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January 5, 2007

Teaching law as a moral calling

InsideHigherEd.com reports on a soon-to-be-published study by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching titled Educating Lawyers : Preparation for the Profession of Law. The study argues that while schools are highly effective at teaching students to “think like lawyers,” the Langdelian case-study method encourages students to focus on abstractions in reaching conclusions, to consider “as ‘facts’ only those details that contribute to someone’s staking a legal claim on the basis of precedent.”

“By contrast, the task of connecting these conclusions with the rich complexity of actual situations that involve full-dimensional people, let alone the job of thinking through the social consequences or ethical aspects of the conclusions, remains outside the case-dialogue method. Issues such as the social needs or matters of justice involved in cases do get attention in some case-dialogue classrooms, but these issues are almost always treated as addenda.”

The article quotes Carnegie's William M. Sullivan, the report's primary author: “Learning to think like a lawyer ... is insufficient as a basis for becoming a competent legal professional.”

Recently I attended a symposium in which  a law professor described an experiment he ran with one of his advanced classes. He asked his students to play the role of a lawyer in the Nazi-occupied Guernsey Islands, representing a woman accused of being a “Jewess” by informants. The students acquitted themselves admirably as lawyers, but seemed unable to talk about the scenario from a moral or justice dimension. In private conversation afterwards, this professor expressed to me concern whether, in teaching students to “think like lawyers” in such an overwhelmingly effective manner, law schools also denude future lawyers' commitment to their core values and principles.

What responsibility, if any, do law schools have for the moral, ethical, and perhaps even spiritual development of future lawyers? Aside from preparing students to pass the MPRE, should schools weigh these values more heavily in their mission? Are schools already accomplishing this goal adequately, and if not, what might be more effective approaches?

- Gene Koo

January 5, 2007 in Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink


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I teach ethics, and have some very strong feelings about this. My class is shaped around three principles, which in turn encompass the rules. Those principles are honesty, engagement, and humility, and I spend as much time talking about the principles as I do about the rules. The students have found this very challenging, but worthwhile...

Posted by: Osler | Jan 7, 2007 9:15:37 PM

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