Changing the classroom experience. Why are traditional faculty threatened by discussions about adding practice skills to the law school classroom?
On one side of the argument are the academic puritans. They defend the casebook and Socratic Method as if they were handed down from Christopher Columbus Langdell in 1890 on stone tablets and ancient scrolls. As the argument goes, it worked for our professors, it worked for our mentors, it worked for us . . . and therefore it must work for current and future students as well. To challenge the status quo is characterized as suggesting that legal education be reduced to a trade school model akin to training auto mechanics and commercial truck drivers.
On the other side of the argument are the practical realists. They look at the job requirements and practice skills needed by today's new lawyers, the escalating cost of law school, and the declining job market. They foreshadow the shuttering of law schools that fail to transition to what is characterized as a more relevant relationship between education and practice.
But why are we allowing the extreme positions to dominate this discussion? This polemic debate between righteous advocates may be great blog fodder, but it fails to acknowledge that examples of legal education evolution are already underway. Perhaps greater focus on what "is" vs. what "isn't" changing would encourage a more constructive dialogue.
At a recent faculty meeting at our law school, there were some simple, but interesting questions posed. Why don't students draft contracts in Contracts? Why aren't they given the chance to present evidence in Evidence? Why don't they form a corporation in Corporations? Draft a lease in Real Property . . . present a motion in Civil Procedure? Once we got started, we realized that we could ask a similar question for virtually every substantive course in law school.
As our faculty engaged in a thoughtful discussion about these questions, it was never once suggested that we throw casebooks and the Socratic Method out the window. The discussion centered on how to reduce reading assignments without losing substance. Would it be OK to skip sections of a casebook that place too much emphasis on obscure aspects of the law? How many case briefs in class are enough? How can we better allocate class time between lectures and student discussions?
The discussion started with the traditional concern that there is simply too much material to cover in too little time. How could anything new be considered? However, as the discussion progressed, it became clear that with small alterations, time for more practical exercises could be created . . . without diminishing the coverage of the substantive content. Of course, it would require altering syllabi, re-reading case books to create more selective reading assignments, and creating new classroom exercises to replace well-rehearsed lectures.
The next question was how to accomplish these changes, particularly in a program like ours that relies on adjunct faculty who are working full time while teaching evening courses.
It is too early to report success, but I can share what we put in place this year to support these changes. First, we hired part-time teaching fellows to provide support for any faculty member who was interested in adding practice-oriented exercises to their courses. Second, our Asst. Dean for Academic Support began working with faculty to identify and collect examples of existing resources for subject specific practice exercises. Third, a former dean and senior faculty member who serves as our Distinguished Professor of Academic Excellence began scheduling time with individual faculty members to brainstorm on creative ways to engage students in practical applications of their respective substantive content. Finally, to get things started, all of the above activities are considered an "opt-in" program for faculty, not mandatory. I was pleased that we immediately had enough "early adopters" to begin experimenting this semester across selected classes in first-year, as well as upper-division courses.
None of these initiatives are "rocket science" or particularly innovative in their own right. However, taken as a whole, these changes reflect an evolution in the culture of our law school. Expectations about the type of education we wish to provide are changing without being threatening. It has already brought a new energy into the law school . . . and into the classrooms. We realize that change will not happen overnight, but through small, constructive steps we are fostering an environment that is directly addressing the current challenges in legal education, not merely arguing about them.
I would love to hear comments about other examples of these types of changes that are underway . . .