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January 7, 2010

"Law students at great expense are getting little more than bad sociology"

The title of this post is just one of many provocative comments by law professor Charles Rounds in this potent commentary urging law schools to return to teaching traditional common-law subjects.  Here are more buzz-worthy excerpts that I hope might generate some comments here:

Professional schools need to strike a balance between book-learning and real-world experience.  The American law school now deserves failing grades in both departments.

But it gets worse. In response to complaints from the practicing bar that recent law graduates cannot write well and are otherwise unable to “hit the ground running,” the typical law school has beefed up its in-house clinics and legal writing programs. These politicized bureaucracies behave like labor unions. They are great at self-promotion and forging national networks. They are labor-intensive and thus frightfully expensive.

At best, these programs are pedagogically inefficient; at worst they are pedagogically cancerous. By chipping away at, or crowding out altogether, traditional core courses such as Agency, Trusts, and Equity, these clinical and legal writing programs are more than just a nuisance.  One’s writing improves when one has something rational and coherent to express.  Ten writing courses will not help the law student who is unable to connect the dots because he or she does not know where the dots are.

There is some irony here, as a lawyer is the agent of his or her client.  Law schools are in the business of churning out common law agents but they no longer require that their students take a course in the law of agency? How can that be?

This de-professionalization of the American law school, a phenomenon of profound concern to many in the legal profession, suggests that there is an opening for the for-profit sector.  A bare-bones, back-to-basics for-profit law school staffed by seasoned scholar-practitioners may be the answer. The more boot-camp-like the better, in that the rigor will prepare future lawyers for the work they’ll actually confront in the real world.

It would be a step in the right direction (but only a small one) if law schools were to revive and require the discrete Agency course and relegate to the extra curricular “subjects” such as these: Climate Change Justice (taught at Harvard), Social Justice Lawyering (University of North Carolina), Law and Literature: Murder (University of North Carolina), Social Disparities in Health (Colorado), Wal-Mart (Colorado), Law & Literature: Race and Gender (Duke), Sexual Orientation and the Law (Duke), Ethics in Literature (Yale), Civil Disobedience (Suffolk), and Critical Race Theory (Suffolk).

In any case, we are more likely to see such modest back-to-basics reforms emanating from a for-profit law school, whose faculty presumably would not be tenured, than from the tenured law faculties in the non-profit sector, which tend to walk in lock step. A for-profit law school that affords its students a thorough grounding in the fundamentals would soon win the respect and admiration of the hiring partners in the nation’s law firms. In time they would come to take with a grain of salt the puff pieces and propaganda of their non-profit alma maters, and of the American Bar Association which regulates them.

Posted by DAB

January 7, 2010 in Legal profession realities and developments, Teaching -- curriculum, The mission of law schools | Permalink

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Comments

Thanks for pointing us to this post. As a recent student of Prof. Rounds and a supporter of law school innovation, I put my two cents on my blog today:

http://www.practicingonpurpose.com/daily-practice/january72010-innovationorrenovation

Posted by: Gretchen Duhaime | Jan 7, 2010 1:15:04 PM

I don't know enough about pedagogy to evaluate these comments, except to say that I think poor writing is not due to poor fundamentals. I think the quality of writing skills learned in high school and college has declined over the years as emphasis on standardized testing has increased.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Jan 8, 2010 7:49:08 AM

Those courses appear to be left wing, America bashing indoctrination courses. No. They are future expansions of the legal liability of productive entities. They point to more opportunities for lawyers to plunder these.

All grads report the inability to function after graduation. The third year might better be spent working on real cases, instead of the above courses.

If Hudson, 1812, established legality in the criminal law, how come so much time is spent on common law crimes? The law school has a big problem with atavism, not back to 1975 AD, back to 1275 AD. The 13th Century lawyer would need a month of CLE, and could easily have a successful practice today. That would be out of the question with any other service or product provider. Those 13th Century English lawyers would feel humiliated if any case reached substance. They were hyperproceduralists, their really being French or French trained. That would be a useful art to teach today, in 3L.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 10, 2010 10:53:34 AM

Aren't bar preparation courses really for-profit law schools that afford their students the thorough grounding in fundamentals described by the author? Sadly I think this is the role these courses are playing right now.

And it's perhaps a bit short-sighted to single out clinical and other non-traditional courses as the problem (even a small problem). The fact is that core courses like property, civil procedure, contracts, etc. are taught by law professors with little to no pedagogical experience (though most law schools host some kind of day-long "pedagogy seminar" for new professors when the school year begins). While most professors have impressive CVs, they lack the ability or the incentive to learn how to impart effectively the knowledge they have.

Students would, in my opinion, respond positively to a curriculum that provided them the kind of fundamental grounding in legal knowledge Rounds describes, but, I question whether law schools and law professors are capable of providing it.

Posted by: MJW | Jan 14, 2010 3:30:55 PM

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