowledge the dialectic.  Only then can we decide if we want to  judge future lawyers’ potential and abilities based upon Gerken’s vision or  Gladwell’s experience.

Today’s Law Student Wellness Programs

There was a time in the not-so-distance past when wellness programs in U.S. law schools primarily focused on preventing substance abuse and suicide. This programming often involved a presentation from the state’s Lawyer Assistance Program. The speaker warned about depression, substance abuse, and suicide for members of the legal profession and the availability of help. While this was important programming, it was depressing and not inspiring for most of our students.

Today, law schools, law students, and lawyers take a broader view of attorney wellness and well-being. We now recognize that students and lawyers benefit from education and opportunities to develop into happy, thriving lawyers. Law school wellness education today is not just about prevention of negative outcomes. It centers around the proactive steps law students and lawyers can take to improve every dimension of their lives.

The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL) formed the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being to address attorney and law student wellness. In its report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (“Task Force Report”), the Task Force explains that there are six different aspects of lawyer well-being:

  • Social. Attorneys should work to develop “a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support network while also contributing to our groups and communities.”
  • Occupational. The Task Force Report references the need to cultivate personal satisfaction and growth in our work. It also notes the importance of financial stability.
  • Physical. In the area of physical health, the Task Force recommends “regular physical activity, proper diet and nutrition, sufficient sleep, and recovery; minimizing the use of addictive substances. Seeking help for physical health when needed.”
  • Emotional. The Task Force Report encourages lawyers to seek support from professionals when they are struggling emotionally. It also emphasizes the importance of “developing the ability to identify and manage our own emotions to support mental health, achieve goals, and inform decision-making.”
  • Intellectual. An attorney focused on the intellectual dimension of wellness engages in “continuous learning and the pursuit of creative or intellectually challenging activities that foster ongoing development.”
  • Spiritual. The Task Force Report explains that the goal in this area is “developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.”

The Task Force makes a number of specific recommendations for law schools. The suggestions include the following:

  • Create Best Practices for Detecting and Assisting Students Experiencing Psychological Distress.
  • Assess Law School Practices and Offer Faculty Education on Promoting Well-Being in the Classroom.
  • Empower Students to Help Fellow Students in Need.
  • Include Well-Being Topics in Courses on Professional Responsibility.
  • Commit Resources for Onsite Professional Counselors.
  • Facilitate a Confidential Recovery Network.
  • Provide Education Opportunities on Well-Being Related Topics.
  • Discourage Alcohol-Centered Social Events.
  • Conduct Anonymous Surveys Relating to Student Well-Being.

In subsequent posts, this blog will consider some examples of the wellness programs, classes, and initiatives that law schools have instituted to address these issues and other areas of need.

 

Improv for First-Year Law Students?

Just over a year ago, in search of a mid-life growth opportunity, I began taking improv (i.e., improvisational performance) classes at a small theater in Pittsburgh. For decades, I had been a fan of improv as a comedy form but did not have the confidence to think that I could step on a stage and do it myself. Then I happened upon Alan Alda’s book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face? Post his acting career, Alda has become a communications consultant of sorts, working primarily with scientists to help them explain complex ideas in ways that a lay audience can understand. One of the central messages of the book is that improv training and exercises can help professionals of all types relate to others more empathetically and communicate with others more confidently and clearly. Alda references studies showing the benefits of improv training and describes his own experiences running improv exercises for groups of engineers and other scientists.

After reading Alda’s book, I realized that my job as a law professor is to communicate complex ideas to a lay audience too. So, I decided that I could benefit from improv classes—and have some fun at the same time.

My improv experiences over the past year, including joining a team and performing numerous short sets before a live audience, have convinced me that, in short, legal education needs improv. More specifically, to improve the learning environment throughout law school, entering first-year law students need improv! (I could write a separate post on the salutary effects that improv training has had on my teaching, but I will focus for now on how exposure to improv could benefit law students.)

