How can we persuade law teachers to embrace change?

On December 7th, Bill Henderson made the following comments on the Empirical Legal Studies blog site, http://elsblog.org, “[The Carnegie report] contains some great ideas, but as a group, law professors are not listening.  More troubling, the book has no strategy for getting their attention.”

One of the purposes of the Best Practices blog is to develop strategies for getting their attention.  So, let’s get started.

 There are probably some people out there who just don’t care if they are effective teachers.  I have to believe, however, that most law teachers do care and they will embrace change if they become convinced that what they are doing is not very good and that there are better ways to educate law students.

 I do not understand how anyone could read the Carnegie report and not come away convinced that legal educators need to change their ways.  Therefore, the first strategy is to get as many people as possible to read the report, or at least to listen to presentations about it.  Perhaps someone should produce a video about the findings and recommendations of the Carnegie report for those law teachers who refuse to read it.

I think we should regularly and continuously confront the nonbelievers with the facts about the shortcomings of legal education, challenge them to deny the facts, and if they cannot, ask them what they personally (and collectively) are going to do to change the negative aspects legal education.

Some of the facts that I believe are the most compelling reasons to change current practices are:

1)  The Carnegie report’s conclusion that attention to clients and values is largely missing from the first year curriculum.  That the experience of students during the first year can be characterized as a “moral lobotomy.”  (Educating Lawyers, p. 78.)

2) The Carnegie report’s finding that our students intellectual development stagnates after the first year because we continue teaching the same lessons using the same methods of instruction in the second and third years.

3) The facts that most law school graduates are not adequately prepared to represent clients without supervision and the the licensing process is not adequately protecting the public from incompetent new lawyers.  Shouldn’t law teachers and licensing authorities be constantly talking about how to remedy this situation?

4) Every expert who has studied the way we test our students has concluded that the traditional assessment methods of law schools are not valid, they are not reliable, and they are not fair.  This means that the students who make the best grades and get the top jobs may not be the students who deserve those grades and jobs.  And our students know that our assessment methods are indefensible.

5) Legal education is harmful to the emotional and psychological well-being of many law students.  And this harm is unnecessary.

There are many other disturbing facts about the current state of legal education in the United States.  Feel free to share others that you think are particular compelling reasons to embrace reform efforts.

We need to regularly and continuously present law teachers with these facts and demand that they act responsibly and begin working on solutions.  We should not let anyone pretend that there are not serious problems with the way law schools conduct their business.

I believe that if we can convince enough people that real problems exist, the solutions are fairly obvious. 

The impediments to legal education reform are very significant, as I described in the conclusion to Best Practices for Legal Education.  I certainly do not have all the answers, and we need to employ multiple strategies over a long period of time.

I would like to hear some other ideas.  If there are some success stories, those might be especially helpful to share.

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2 Responses

  1. I see the “embrace” starting with self-reflection, leading to imagining our students as they enter the profession, and culminating in a shared peanut butter sandwich that adds another spark to ignite the professional learning environment envisioned in Best Practices.

    Perhaps I am not alone when I confess here to being intimidated by Best Practices, both initially and still. When the crisp purple text first arrived on my desk, I thought, “How will I find time to read, reflect upon, and discuss with colleagues the 283 pages and 883 footnotes of vision and roadmap? ”

    Tapping into my experience as a counselor to clients, and teacher to clinic students, I reminded myself that the process of welcoming change begins with small steps directed towards important goals. I looked hard into my students’ eyes and recommitted myself to aspiring to the excellence in teaching they deserve. Inspired to improve my own teaching or to at least do better, I dove in and was impressed with the organization of Best Practices, which includes manageable chapters based on types of courses. And so the ripple spread as I begin to think about defining and implementing educational objective in my individual clinical course.

    Here’s where the sandwich comes in. Outside of annual conferences, how often do we [law professors] talk to each other about our teaching? So, the not so radical idea is to start small – ask your closest faculty friends to have lunch for one hour, twice per month to “talk about teaching.” Perhaps you will discuss methods for implementing a different educational objective or principle in Best Practices at each lunch, merely opening Best Practices at random for potential topics. Week 1 may be, “How do we help students to be better problem solvers?, week 2 could shift to, “How do we train students to receive feedback?,” and so on….

    My personal vision inspired by Best Practices is that small lunches will gradually get bigger, perhaps students will participate, or maybe administrators, or maybe alums, and support staff too, and the exciting culture of legal education will not only change, but it will be embraced to the benefit of the profession.

  2. I think Joe’s “let’s talk about it at lunch” idea is excellent. A lot of good can come from having informal discussions about new ideas. I doubt there are very many of us who could claim that we comply with every principle of best practices that we believe in. I sure cannot.

    One of the principles that I have gotten the most satisfaction from is discussed on page 130: explain the educational goals of your course and why you use particular methods of instruction and assessment. This is particularly important when you are trying something new that students might not be used to from their other law school courses.

    Explaining what you are doing and why you are doing it accomplishes several goals: it shows respect for your students, it shows that you care about being an effective teacher, it facilitates understanding and forgiveness if the experiment fails, and if it succeeds, students may ask other members of the faculty to do as you do. And it will almost always improve your evaluations.

    Legal educators who care are beginning a long journey, but like Joe says, it will be made one step at a time.

    Roy

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