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January 13, 2008

A hierarchy of goals for law school instruction and serving students

During recent AALS presentations and in other law school reform discussions, I realized law professors often talk past each other because of different visions of the goals for law school instruction and serving students.  To give reform goals some conceptual content, I devised a hierarchy of goals for law school instruction and serving students (which now reminds me a bit of the eight degrees of tzedukah).  Here goes:

Law school instruction and serving students should be focused on...

5. helping students pass the bar

4. helping students get better grades

3. helping students learn doctrines and skills needed to be competent lawyers

2. helping students develop insights and abilities needed to be outstanding lawyers

1. helping students enhance talents and options needed to be flourishing professionals

In developing this (incomplete?) hierarchy, I have come to new insights about old issues, such as the laptops-in-the-classroom debate.  I surmise that many professors, perhaps accurately, fear that laptops (and surfing) in the classroom can undermine efforts to achieve Goals 3 and 4 and 5 for all the students.  But I consider laptops and the internet to be essential to Goals 1 and 2 and 3 for those students who are genuinely interested in the concepts and materials I cover.  Similarly...

Deeper insights about the stratification of law schools and law students also can emerge from this hierarchy of goals.  Consider, for example, Goal 5 concerning helping students pass the bar: because of their very different student populations, top-tier law schools and their students likely don't worry about this goal much; bottom-tier law schools and their students likely have to worry about this goal a lot.  And, for middle-tier schools, where the top 75% of students are very likely to pass the bar on the first try, an internal emphasis on Goal 5 will necessarily commit resources to the benefit of only a small portion of the school's student population.

Goal 4, helping students get better grades, creates a different sort of dynamic.  Most law schools have a fixed curve for most standard classes, so helping some law students get better grades will only entail that other students get worse grades.  This explains, in part, the grade-inflation pressure at most law schools: raising the overall grade curve will do more to help the entire student population on Goal 4 than will any amount of student services that merely help certain students do better on exams.

Finally, the pernicious realities of quantification and US News rankings explains why the "lesser" goals in this hierarchy tend to get so much more attention.  It is very easy to quantify and assess success with Goals 4 and 5, but quite hard to quantify and assess success with Goals 3 or 2 or 1 (unless success is defined in terms of monies given back to the law school by alums).  Thus, there will always be internal and external pressures to "do better" on Goals 4 and 5, while far too little attention is paid to Goals 3 or 2 or 1.

Posted by DAB

January 13, 2008 in Serving students | Permalink


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Excellent point, Doug. Further, the focus directly on 4 & 5 is misplaced, since achieving 1-3 will lead to their fulfillment in a better and more whole way.

Posted by: Mark Osler | Jan 14, 2008 9:39:20 AM

This great post made Blawg Review #142.

Check out "Letter to a New Lawyer"


Posted by: Susan Cartier Liebel | Jan 14, 2008 11:29:02 AM

Your point, Mark, seems to track a lot of the debate around No Child Left Behind. In its best spirit, exams track learning and point to institutional effectiveness, but inevitably they devolve into grade-grubbing goals rather than a means to the goal of learning. In theory, learning to learn and all that nice stuff should also boost students' ultimate grades, but that does require (a) good students and (b) really great teachers. In the absence of either, "teaching to the test" could be the only way forward -- and, some argue, better than the alternative (not teaching much at all). I hesitate to put law schools in this same set, but the parallels do interest me.

Posted by: Gene Koo | Jan 14, 2008 4:21:57 PM

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