There are CLE courses on improv offered for practicing lawyers (for example, in California and Florida), and there is a blog on improvisational skills for lawyers. But how about improv for law students? Based on a cursory online search, it appears that a handful of law schools offer or have offered improv courses or workshops, including Drexel and Indiana University McKinney. How much improv work has been done with 1Ls, if any, is unclear.

The benefits of improv for law students seem most apparent in the context of skills or experiential courses involving oral communication. Indeed, I have begun using some limited improv exercises during oral argument lessons in my 1L legal writing course. No doubt faculty members at various law schools—Northwestern, for example—have used improv exercises in other skills courses. Thinking more broadly though, and extrapolating from studies discussed in Alda’s book, I believe that offering improv workshops to law students early in their law school careers could very well improve in-class performance and learning throughout law school.

Improv revolves heavily around a group or team dynamic. Someone on the team must initiate a scene by stepping out on stage and doing something, or saying something, or both. One or more of her teammates then must step out in support, accepting the reality established by whatever the first person did and adding to it to help build the scene. That is the essence of “yes, and,” the fundamental premise of improv. The priority in every scene is to make one’s scene mates look good and to never hang them out to dry.

A quick example: An improv teammate and I walk onto the stage. She purposefully walks to a corner of the stage where there is a chair, sits down, puts her head in her hands, sighs deeply, and then begins to sob. Since I have walked onto the stage too, I am the team member in this scene who must accept her established reality: she is distraught about something, and we are in a location where she has taken a seat. However, I must also add to that reality. There are myriad ways in which I could do so. I could, for example, walk over, put my hand on her shoulder, and attempt to comfort her by saying, “It’s alright, honey, I never really liked our BMW anyway, and the side of the house that you hit—we really don’t use it much anymore now that the kids are gone.” She in turn accepts the reality that I have created, and on it goes from there, each of us supporting the other as the scene develops.

I see multiple potential benefits for law students (and, in turn, their professors) that could come from some basic improv training with exercises, offered perhaps within an orientation program before classes begin. For starters, law students, like lawyers, need to work collaboratively and need to relate to each other in a civil and empathetic manner. Improv’s emphasis on teamwork can help in that regard, enhancing students’ abilities to work productively and constructively with classmates in group exercises and projects.

Then there is the classroom learning environment and the sometimes strained or unproductive exchanges that take place between professors and students. Consider the ways in which exposing students to improv could mitigate the impediments to learning existing in the following classroom scenarios, each of which should be familiar to most law professors:

  • Professor poses a question or discussion topic to the class and waits for a volunteer to raise a hand and respond. Nobody does. Or, in a similar scenario, professor calls on a specific student, and the student asks to pass (even though the student might very well have done the reading).
  • Professor poses a question to a specific student, and the student asks for the question to be repeated, or answers in a manner that is not directly responsive to the question.
  • Professor poses a question to a specific student, and the student couches his or her answer in the form of a question, not a statement, suggesting uncertainty and lack of confidence. (For example, in my Legislation & Regulation course, I might ask regarding a case, “Which of the three opinions—majority, concurrence, or dissent—seems to approach the statutory interpretation question most like a textualist would?” The student somewhat meekly responds, “Is it the dissent?”)
  • Professor poses a question that is not explicitly addressed in the reading for that class but rather concerns a hypothetical scenario or a thematic issue in the course that is implicated by the reading. In response, the student struggles to answer or fully engage with the question because, as some students are wont to say, “it wasn’t in the reading.”

These are usually not scenarios where the student is incapable of responding insightfully; rather, the student is just not confident enough to respond or too nervous to respond. Students who have done improv exercises involving initiating scenes and supporting teammates in scenes would naturally be less averse to speaking up in class and doing so in the form of confident and clear statements. They would also naturally be less averse to joining in a discussion after a classmate speaks up (akin to supporting one’s teammate). And they would naturally be more inclined to listen actively and carefully to the professor’s questions and their classmate’s statements. All of which is to say that each of the above scenarios might play out differently—with some robust student participation leading to more productive and constructive discussion. The final scenario in many ways gets to the heart of what improv is all about: going with the flow and accepting whatever comes your way. With exposure to improv, students would perchance be less phased by the question that, while technically not encompassed by the day’s reading, is still well within the scope of the course and their abilities.

