Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Law School Curriculum

Some law schools are rearranging their curricula to be more relevant:
Harvard Law School announced last year that it would modify its venerable curriculum, and its cross-country rival, Stanford Law School, has begun making changes, too.
. . .
“When you haven’t changed your curriculum in 150 years, at some point you look around,” said Elena Kagan, the dean of Harvard Law.

The impetus for the changes is the sense that what has been taught and how it has been taught may be “embarrassingly disconnected from what anybody does,” Ms. Kagan said.

. . .

For years, law students have focused on judicial opinions, explaining why a case was decided in a particular way. But many lawyers today must read laws and regulations that have not been explained by a judge and advise clients on how to comply with them.

So both Harvard Law and Vanderbilt University Law School have modified their traditional first-year requirements, like contracts, civil procedures and torts, to include a class that teaches students how to interpret statutes and regulations.
I'd suggest that if Harvard and other law schools want to provide students with a more practical education -- i.e., one that is not "disconnected from what anybody does" -- one of the top priorities should be to get rid of any professors who have the attitude described here:
On Tuesday, October 16, Harvard Law professor Daryl Levinson gave a lunchtime presentation to students interested in entering legal academia. . . . Even practical legal experience is not a good predictor of scholarly ability, and, Levinson noted, "is pretty nearly disqualifying." Levinson pointed out that today's younger professors have no significant practical experience, and that if they tried to become involved in the world, "the world would probably recoil in horror."
As I commented in this thread a while back:
I saw someone (can't remember who) make this comment somewhere, and I'll put it forth as a provocative thought: If law professors really want to move into a world of purer academic qualifications and skills, then they should lobby the University to create a "Department of Legal Studies," where they could (1) think and write all sorts of interesting, abstract, and/or rarefied thoughts about legal theory or empirical effects of legal developments or whatnot; (2) teach any students who happen to be interested in such subjects; (3) be paid more on the scale of the rest of academia; and (4) leave the real law students -- i.e., the 98% of students who want to learn how to practice law -- to be taught by law professors who know a lot about law practice (whether or not they can write a dissertation).

How's about that?

[Later comment:]

Just to play devil's advocate a bit more: The presumption here (and elsewhere) seems to be that a law professor's chief duty is the production of scholarship; and that a (mere) practitioner therefore has to overcome a steep and perhaps unsurmountable hurdle, i.e., to show that he or she is capable of "scholarship" as opposed to (mere) practice.

Why shouldn't the presumption be precisely reversed? . . . [T]he overwhelming majority of law students are paying large tuitions (and taking out daunting student loans) to learn how to practice law. Why shouldn't the presumption be that someone who has tried 20 jury trials to verdict (or put together corporate deals, or advised tax clients, etc.) is more likely to be well-suited to the job of a law professor than someone who has merely studied law on an academic level, one-step (or more) removed from anything that law students will ever do for themselves?

Indeed, the analogy to other disciplines may be more revealing than is suspected. In any discipline, someone who has actually practiced the subject is presumptively better-suited to teach about it. Thus, in economics, someone who has actually analyzed a dataset and run regression equations -- who has practiced economics -- probably knows more about the practical and theoretical issues that arise than someone who has merely written about regressions. But in fields like law or medicine, someone who has been a lawyer or a doctor probably knows more about what students ought to know than someone who has analyzed those subjects on a merely theoretical level. In other words, practicing economics can mean doing PhD-type research; but practicing law means practicing law.

Of course, as Mr. Bagenstos points out, this is not to say that PhDs are completely useless in law schools. Many PhDs will have very useful observations, and can enlighten students in many ways. But that merely shows that they could overcome the presumption that I'm talking about.


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