Life As Is
...it being understood that Seller and Seller's agents make no representations or warranties
pertaining to the fixtures or state of repair of the World or any of its systems.
Just had lunch in the Atrium with some law-school classmates, and I leaned on them to give me their opinions about the curriculum. (Now that the Badgers are out of the NCAA tourney, we were at a loss for something to talk about)
I was explaining the distinction I draw between the "technical" aspect of what a lawyer does, and the "human" side of lawyering. As Eric has prompted me to explain, what I mean by "technical" is critical thinking and analysis. The human side is... well, hard to explain, but I've talked about what I mean by that phrase in earlier posts. A quote from a discussion in the comments to summarize earlier conclusions about how I think these two "sides" of lawyering shoul dbe attended to in Law School:
...Bear in mind that I do, of course, think that law students need to be schooled in analysis and critical thinking. It's a matter of what should be emphasized--that is, what the foundation should be that the curriculum tries to lay down during the first year. I envision a curriculum, I think, where that foundation consists of a focus on the human side of lawyering. Then, beginning during the second year (and continuing on through on-the-job training and into our careers), the analysis and critical thinking part (or what I would call the "technical part") is then added.
The law students I was with said two things: (1) we agree with you, whole-heartedly, but (2) it's too risky from a competitiveness standpoint, therefore no thanks. They are concerned that without the "traditional" first year under their belt, our second-year law students who want to find summer jobs at law firms will be less competitive.
So, that's the tension. Competitiveness on the job market as 2Ls. If we change the curriculum to lay the "human" side foundation that I'm talking about, it can be better for an attorney in the long run. I can develop into a much better attorney over the arc of my career, I believe, if I start out with something other than the "traditional' first-year foundation. But, in the short term, I am worried about getting summer jobs and competing with students from Michigan, Harvard, etc., so it's too big a risk.
Pause. Ponder. So, the Big Ten is looking pretty tough next season, huh?
How to Think Like a Lawyer
Spring Break is over, like it or not. I made good use of it this time around--perhaps because it's sinking in that starting a few months from now (and continuing for a looooooong time to come) a week's vacation won't be as easy to come by as it has in the past.
I've been ruminating on a comment from Eric last week:
"[L]aw and" classes: I took them; I liked them. However, they are a bad idea for first-year students. First year should be less about "law and" or even law in action and more about getting students to (here comes the cliche) "think like lawyers." Only once there is an intellectual framework in place can law in action and "law and" classes have any real relevance or usefulness (many debate the true value of "law and" classes anyway).
Do you buy that? I don't. I'd flip it around. The correct framework to get in place first is the law-in-action stuff. Does that cover any class that fall sunder the "Law and" category? Probably not. Depends on how they're taught. But what I am talking about is a focus on the human side of lawyering first--rather than the technical aspects, which should be learned later after the "human" fundamentals are in place.
What does it mean to think like a lawyer
? Hard question to answer but I know one thing for certain--that meaning is changing. Law school admissions policies have rapidly evolved in the last few decades (in case you haven't noticed). As new classes of graduates move out into the profession, the profession itself is going to change. And to come full circle the law school curriculum
--which has in many ways remained largely unchanged for over 100 years--should evolve as well. THat's what this is all about
The focus of law school, however, will (and should) always remain on teaching students (especially first-years) to think like a lawyer
. But how about an update in what that means?
By my reckoning, there are two major aspects to succeeding in the profession: (1) the technical aspects and (2) the human side of the job. I would argue that too heavy a focus on the technical aspects during law school is a mis-allocation of resources, because we have on-the-job training for the technical stuff. I would focus a law-school education, especially during the first year, on the human side of lawyering. The skills will come in time, but that human foundation needs to be in place from the beginning. That's what I think.
Efficient Use of Law-School Resources: A First-Year Seminar Course
We're on Spring Break this week, which has given me a chance to catch up on work. part of what I want to do is go back and read comments people have left below and respond to those. Also, I'm catching up on e-mail.
Here's an excerpt from a thoughtful message sent by a law student. She starts off with general thoughts, and (after a discussion of resource limitations, which I leave out here) she suggests that the law school would do well to start "play[ing] to our strengths." It's a good introduction to the second theme of our presentation--resource allocation
. Here's what she has to say:
First, what does the law school do well? I felt the first semester was a solid introduction. There are plenty of good or decent courses, many good clinical programs, and many devoted faculty members. However, the school appears not to have more than a passing commitment to any sort of overreaching theory of teaching. Law in action, sociology of law, thinking about theory and practice... all of these things [could] provide a solid basis, and we certainly heard about them during orientation, but they don't really come out in the classes in an appreciable way. More on this in a moment.