In classroom discussion, students whose answers are “wrong” or whose contributions to discussion are somewhat off target tend to view the episode as an embarrassment and a reason not to ever answer a question in class again. I would expect that, with exposure to improv, students would be at least somewhat more inclined to view the episode as a learning experience, which is indeed how it should be viewed.

Posted on the wall of the green room at the theater where I take improv classes is a sign that reads “You Are Enough.” For any law student, improv can impart the message that, even though there will be struggles and mistakes along the way, you are indeed enough. I continue to get nervous before my improv team’s shows, and on more than a few occasions, I have said or done things on the improv stage that fell flat, did not effectively advance the scene, or otherwise just did not feel right. Yes, I get frustrated. But I keep confidently walking in front of the audience because that is how I will continue to learn and grow. So it should be for law students in the classroom, and ultimately in the practice of law, and in life.

Shifting the Focus of Legal Education Back to Just That: Education

I read an article a while ago that has stayed with me titled “Law Schools are Bad for Democracy.”  Given the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves today, I want to be able to disagree.  Law Schools may be one of the few means to save democracy – but not if we keep being distracted[i] by numbers of published article “hits” for rankings or the minutia to which assessments have gone.  In this short piece, I’d like to suggest that we reconsider the broader purpose of legal education and its uniqueness and then rethink some of our priorities for legal education in that context. The perspective we operate from today is the decade-old emphasis on the Big Law gold star standard. [ii]  Isn’t it time to consider what we’ve learned, re-think and make some changes?

We should pay more attention to the bigger picture of legal education, its place in a student’s continuum of education as well as where a legal education may best serve both students and our legal system[iii]. Students come to us with much narrower educational backgrounds than in the past, degreed with any number of concentrations from food or media studies to business, management, or marketing. There are undergraduate concentrations in sustainability. While all these concentrations or majors may help college-graduates enter the job market more quickly, the narrowness of the specializations make our applicants’ education incomplete for law school.  A job-specific specialization in undergraduate school likely means our students lack skills and perspective beyond what was necessary for their specialty.  We have students apply who have never written a full-length paper; have never read – whether in paper or electronically – any of the classics. We have students who have never taken a class in civics or government. When they come to us now, our students need to learn critical thinking not just as a “skill,” but as an integral part of how they think; they need help learning how perspective  informs understanding; and they need help understanding the foundations of law, along with the ability to read and apply precedent as well as rules. Our students need to learn context. Because of limited collegiate exposure and the inward-looking, somewhat impersonal experiences of the social-media generation, our students need to develop an understanding of the people whose disputes were addressed either privately through judicial decisions or publicly through legislation. Further still, our students need to learn to evaluate that foundation for its consistency with democratic values; to critique that foundation by not taking words at face value, and to consider the longer-term consequences to our legal system and society.

It seems to me, given our social times and the state of undergraduate education generally, the need to revisit our focus is imperative. Here are some more specific reasons.

Remember the 2007 Carnegie report and its criticism of law schools for failing to provide law school graduates with enough “skills” for practice? The beginning of the push by Big Law to make sure its incoming associates could do more practical work and thus require less practical firm training?  The year right before the 2008 financial crisis? That’s the year – 2007 – that one of the most recent Senate confirmations to the United States Court of Appeals graduated from law school.  Not quite twelve years ago.[iv]  Right around then, law schools were admonished to keep pace with “trends” in the profession that focused on being employable – already having practice skills and being technology-ready.[v][vi] Part of what makes such judicial inexperience significant to law schools is that in the last two years over 100 new federal judges have been confirmed by the Senate making that number confirmed more than under any previous president. Perhaps even more concerning is that these nominees received more “unqualified” votes than for nominees by all of the previous four presidents combined.[vii] Given the sheer numbers of new appointees alone, though, the role of lawyers in this adversarial system is at an all time high for importance.

