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September 30, 2009

The Professor-Driven Curriculum

One of the classes I teach is White Collar Crime.  It is a three-credit class, one credit more than my sentencing class, appeals and habeas, and juvenile justice. 

Many, if not most, schools offer a class on White Collar Crime-- it is a sexy, intriguing area of the law with real societal importance and great stories embedded within the cases.  Questions of greed, morality, celebrity, and the culture of affluence twist through much of the reading and analysis in the field.   Moreover, those who practice in this area tend to be high-paid partners in large firms rather than the solo practitioners we find in the rest of criminal law.   It's no wonder, either-- there is real money in defending or consulting on these issues.  One firm, for example, billed 1.5 million hours in connection with the recent SEC settlement with Siemens (including the hours of the accountants they retained).

Few if any the students in my class will ever have a significant practice in prosecuting or defending major white collar crimes.  My WCC class may turn out to be one of the least practical classes that they take.

Meanwhile, my school does not offer a similar class in Narcotics law, which also covers a sexy, intriguing area of the law with real societal importance and great stories embedded within the cases.  Importantly, nearly all of my students who go into criminal law will handle drug cases.  This class, if it existed (and I don't know if it exists anywhere), would be one of the most relevant classes a future prosecutor or defense attorney could take.

Given the similarities between this real and imagined class, why is it that the one covering material less relevant to my students' futures is a part of the canon, while the more-relevant class is not?

My hunch is that part of the answer is that America's law professors are more comfortable teaching about white-collar crime than drug crime.  We professors tend to come from a background where we have a better understanding of securities transactions than meth sales, and often our practical experience is at exactly the type of firm which does that kind of work.

Is it right that the professors' interests and backgrounds shape the curriculum, rather than the needs of the students?  It does strike me as a production-driven model (that, is the Soviet "you will consume what we make") rather than the consumption-driven pattern Americans usually prefer.

For what it is worth, any blame at my school for not offering narcotics law is mine-- it never occurred to me until now to propose that class to our curriculum committee.

-- Mark Osler


September 30, 2009 | Permalink


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The Supremacy attended a party with a bunch of Harvard Law grads. Almost all of them were doing white collar defense, yet they came from different cities. He was laughing it up until they excused themselves and ran away from him. What made them do that?

He wondered why the defense lawyer does not make it a practice to attack the prosecutor as a person. Do total e-discovery on personal and work computers. Do deep backgrounds.

The previously lighthearted, witty repartee turned into this, "This is not legal advice, nor am I licensed in this state. However, what you suggest is totally unethical and unprofessional. It would also be self-defeating. If you disqualify the prosecutor, he will be replaced by a superior, who will be far more difficult to deal with. I have to run, now."

The white collar defense bar does not want any discomfort to happen to the white collar prosecution bar. Why? They are the source of their jobs, not the client.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 1, 2009 8:47:39 PM

The white collar defense might pay $300 an hour. The narcotics lawyer may get $30 an hour. The prosecutor of the white collar defendant is learning from his government job. His pay may be low, but after 5 years, he will take his knowledge, experience and connections to a defense firm for ten times the government wage. The overwhelming majority of dealers still live with their parents ad have little money.

This access to the law mostly for the rich is true of most subjects. So the course on contracts is useful only for $million contracts. Below that amount the legal fees make enforcement impossible.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 2, 2009 9:24:45 AM

As someone who is considering entering the academic market and coming up with a list of potential research ideas and thinking about possible classes I might want to teach, let me say thank you for this fabulous idea.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 5, 2009 3:28:39 AM

How powerful the results when one changes the question from "What do I want to teach?" to "What do students need to learn?"

Posted by: B Glesner Fines | Apr 26, 2010 11:57:03 AM

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