Second, part of the curriculum's identity crisis seems to stem from the lack of definition in the target audience. The school probably cannot be all things to all students, and we shouldn't try to be. If we're focusing solely on being a state school for in-state students who need basic competency, that's one thing. If we actually want to make an investment in being a good law school, or even a well-regarded, well-ranked (though I don't want to equate rankings with actual degree of excellence, of course), that's another. I do believe in the Wisconsin Idea--there is a special commitment on the part of the law school, as the only public law school in the state, to provide for in-state students by preparing them for practice here.
Well stated. (And, BTW, if anyone needs more convincing on the Wisconsin Idea... my family and I were completely touched by what we heard on the radio this a.m. Adjunct Prof. Meg Gains interviewed on on To the Best of Our Knowledge
. If you didn't here it, listen here
.) Now, on to the the idea for a first-year seminar course. Back to the e-mailer excerpted above, from a bit later in the e-mail, where she makes a series of suggestions (I'm giving you one) for improving the Law School:
[W]e have plenty of assets as well--and why not play to our strengths? We can't have the same sort of depth in every area that some of the best-funded schools do, but we can choose some areas in which to specialize. In addition, we are still known, in some sense, for law-in-action and the sociology of law issues this school has worked on....So, my proposal:
Require a first-year seminar in either law-in-action-related subjects or a "law and" class. Some sort of guiding principle, even one that many of us may reject eventually, is a healthy thing. I came here partially because I wanted theory and practice, "logic and experience." The small group experience is widely varied and doesn't provide what an actual seminar could.
I LIKE this idea. I mean I REALLY LIKE this idea. I want to hear more.
This idea asks us one question: What do we want to spend money on? After all, do the math on the cost of putting every first-semester law student through a seminar course--I'm sure it's a lot. But hopefully I've given you enough context above to demonstrate that the idea is actually motivated out of a desire to use our resources more
effectively. The school should focus on doing one thing well. Why? to use its resources effectively. How? By grounding students in an ideology. A "guiding principle" to frame our education and that we ultimately will either accept or reject--but it's good for us either way. Don;t just give us pieces here and there, depending on which profs we draw first year, but give it to all of us in a concerted way--i.e., with a law-in-action seminar--front and center.
Moreover, law in action has theoretical underpinnings that play into the more policy-oriented courses that some students will choose to pursue during later semesters, and it also plays right into a practice-oriented model of a legal education. So, by taking a step further in that direction, the law school could would continue to serve the needs of a broad range of students and the State as a whole.
Finally, injecting a unified focus into the curriculum is one way to respond to the "ambivalence" problem/situation among students that was the theme of last week.
You might see some estate-planning jargon accidentally slipping into this post because... I am in class right now. It almost never occurs to me to get out laptop during class. But in this case I can't resist the irony of tuning out lecture in order to come here and get on a soapbox about "student accountability." And while I'm in full confession mode—I skipped class last week for absolutely no reason (other than that I wanted to go drink coffee and read the Isthmus
). I blame Ethan; he's filling my head with dangerous ideas. You think I'm kidding.
I want to highlight a comment to yesterday
's post that was left by Chardrian
. He has a positive memory of his 1L year, which you don't hear too many people admit. But his overall impression of law school—more or less an ambivalent one—is shared by many. I'm paraphrasing: The luster had worn off by the middle of the second year, and things could definitely stand to be improved although I would be hard-pressed to say exactly how. Overall, it was okay, though.
It's a very honest and (like I said) widespread assessment, and one worth looking at. Ironically, I see a certain symmetry between it and the all too familiar experience we have with (not) getting feedback from our professors: You lost me a bit by about the middle of the second question, and your analysis could have been stronger but there were no glaring errors. You get an 85.