But, encouraged by the LSAC,[viii] many law schools still have carved out their niches in narrow areas encouraging students to get a sort of parallel “expertise” that too many under-prepared undergraduate students bring.[ix]  Perhaps like college grads, law school graduates will be able to enter the market more quickly. However, law schools are still criticized for not making students “practice-ready” enough for some law firms; for costing too much, and for not doing enough to help students pass the bar exam[x].  And, to meet the skills and bar scores, law schools have spent hours on “assessments” as though what we really want students to learn is easily quantifiable and measurable. Maybe all of the criticisms are on point, but these repeated criticisms obscure two larger problems – that our students need more perspective and that we may be overly narrow in what we have chosen to “assess.”  Along with undergraduate schools, we have leaned pretty far into assessments.

Even undergraduate school assessment experts have begun to recognize the inadequacies of “assessments.”  In “Harsh Take on Assessment from Assessment Pros” by Doug Lederman,[xi] a group of assessment experts from undergraduate schools found little value in current assessments. The article suggests that efforts to help “’measure’ how much students learn are being used to judge the performance of colleges and universities rather than to help students learn.” The article also suggests that the kinds of information that could be used to help individual students learn and improve the quality of instruction at the university level are not as easily quantified for measurement. For law schools, the problem of using “assessments” as a way to judge law school performance is likely even greater given the multiple layers of accreditation and ranking.[xii]  Lederman cited support in several essays on criticism of assessment, especially “assessment as bureaucratic machine.”[xiii] I really appreciate that phrase:  “assessment as a bureaucratic machine.”

Drawing from the conclusion that assessments designed to measure student learning in a “quantifiable way have been counterproductive,” the article suggests “’backward design’ focused on ‘where do I want them to end up and how do I help them get there.”  That suggestion, though, is followed by repeated criticism of the “’inane’ focus on student learning outcomes[xiv]” as a reminder that reverse engineering ought not to be used to generate yet more narrow outcomes, but to look at evidence of student development and progress – progress that should be seen in light of a school’s identity and purpose.

In “Law Schools Are Bad for Democracy,” Samuel Moyn, professor of law and history at Yale University[xv]  examined how law schools, in his case, elite law schools, struggle to define their own identity and serve the aspirations of their students.  He briefly traced criticisms of elite law schools as serving to entrench social hierarchy. He noted how current criticism suggests law schools remain “factories for mass conversion of pliant subjects into large-firm lawyers” [xvi] while at the same time participation in “strategic legal activism”[xvii] tends to be more of a trend among students.  Prof. Moyn encouraged law schools to re-examine their first-year curriculum that requires learning tenets of judge-made private law and to instead expose students to more public-law courses and help them develop a stronger ability and criteria to critique what they read[xviii].

As part of re-examining law school missions that could be the start of backward design, Prof. Moyn asks: Are law schools supposed to be mostly about educating lawyers to solve other peoples’ private problems? Advance social justice?  And these big picture questions are being raised at the same time sharper criticism is being leveled at the schema used to quantify and “measure” whatever success students have toward whatever those goals are.[xix]

So, if we reverse-engineer from where we want our students – future lawyers and judges – to end up, should we not think more broadly than large law firms as the top priority? Given changing times, should we not reconsider what we prioritize for where our students wind up in their education?  To reverse engineer, evaluate what lawyers bring to our legal system that non-lawyers don’t. At the very least, our students should have knowledge of the law and a broad understanding of all that is our legal system along with their part in that system beyond their experiences as lay people.

What a re-imagined focus might yield for course coverage is complicated and will vary. Everyone may disagree, but I would look at whatever makes having a legal education most valuable – that takes advantage of uniqueness in legal education.  I would imagine a deeper dive into each legal subject putting saving greater breadth of coverage for upper level or additional courses. To allow for deeper examination, maybe reduce the number of “practice” requirements that could otherwise happen on-the-job such as client counseling at the same time still providing some of the more unique, lawyer-only experiences such as trials for context as well as integrated experiences such as in-house clinics that provide depth of knowledge combined with experience and context. Maybe legal writing would focus less on litigation-driven document-drafting; omit the objective memorandum; or focus less on citations because courts have different citation manuals and one really does not need to be a lawyer to prepare citations. Perhaps reconsider school-wide bar passage emphasis on the theory that the law school experience should provide the context and depth as education; bar review courses can, and do, perform the task of skimming the surface of a wide swath of topics in direct preparation for that test. Academic support could focus more on context for understanding law and our legal system rather than teach limited teaching skills like as case briefing.  Given where we are today, I hope re-designing legal education prompts us to focus less on detailed quantifiably measurable skills to ensure assessments are met and more toward striving for student learning that goes beyond what non-lawyers attain.

