What Makes a Good Law Professor: A Student Perspective

As a recent graduate (< 1 year) of Albany Law School, and a current Graduate Fellow in the Albany Law School Clinic, I’ve had the unique opportunity to be on both sides of the legal education fence.  Recent conversations with both doctrinal and clinical professors regarding the student experience in law school has made it clear that students and faculty/administration have very different perspectives on who the “good professors” are.  In almost every instance the students’ opinion (based on my understanding of the most pervasive complaints overheard in school corridors) was in direct opposition to the professors’ perspective.  Those professors who perennially fall within student disfavor seemed to be the ones that were most highly regarded by their colleagues for their teaching skills, and vice versa.

So, prompted by Professor Schwartz’s project (see prior post), and my unique position, I ask what makes a good law professor?  

With the intent of provoking discussion, let me generalize (somewhat unfairly) a few common elements of the average law student’s perspective on “good” professors. Of course there are law students that would absolutely reject most of what lies below, but I’m not talking about those highly motivated students who may be looking for career direction, or take an obscure course because it highly interests them. No, I’m describing the average student — the ones who would not take the time to read or respond to this post — the ones who aren’t concerned with the quality of education they receive, only a degree.  Additionally, since my perspective only comes from one law school, it would be great to hear whether these ideas relate to students in your schools as well. (note: students regularly use http://www.ratemyprofessors.com, but rarely give suggestions on how to improve teaching)

Not all law school courses are created equal.

Let’s face it; students need to prioritize their coursework. Common considerations used when choosing courses are:  Is this a subject on the bar? (for those students who care what is on the Bar)  Does this professor assign a lot of work? Do I have to do the work assigned to do well in the course? Does the teacher use the Socratic Method or just lecture? and Is this course going to help me get a job?  Based on the combination of “yeses” and “noes” in response to these questions a student decides which classes are more or less important.

While classes like “Law and Literature” and “Comparative International Nuclear Policy” certainly may have their niches, more traditional classes, especially those tested on the Bar, are most likely to be placed at the top of a student’s list of priorities.  Good professors recognize where their respective courses tend to fall in this academic caste system and adjust their teaching strategies and course objectives accordingly.  It’s more likely that a student in “History of Military Law” is there to be academically entertained, rather than academically challenged.  Nothing frustrates a student more than when grades are released and they come to find that their grade in “Dialect of the Legal Discourse” counts just as much as their Evidence grade.  This frustration, justified or not, will be reflected in the student’s opinion of the professor, and it only takes a handful of unsatisfied students each year to create a lasting reputation.

Good Professors respond to questions with answers.

Sometime shortly after the first year of law school the supernatural glow emanated by professors lessens, if not disappearing entirely.  To the student, the law is no longer a theoretical question of why, but rather a practical question of how.  So, it should be no surprise that busy law students like straightforward answers, as evidenced by bar exam review course strategies.  Professors who attempt to consistently teach by answering questions with questions, and turn class time into mental gymnastics lose the respect and interest of their students, not to mention confuse the hell out of them.  Good professors may deflect the question to the larger class for purposes of discussion, but in the end always answers the question directly, or clearly states that there is no definitive answer.

Good professors are perfect now, but once were not.

Students expect a lot from their professors.  Undoubtedly students hold professors who demonstrate a mastery of their subject in higher regard than those who do not; however, students do not appreciate those professors who are arrogant in their expertise. Like an attorney who simplifies language for a lay client, a good professor identifies when subject matter, that may be logical to the professor, is not reaching the students. 

Also, good professors are able to empathize with students having difficulties with course material and relate their own past difficulties with the body of law in question.  For example, a professor from Albany Law who teaches a civil procedure course frequently tells the class stories about the professor’s own experiences in practice, some successes, some failures.  While the professor’s expertise in the field is now unquestionable, sharing past difficulties demonstrates that understanding the material occurs overtime rather than instantaneously.  At the very least this gives students incentive to learn the material in the hopes that one day they can have a thorough understanding of the material too. 

Good professors are entertaining.

Keeping a student’s attention in class is vital to the education process.  Good professors are ones that are able to keep the classes attention no matter how mind-numbing the subject matter.  Though it may be unprofessional, or even juvenile, overly animated professors who run up aisles to demonstrate methods of personal service, or who fake attacks to demonstrate the difference between assault and battery, give students a visual model to accompany the boring statutory distinctions.  Similarly unprofessional, yet still highly effective, are those professors who consistently repeat important concepts using humorous or informal language that (unfortunately) stick in students’ minds for years down the road.  Students do not expect these antics in every class, the anticipation that they may miss a joke, or an outrageous action is often enough to keep at least a satisfactory level of attention by most students.

To sum it up, I believe the average law student would say that the attributes that make a good law professor are the same ones that make a good person, such as compassion, intelligence, humility and humor, just to name a few.  And, while the practice of law demands seriousness and professionalism, the “good” professors keep in mind that neither of these qualities are necessities at the podium.

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6 Responses

  1. I agree with the recent Albany graduate’s comments that some of the attributes of a good law professor include compassion, intelligence, humility and humor. I wonder, though, how many of the evaluation forms that law schools use give students an opportunity to comment on a professor’s compassion, humility, or humor. Do any law schools use evaluation forms that ask the right questions about teaching effectiveness and professional behavior? If you have one, please submit it to be archived on this blog site.

  2. Questions such as “Does the professor treat the students respectfully?” (a common question, phrased differently at different schools) are common, and are surrogates for compassion, humility, etc.

    But even if they weren’t, I suspect students consider such factors regardless of what the questions say. A student with 15 minutes to answer 15 questions is not going to agonize over each question: quite possibly, he or she will form a general impression of a professor based on compassion, humility, humor etc. and rate professors based on that overall impression, regardless of what specific questions ask.

  3. I remember the first time that it hit me — like a lightning bolt – that the client-lawyer relationship I wanted my students to create in the clinic where I teach had such parallels to the student-teacher relationship that I was striving for — by instinct; at the time, I had not read any materials on teaching. The heart of the matter is respect. Respect means I take on the difficult conversations and demand good work, but not just because I have the power and I can. My students, and their future clients, deserve the best we can do together. Humility and compassion are part of the respectful relationship that I’m going for!

    If the evaluation form used by your school does not capture the elements mentioned here….be an agent of change!

  4. Is it really unprofessional for a law professor to act out service in the classroom aisles, by way of using an example you provided? Their purpose in the classroom is a completely different purpose than when they are in court or in the the firm offices. And with this completely different purpose comes different practices. I think the best way to get through to students is to be entertaining, if at all possible. I remember clearly cases in our books where there were somewhat laughable events that took place, and the professors take advantage of that. Similarly, professors whose lectures are enjoyable or entertaining otherwise also will stay in my mind more easily.

    Professionalism aside, if a teacher can be entertaining, then he or she will be the best conduit of information for the students. I think it really is as simple as that one factor. That professor from Carnegie Mellon who has terminal cancer based essentially his whole final lecture on the fact that people learn best- leaps better, in fact- when they feel like they are having fun. Mixing fun with education is tough, but the professors who do it succeed to the highest degree.

  5. See how current law students responded to this post.

    http://theshark.typepad.com/weblog/2008/04/ratemyprof-is-o.html

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