When we first got to law school we expected to be inspired. Or at least I did. (I suppose that's how a professor feels when she opens one of our blue book to read, too). And we were inspired. Or at least I was. How could I not have been after Whitford's Contracts class first semester? I give him a 92. But for most of us, if we ever even felt that way, it didn't last for too long into the second year. That is the point, I guess, at which we students begin to explore the joyful possibilities of skipping (or blogging during) class! No longer shooting for marks in the 90's--either in our expectations of ourselves or in our expectations of the school.
To get back to curriculum and to instructional-reform issues, Ethan, I'm shocked that you agree with me about the law school flunking more people out. I'm serious in my support of that proposal, interestingly, no one has surfaced yet that is willing to try to talk me out of it. Just curious, what's your opinion on the "sacred institution" of pass/fail classes?(*)
And in turning to what is our point of disagreement, you say that a better solution, at least insofar as changes in curriculum/instruction can help improve (what we'll call) student accountability, would be to (1) make "better use" of class time and (2) give students constructive feedback. If we focus on the first point, no matter how we define it, we're going to run smack dab into a wall of opposition to whatever we try to embrace as a better use. Should we even run the risk of getting derailed like that? And as for feedback--why is it that we've both made an implicit connection between it and student accountability? Can we get away with just assuming that the two are as related as we say they are?
* For non-UW Law Students: beginning in our second year we are allowed to take one class each semester pass/fail. It rocks.
Accounting for Unaccountability
Wow. I just had my whole post erased. So this will be a somewhat pithier version of what I just wrote.
I am generally in agreement with Brian on this issue, but I have some thoughts about the perspective we take on this issue. I think "student accountability" is somewhat of a misnomer because students are commonly also interested in helpful feedback/evaluation from faculty, and having their in-class experience be worth their time.
From our focus group and other conversations it seems to me that students do not prepare for class because most classes just cover the reading material in some version of a lecture format* that provides the Cliff Note version of the reading material.** From the notes these students take in class they develop outlines, and that's all they really need to get a decent grade. When a decent grade can be obtained in this way, it tells us two things: 1) the class time is being wasted because it is completely redundant with the reading material (that is, I can read, so don't waste my time telling me what I read), and 2) students are being accountable; they are efficiently getting decent grades, and that is what they think they should be doing in law school.
So, it seems to me that the solution to the misnamed "student accountability" problem is neither to require attendance (though I have no problem with doing that), nor to attempt to punish or shame students into being prepared for class (though I do agree w/ Brian that more students should fail classes and fail out entirely - though I've never heard anyone else suggest this before Brian).
Better solutions are going to focus on providing something useful to students, such as feedback/evaluation in the form of midterms (perhaps the most common student suggestion I've heard) or other writing assignments, etc. with prompt feedback so as to make us better understand what that 86 means, and what we can try to do better. And using class time for something other than telling students what they already read, and instead using class time to practice, drill, present, role-play, test, etc. which not only requires and encourages students to be prepared, but also helps to develop skills that they may use as attorneys when in and out of court, such as being grilled by a judge while making an oral argument, interviewing clients and witnesses, working together in groups, giving testimony in front of a legislative committee, objecting to leading questions, etc.
------------* In which I'm including the Socratic Method, once students start "passing" all the time, reducing the Method into a halting lecture.** I've even had a faculty member tell me that she always read after the class for which the material was assigned because then she had notes that outlined the important issues in the reading and made the reading faster and easier.
Students Teaching Students
Here's the cold, hard view on law-student motivation: "So many people end up in law school by default" that the problem of unmotivated students will always be with us. "It's best to use it to your advantage" according to this view. "[S]o many students are unmotivated that an ounce of motivation gets you very far." (Thanks, to Hatch, sorely
-needed and much-appreciated Siskal to our Ebert) (or, in blog terminology, Becker to our Posner)(*).
I will resist the temptation to agree. But not because I'm feigning an interest in the greater good. My desire to see more students become engaged is a selfish one. (Soon to become a moot one, as I'm graduating in two months).
This is my fourth year of law school, and almost everyone in my actual law school "class" has gone and 'lef me all lone. As I wander about the place I miss seeing the familiar faces of the 200-odd students with whom I went head-first through the wringer as a 1L. Even more than the group as a whole, I miss the handful of engaged
students with whom I forged
an intellectual connection
during our three years together. I suspect that at law school we learn just as much if not more from our classmates as from our professors. Not for lack of trying on the professors' part. That's just the way it is--students teach each other.
But I want more more more. So I often wish that we law students would become a bit more engaged in our learning.
