The Cost of Traditional Legal Textbooks . . . and Alternatives

As the semester starts, 1Ls face a shock as their basic required textbooks cost over $200 apiece. Publishers have realized how the used textbook market cuts into profits and have decreased the number of years between editions.

These prices are not sustainable, especially for those law students who are already squeezed to the limit.  As a librarian, I have seen more and more students relying on the textbooks on Course Reserve, even going so far as to using them in open book exams.  We fear the day when we have 5 students who want the text for their open book exam and we only have 3 copies.

At the same time, as a library, becoming a textbook supplier helps our students, but it also means there are other materials that we cannot acquire or license.  With this bundle of challenges, there should be an easy solution, but most faculty who assign textbooks are removed from the cost of the assigned text.

Intellectual property textbook authors are at the forefront of this wave of change with several free and low cost alternatives. For examples, see Semaphore Press and Clause 8 Publishing, but there is also quite a bit going on beyond IP, notably e-Langdell (CALI). At that site, you can find texts on torts, sales, contracts, etc. It is no longer an excuse that there are no alternatives to traditional legal textbooks.

Some faculty have started creating their own textbooks, and many of those have matured and are now distributed, but some live primarily on Canvas or TWEN pages.  For those of you who have done this, why not make your materials more widely available?  Yes, they might not be as perfect as you would like, but what is?  Help students around the country by freeing your course materials.  If you are not sure how to do it, contact your AALS section or contribute to H2O, a legal crowdsourcing site associated with top names in the field.  If you are looking for edited cases and course structures, it should be a first stop if you would rather not edit a new case when someone else already has.

In short, the time to embrace alternatives to traditional textbooks, even for traditional subjects has arrived.  Imagine if you could give each of your students $200 . . . well, you can.

For more on this topic, see James Grimmelman, Alternative Publishing Models for Cost-Conscious Professors, and Ben Trachtenberg,  Choosing a Criminal Procedure Casebook: On Lesser Evils and Free Books

Fall and Spring Reading Group Suggestions


As we ready ourselves to begin a new academic year, I wanted to offer some suggestions for inspiring reading.  Perhaps you will even consider, as I am, starting a faculty reading group to grapple with related issues.


Implicit Bias and its Consequences.    I suspect that many of you have continued to reflect about how “black lives matter” and how we might encourage our law students to grapple with related issues.  I strongly recommend a new book, out in paperback just last week, from one of the principal researchers on implicit bias.  The authors are Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, and the title is Blind Spot:  Hidden Biases of Good People (Bantam Books, 2016, $17.00, available from and elsewhere).  The authors are experts on the ”implicit association test”  (available at ), a tool used to explore the relationship between visual stimuli and perceptions.  For more background, see .  The test involves responding to various sets of paired visual stimuli, such as black and white or Asian and non-Asian faces. This highly accessible book explores the sources and nature of hidden biases, the dynamics of stereotyping, and the social implications of widespread implicit bias.  The book is highly accessible, and its research is also well-documented in footnotes.  I’m working with a former student to develop a continuing legal education program on cultural competence and implicit bias, which we hope to roll out in February.  I’m also thinking of inviting faculty and staff colleagues (and perhaps some students) to come together for lunch time reading group using this text.  I’ll keep you posted on how these efforts proceed.  I’d also encourage others to post about ways that they may be working to engage similar issues.


A Culture of Assessment.  Culture plays an important but potentially negative role in shaping implicit biases and stereotypes.  Culture can also be shaped in positive ways to improve institutions.  I recently read Professor Andrea Funk’s manuscript for “The Art of Assessment,”  forthcoming in January 2017 from Carolina Academic Press (  This book, too, would be a wonderful choice for a faculty/staff reading group.  As most readers know, the American Bar Association now requires law schools to set “learning outcomes” for students, adopt more comprehensive forms of assessment and develop plans for “ongoing evaluation” of their “program[s] of legal education, learning outcomes, and assessment methods.”  Many in legal education fear that these new standards will result in intensified bureaucratic burdens.  Professor Funk, on the other hand, sees them as offering a new arena of creative activity, a space for engaged inquiry, a means of helping students learn more effectively, and a framework for building institutional pride.