It seems to me our society would benefit now from law schools reconsidering how we prioritize what our students need to be lawyers, future judges and leaders in the context of the broader picture of our legal system and society. With one hundred new judges and more on the way, the need for well-rounded lawyers to participate in our legal system has never been greater.

 

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[i] Ask who benefits most from those distractions.  You cannot possible think that our justice system benefits by the number of times a law school professor’s article receives a “hit.” There are bots that can generate those hits and downloads.  Johan Sebastian Bach; Henry David Thoreau; Emily Dickinson; Herman Melville; Vincent Van Gogh: these are people who have contributed to western society in incalculable ways but were never famous – didn’t receive the “hits” until after they died.  Counting cites or hits is a distraction.

[ii] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_practice/publications/law_practice_magazine/

[iii] There is no doubt that a lawyer’s ability to represent clients out of the gate is important. There is also no doubt that the cost of law school has put many students in the position of searching for the highest paying job.  These are important concerns, just not the subject of this short piece.

[iv] Judge Rudge Rushing obtained a clerkship with then-Judge for the Tenth Circuit Neil Gorsuch.

[v] Five years and one financial crisis later, “Failing Law Schools” hit the market and it criticized schools and faculty for prioritizing research and scholarship over teaching practical skills.

[vi] The book also slammed U.S. News & World Report’s ranking system in part as leading to corrupt practices to get law schools better rankings such as – inflating LSAT scores. Imagine what the author would say about a ranking system that counts what are in essence “hits” on someone’s publications.

[vii] https://news.bloomberglaw.com/us-law-week/trump-picks-more-not-qualified-judges-1

[viii] https://www.lsac.org/discover-law/pathways-legal-career

[ix] Cite Rebecca Flannigan, “The Kids Aren’t Alright: Rethinking the Law School Skills Deficit,” 2015 B.Y.U. Educ. & L.J. 135 (2015).

[x] When bar pass emphasis starts in the first year, I would say the hyper-focus on passing the bar comes close to  missing the point of a legal education.  The Bar exam has problems with its questions; problems as a standardized test, and with emphasis on topics that may or may not be important to future practice. Moreover, as many people have said, the Bar exam is a mile wide and an inch deep.  Our students should have knowledge beyond that surface and the ability to consider and factor much more than rule or rule outlines as they become lawyers.

[xi] Inside higher ed.

[xii] ABA Accreditation for the law school directly; for law schools as part of broader graduate schools Middle States or regional equivalent; evaluation by the larger university.

[xiii] Doug Lederman, “Harsh Take on Assessment from Assessment Pros,” Inside Higher Ed, April 17, 2019. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/04/17/advocates-student-learning-assessment-say-its-time-different-approach at 3-4.

[xiv] Lederman at 5.

[xv] “Law Schools Are Bad for Democracy,” Samuel Moyn, The Chronicle of Higher Education December 16, 2018.  https://www.chronicle.com/article/Law-Schools-Are-Bad-for/245334

[xvi] Id. at 5.

[xvii] Id. at 6.  Other aspects of Prof. Moyn’s article focus more directly on obligations of elite law schools. Because there are more non-elite than elite law schools I have chosen to focus on and adapt concerns to law schools more generally.

[xviii] Interestingly, Prof. Moyn also questions the almost pedestal on which judges are placed. Such criticism seems apt considering the relative inexperience of many new federal judges. Such criticism, though, is important regardless of judicial experience if only because judges are human, too.

[xix]Lederman at 6. This article summarizes events from the Academic Resource Conference by college and universities – not law schools.

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