And I do
think that the Law School, upon realizing that fact, could and should shape the learning environment by making changes to the curriculum in order take advantage of it.
*Read a number of his other provocative, if cynical, points in the comments here.
The Presentation -- Theme 1: Student Accountability
The first of three themes from our presentation. Ethan's previous post on the Socratic method serves as a prefect lead in to this topic--student accountability. The notion that we students don't take enough responsibility for our education. Many students will echo this sentiment. And, E, you'll probably agree with me that this is the
most common thread that runs through the feedback we have received.
Is this a curricular issue, rather than an admissions issue or a generational issue? Absolutely I think it is about the curriculum. Almost all of the changes that I would make to the law school curriculum would be designed, at least in part, to restructure the learning environment so that the learning becomes more active. So, in other words, I don't see myself as putting the "blame" on students in this post.
Part of the problem is a lack of taking into account different learning styles. (seems obvious but there you have it.) Ultimately a "mix of methods," as pointed out in yesterday
's post, has got to be part of the solution.
But there are other less-complicated changes to be made. Simple example (imagine me taking the Faculty by the shoulders and shaking it): Give us midterms! Give us midterms now! That one minor reform would move mountains.
Feedback in any form is welcome and would, I think, go a long way toward improving student accountability. Although far too often students are handed nothing more than a number at the end of the semester: (congratulations: an 86--what am I supposed to do with this?), there are examples out there of professors giving constructive feedback to their students during the semester (some teachers have writing assignments or oral presentations and give feedback, others set up systems of peer review). It would be a challenging but good exercise to put together a list of best practices.
Smaller class size(*) is another way of building in accountability. When professors are more accessible to students and when learning is more individualized, I guarantee that we'll be more engaged.
And hey, coming at it from a different angle--how can we students be motivated to take a greater responsibility for our education? Put the fear of God in us.(**) I'd like to see a nice chunk of students flunk out each semester. Merciless, I know. But that's what I was expecting when I came to law school, and was surprised (and a little disappointed) when I came here and discovered that it wasn't
I would also be in favor of requiring attendance. (I know that's a very controversial view--please be gentle on me. Hey, I'm not in favor of banning laptops.)
* Let us put off the "efficient allocation of resources" discussion for now.
** Full disclosure: I am big fan of the Socratic method, because it keeps me engaged. But Ethan, your point is well taken (--this from the comments yesterday
--) that we should "consider how to best educate everyone when we are thinking about how to improve the curriculum." The Socratic method is not a good way of motivating large numbers of students, I think, because (1) it only works during the first year when students haven't yet realized that they can just say "pass" and (2) it takes an extremely skilled instructor (such as our own professors William Whitford or Neil Komesar) to tap into its potential.
All of the People, All of the Time
Brian has outlined a debate for the two of us with help from all those who would like to add comments. And I'm on board. But, before he carries us away, I would like to give a little preamble about the comments of the student just quoted by Brian. There is no doubt that the law school curriculum works very well for some people. This cannot be lost in our conversation about reform. As an example, let me share some of the opinions about the Socratic Method that have been shared with me.
Our first-year curriculum is dominated by large lecture classes taught with some version of the Socratic Method*. Generally speaking, this is when a professor asks a student questions to elicit the points that the professor would like to make. This method usually involves some amount of "cold calling" which has the purpose of motivating students to be prepared for class.
This method works for some people because the chance to participate and test one's own knowledge creates an active learning environment, which I believe is key to learning. This is particularly true when there is a real and constant threat of being called on because the student's attention is peaked by the need to be ready to answer questions at any moment. Moreover, this same threat motivates students to be prepared for class.
However, for other students this is a terrifying experience. The constant fear of being called on is somewhat debilitating. The pressure to perform makes it difficult to concentrate on the reading material, even when studying at home. There is social science data that suggests that for these students there is lower knowledge retention and that such student feel very uncomfortable in classes that use the Socratic Method. In short, it is a bad educational experience in any of the normal ways of measuring.**
How does one provide an educational method that deals with these two types of students? I personally think those faculties who use a great variety of methods tend to be most effective. Cold call on students for half an hour, then try breaking up into teams to do a role playing exercise. Then, maybe assign some people to do a demonstration and ask for critique from the rest of the class. Maybe a fieldtrip. The possibilities are great and hardly explored. My point is that it does not have to be an either/or situation (though I'd say that when one uses the Socratic Method, then it should be done with cold calling).