Professor Funk’s book focuses on how individual faculty members and their schools can create a culture of assessment, perhaps the most crucial but often invisible element in achieving an energizing and constructive assessment process.  She is very effective in deconstructing opaque language and concepts, suggesting methods for getting started, and creating a sustainable assessment cycle.  She offers important tips on building on existing practices, gathering and using information, grappling with doubts about why and how assessment can work, and building institution-wide interest and commitment.  This is a book that gives readers important tools, but goes further, by illuminating the real potential of assessment for teachers, learners, and educational institutions.  It puts me in mind of Parker Palmer’s wonderful The Courage to Teach, with its uplifting willingness to confront fears but build on hopes that are dear to the hearts of the best law teachers:  helping students learn, working with colleagues, and “teaching from the heart of hope.”


I hope your coming year will be a fruitful one.  Important conversations with colleagues, spurred by books like these, can help make it so.  Please share your own suggests with others on the Best Practices Blog!

Experiential Learning Resources

Looking to add experiential learning to your law school course but not sure where to start or what to add? There’s a list for that!

As we start another school year, let me take this chance to mention the list of experiential learning resources that I maintain and update on an ongoing basis. You can access it here:

In the list, you’ll find experiential learning resources sorted by topic, including books, articles, simulation ideas and examples, and links to numerous databases that host even more materials.

Don’t see a resources that you are familiar with? Or have an idea that isn’t on the list? Send it to me! I update the list regularly, and I’d love to add your materials so the international community benefits from your ingenuity.

I should highlight especially that the list includes the ABA Guidance Memo on experiential learning. As we enter a year of site visits that will address, among other topics, the revised 303(a)(3) and 304 standards on experiential learning requirements and simulation courses, you’ll want to be familiar with that memo’s recommendations.

Hope to receive your list suggestions soon!

Learning and Teaching – the Progression

I have become interested in progression and ordering lately.  Not so much with chickens and eggs, but more with respect to progressions used in the classroom.  Traditionally, I would start a class with a case and deploy it to open up an area of substantive law, utilizing questions, problems, canons of interpretation, and other cases to explore the meaning of concepts presented in the initial case or topic. The substantive areas depended on the course and ran from appurtenant easements (Property Law), to impeachment by prior untruthful acts (Evidence), to searches incident to lawful arrests (Criminal Procedure). My interest in ordering made me aware of the fact that I approached each class with a duality of teaching and learning.  Teaching usually was first in my progression.  The spotlight was on me as the teacher; I opened and conducted the class and then ended it when time ran out. I had many assumptions.  I assumed student motivation existed; that students started, followed, and ended the class with me; that students had effective practices of adding information to their understanding; and that students readily retrieved the information when needed.

But I wondered what would happen if I reversed the norm of ordering?  What if I placed learning first in the progression, especially in reference to motivation?  Motivation in law school is a lot like a roller coaster (at least it was for me) – it ebbs and flows quite a bit, sometimes within the same day. Motivation is often invisible to the classroom, but weighs heavily on learning.  Early in the first year there is a surfeit of it, and by the third year, well, lets just say there is not as much of it.

This reversal of progression, with learning first, changed a lot for me in the classroom.  In the past year or two, it has allowed for more variation, for greater focus on student improvement, for more experiential “doing” as part of basic courses, and for more direct consideration of student motivation.  For example, in this new progression, students fill out cards explaining what motivates them to learn the most and the least. Students also start each class by indicating where we are in the tapestry of subject matter – something they were used to me doing.  Since experiences often are helpful motivators, many more experiences are blended into the course — students now interview real world participants in law (e.g., police officers in a Criminal Procedure course) or Evidence (trial lawyers) and create short but deep PowerPoint presentations or videos in all courses about a point in the course that was worth further exploration.  These presentations served to recap what people had learned and to offer a combined “outline” of sorts for exam preparation.  Further, classes now end (at the students’ request) with a brief synopsis of what we did, to see if everyone finished around the same place.