One difficulty is that faculty are supposed to cover a certain amount of material (a certain number of concepts) in a course and some of these alternative methods may make it more difficult to feel confident that this is happening. Apparently, it requires a bit of faith to believe that you can use the problem method instead of the case method, or a role playing exercise rather than the Socratic Method. Again, a mix of methods might be best and maybe not done all by the same professor in a single course.
*I hate the use of this term here because it is at best a perversion of what Socrates actually did, which was, basically, attempt to help people see the internal contradictions in the beliefs people had about important things. The "internal contradictions" part was important because Socratic (or Platonic) epistemological theory is based on the idea that no one can teach you anything - you have to learn it. In today's terms, this would mean (roughly or at least in part) that there is no such thing as "passive learning." If you want to teach somebody something, then you have to find someway to motivate them to learn, because just telling them stuff is relatively ineffective. Socrates' method was to help people see that their beliefs had internal, logical inconsistencies. This realization creates a powerful motive to learn because you are not arguing against someone else, but rather against yourself, and you honestly believe both sides. What Socrates does then is a matter of the greatest philosophical debate with boundaries that extend through most of philosophy, and divide philosophy departments across the world. And, maybe not relevant at all to legal education.
**Responses that some faculty members have taken is to avoid cold calling altogether or to modify their calling method so that it is in some way more predictable. This certainly helps to reduce the anxiety of being called on at any moment, but also largely destroys the active learning benefits associated with that same anxiety.On a related note, some people attempt to defend aggressive methods of cold calling by arguing that students need to face their fears of spontaneous, public, oral argument because, as an attorney, they will be called upon to do this regularly - that the very nature of education is to learn to do things at which you are bad. The obvious response is that there are many - if not most - legal careers that require no spontaneous, public, oral arguing, and that even in court it is very rare that cold calling will be like it is in a Socratic Method class (i.e., judges tend to be much more relaxed than Walter Dickey).
First Year Intensity
Hung out with G. at a coffee shop this afternoon and he was working on his Trial Level Brief for second-semester Legal Research and Writing. It brought me right back to those intense days of the first year of law school.
Rave Reviews for the Law School
A 3L writes that she has "nothing but rave reviews for the Law School." She confesses(*) that she's an A-student but doesn't think that is the reason she's giving the Law School such a good grade:
The diploma privilege classes have forced me to gain at least a cursory knowledge of "The Law" from a broad perspective, and the credit requirements have left plenty of room to pick an area of specialization....Clinics provided the opportunity for the development of courtroom and writing skills, along with the chance to communicate with clients facing real-life legal and ethical dilemmas. I've worked as a research assistant, which expanded my network of legal contacts and provided me with mentoring, while further developing writing and research skills.
In short, I feel ready to be a lawyer. Nervous and inexperienced, but ready. That, to me, is what law school should do for all students.
Howd'ya like that? A willing supporter of the status quo and she backs up her claims with reasoning. Not even a negative thought for everyone's favorite punching bag, the writing
program! Note that this student took advantage of clinicals (and an opportunity to work as a research assistant) to hone her writing skills.
It's nice to get this perspective out there. Reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a faculty member. He was detailing some improvements that he thinks would strengthen the teaching environment, and he stopped in mid sentence to interject this thought: "—assuming, of course, that students take responsibility for their own educations."
* my term, not hers
Squaring up to the Matter
Morning. Got the Scissor Sisters
going (soundtrack to my life), tall glass of Recharge--what coul;d be wrong? Oh, yeah, work.
Within the past week you've witnessed something heretofore unseen at *Life As Is* as I have taken it by the horns. Which isn't very as is
now is it. Discussion has been focused exclusively on one topic--the law school curriculum (in anticipation of a fast-approaching presentation, on said topic, that Ethan and I will give on April 8th) (for those of you in Madison: at noon in the Law School Lubar Commons). I'm surprised at how many different directions there are to take the conversation in! It's been good.
I'd like to do a week-in-review post to pull out the major threads, but that'll wait for tomorrow. To borrow a phrase from my own story, set in print (here
) this past Sunday, let us for now square up
to the matter and look it directly in the eye. A question I haven't yet answered: What did you expect from law school, and what did you find when you got there? [Ethan, others, what say you?] Tough question to answer without (a) idealizing the experience, on the on hand, or, on the other (b) overlooking the positives. (positives, what positives?)