In all, I found that focusing on learning generally, and motivation in particular, were very worthwhile.  I enjoyed the new way of guiding the course even more than I did the old.   There were different assumptions made, but I think they were more accurate.  Priorities can inform progression.

Life balance: Our students recognize false promises and are demanding real changes based on a value set.

The millennial worker is an educated consumer armed with details about the global economy. They acquire knowledge that provides factual comparisons of how similar professionals work-life is balanced in other countries versus the many demands of the American lawyer.

In externship classes, students hear about the work life of attorneys in various office settings and explore how their values may merge in the professional world. Even more interesting, the students who gain an international perspective and further enlighten the class. For example, I recently had a student return from an internship in a Sweden.

The student shared:

“I have a desk that can be raised and lowered so I can stand and work. My work phone is an iPhone and there is free lunch here every day! We only work until 4 pm and the attorneys are only required to do 1000 billable hours per year!!! It is all about streamlining and efficiency here.” The student further remarked about the clear message that is sent when a society endorses such a model: We want you to be happy and produce quality work.

As a legal educator, how do you defend the 2100 billable hour or the underfunding and understaffing of government offices? How do we arm our students with grit and resilience for more than the first few years, but a lifetime of sacrifice?

Students interning or externing at law firms or other placements quickly notice the deficient message our American profession endorses. Over and over again, I hear in my classroom students remark about the inadequate time lawyers have to invest in family or pursue individual interests.

So, why are less people deciding to become lawyers? Because, the millennial worker is focused on community values, family, and life balance and our profession continues to pay lip service to such values. The time for reform is now. Reform not just focused on legal education, but the profession as a whole. If we do not readily restructure our value set, work habits, hiring practices, funding sources and curricula, we will lose the next generation of brilliant change makers. Both our profession and society crave such reform, specifically to foster leaders who will pursue justice, uphold government, adhere to the rule of law and build community.

Even Law Professors Need to Laugh

For a break from polishing your article or prepping for fall classes (assuming you’re through watching political convention coverage), try viewing the original Australian version of Rake. This series features Richard Roxburgh as a deeply flawed but appealing barrister. Get through the first two episodes (I did not like the first one) and you might be hooked. The show is biting, bawdy, and profane, but well-written. It could help you laugh your way through the last part of summer. Also, for the technologically skilled, you may find useful clips for teaching purposes – many along the lines of “what not to do.” Students can develop momentum in learning to critique lawyering performances by starting with on-screen characters. This quirky and comedic drama provides vivid scenarios for stimulating discussion. Or just enjoy the show!cleaver_rake_e345_Master

Finding Meaning

As national and international events continue to develop in uncertain and unsettling ways, educating the next generation of lawyers continues to be obviously and critically important. What should our laws be, how are they interpreted and enforced, how are our leaders elected, and what can be done to move toward justice? Legal education prepares leaders to contribute (wisely, we hope) to all aspects of civic governance – and yet – the institutions that provide legal education are still finding their way.

Word got out that most graduates do not become rich law firm partners within 7 years, or ever, and this is among the reasons why far fewer people want to attend law school. The boom and eventual bloat in legal education shouldn’t have been about the money, but, for many, it was. Now some large firm salaries have recently increased, in perhaps a hopeful sign of a rebound. But Professor Frank H. Wu’s comments resonate:

I have nothing against a young person declaring that they wish to make money — of course they do. My point is if that is the primary consideration in your career choice, there are better methods for doing so. Joining a profession in which you represent someone else entails making a sacrifice in the name of principle.

Society needs members of the legal profession who embrace the significance of their noble, helping role, apart from whether it brings wealth (and even though in many cases it won’t). Likewise, legal education needs students who seek potential meaning in their work, and also faculty, staff, and administrators who recognize that educating new lawyers might be more of a helping profession than a ramp toward remuneration. The disruption of the past several years has taught us that lesson, but without this underlying nugget of optimism:  As described by Will Storr in his recent New Yorker article, maybe Aristotle’s prescription for the good life was on target. Preliminary findings show that being engaged in meaningful work improves health and lifespan. Guiding our institutions and untangling the current state of affairs provide serious opportunities for lawyers to take on and benefit from this vital, meaningful work.

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