Curriculum Rediculum Redux
[I]t might be better to do one thing well than three things very badly. And the guide to choosing should be the public obligation....Thus, a serious question seems to me to have to be, "what are the interests of the people of the state of Wisconsin in providing legal education, and how is that different (if at all) from what is provided at Marquette or by other law schools?"
I agree. Public obligation
is kind of like our old friend the reasonable person standard, though. We could (and in fact, we will) spend the next month debating what it includes. Add it to the list of contested terms such as "niche" areas and "bread-and-butter" courses (from Monday's post
Rascal Hatch (in yesterday
's comments) takes issue with Ethan's starting point, though. As an out-of-stater, who paid top dollar to come here, why are his interests second to some undefined "public obligation" to Wisconsin?
If Wisconsin recruits and admits students from out of state, and then refuses to grant them residency during their education, you cannot with a straight face make the argument that the law school has a greater obligation to the state than to these students, who will be paying for their education for the next 30 years.
My response to Hatch: What is the risk? That out-of-state students will stop coming here as our school grows more Wisconsin-centered? I doubt it. And what about Ethan's point that focusing on one thing would make us better? Wouldn't all students be better off?
Also, I don't know the specifics, but I have the impression that a large part of the school's effort to recruit out-of-state students is geared at bringing in a diverse class of 1Ls each year. As a result, the law school does a much better job of reflecting the diversity of our state (and nation) than any other school or program on the Madison campus. We all benefit from that. And my impression is that (as part of that effort) the school gives financial and other assistance--paid for by the taxpayers WI--to a fair number of out-of-state students.
Thanks for sharing your space here, Brian. I'll try to say thing to excite your readers!
I think you have to take it as a given that the law school can't be all things to all people, though it is certainly helpful to be reminded of this from time to time. This view is emphasized by viewing the curriculum as a question of resource allocation, as does Dean Kidwell. And you are right, Brian, to put this in the context of this being a state school. In fact, it is the only state law school in Wisconsin (the only other law school at all is Marquette University). The UW has an obligation to the state even greater than most state schools because of the "Wisconsin Idea
This obligation suggests (perhaps) that we should look at the obligations of the law school to the state as our primary guide rather than the desires of the students. I think this gets missed when discussing the curriculum because no one is really speaking for the state except for the Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules and law school accreditation associations and UW policy. But these are never seen by the several constituencies as being "players" in the debate, but rather as bureaucratic limitations on change. (In a curriculum meeting I've heard faculty say that because a certain curriculum change would require a Supreme Court Rule change, they'd rather just not do it for fear that the Court would change a bunch of stuff once they got started.) And, of course, I should point out that the interests of the state are not necessarily accurately articulated in any of these sources – and law professors might be the primary experts on where lawyers are needed (though the clearly have no clue how normal human lawyers from a state university are going to earn a living and raise a family while cause-fighting).
All the interests of students and faculty and administrators will still get in when we see that the state has an interest in developing good policy people as well as good attorneys who practice in a variety of areas. And the state has an interest in having good faculty teach law students as well as having a diverse student body, and thus the state will want to satisfy the curricular demands of the faculty and students. But maybe we shouldn't let these interests overrun the evaluation of the state's need for legal education. Or, maybe we should see this as a complex balance of various state interests. Regardless, none of this changes the fact that the law school must periodically ask itself whether it is being effective in teaching whatever it is trying to teach. I mean, whatever it is trying to do, it would be a shame if it failed to do even that.
There are some things that are clearly badly done, and if it is being done badly because it is trying to serve too many constituencies at the same time, then it seems to me that it might be better to do one thing well than three things very badly. And the guide to choosing should be the public obligation. And, for people who are going into public policy work I'd say that the law school has to remember that there is a public policy institute at the UW, not to mention a variety of other graduate departments, which have the primary responsibility for that sort of education. Thus, a serious question seems to me to have to be, "what are the interests of the people of the state of Wisconsin in providing legal education, and how is that different (if at all) from what is provided at Marquette or by other law schools?"
But I don't mean to sound so authoritative because my thinking is still in flux about this, and I'd love to be convinced that there is a better way of thinking about this.
Here's the thing. UW Law school is a state school serving a wide range of constituencies. But it can't be all things to everybody. Two views. I can't figure out how a single law school can satisfy both of these people.
A dual-degree student had this to say by e-mail:
[M]y ideas about reforming law school are probably a bit more radical than what you have in mind. Frankly, I would rework law school entirely to make it more amenable to people who do not work in firms after they graduate.
As far as I am concerned, the entire law school experience is geared towards programming you to go into a firm....The grading system is curved so that firms can say things like "Top 1/3 of the class." You are pushed into things like Moot Court, journals (and there is even a pecking order within the various journals), and clinicals. The services at the career center are almost entirely focused towards getting you a firm job (well, okay, maybe some type of government job). The diploma privilege channels you into typical bread-and-butter law classes. And the price of law school almost guarantees that you will seek out that high-paying firm job right out of school.
In my grad school experience, you basically get at least a B if you make an effort. You get an AB if you try a bit, and an A if you work hard. That's it. No fighting for that extra point to push you to a 90 instead of an 89. To me, grad school has been much more rewarding because I am learning for the sake of learning without the pressure of grades. (Emphasis added.)
A view to the contrary is captured in this comment from Eric
, who originally posted it here
(in a discussion on alumni contributions). Whereas the student above would let each individual pursue their eclectic interests, he would characterize that as a wasteful diversion of resources into non-job-related areas:
The problem a number of alums have, and I have spoken with some from classes well before mine, is that resources at UW tend to flow to very niche areas with influential faculty. Now that's not all bad, and I suspect neither is it unique, but at UW those niche areas are not the areas that will improve the school's "ranking." The general concern from alums that are in larger firms (out of state) is that money they give will go to these niche areas, in one way or another, without building up teaching areas that would better prepare UW students for job searches that focus on out-of-state private firms. (Emphasis added.)
Eric sums up his opinion this way:
[K]eep in mind that as more UW law students go on to positions of prestige, publicity and power (which does NOT mean they're not also helping people or the world), the more the value of your degree increases.
These are both friends of mine. Sadly, neither of them sound even remotely satisfied will the current state of the UW Law School.
Starting Place—What Does It Mean To Become An Attorney?
As I mentioned earlier today
, I'm throwing out some ideas in an effort to get feedback from people. I want to figure out what changes I should propose for the law school curriculum. Post comments, send me a message (btlarso1 (at) wisc (dot) edu), or pull me aside and tell me what you think. This will be longer than most posts, but it's Sunday and I thought I'd start with a story.
Let us begin at the beginning: what does it mean to become an attorney?
As we meet our young hero (that's me), he's walking down King Street
on a Friday evening, near the capitol, wearing a coat and tie, of all things. He's with a few companions, similarly-dressed—attorneys at the law firm where our hero is "summering" as a law clerk. They are taking our young hero to meet the rest of the firm at the Great Dane
, where he will sit down with all of his colleagues for the first time.
As the group strolls across Pinckney Street on their way to the Dane, they encounter two young men standing on the corner. The two are in mid-conversation, having just bumped into each other themselves. They have no way of knowing that our hero is approaching. Here are the events that unfolded during the next few minutes, leaving an impression on our young hero that will stay with him and guide his conduct for a long time into the future...
He walked up to the two young men and greeted them warmly, to the surprise of his companions from the law firm, who played it cool. The young men, C. and D., happened to be dear old friends. They had been co-workers of our hero (during undergrad) at the Majestic
movie theater (back when it was still open). Between movies, the three of them used to gather around the counter in the lobby, eating popcorn, talking about the places they'd go.
, Brian!" one of his old friends called out, eyeing our hero's costume. He smiled in response, and parted ways with them after a brief conversation. He wondered if they were surprised at the way that he was dressed or that he was now working at a law firm. C. and D. were dressed much more casually than he, and they sported scruffy beards that suited them. By contrast, our hero was new to his clothes; his face was clean-shaven, and his puffy cheecks were pinked from razor burn.
Inside the pub, he struggled to make conversation with his colleagues. Our hero had by then grown accustomed to hanging around with attorneys. He knew, for example, that at the office he should just sit and listen, when he could remember to do so. In social settings, he knew he was expected to join in a discussion but that it was best to let them take charge of its direction.
His thoughts turned to his friends outside. What must they have thought when they saw him walking down the street dressed to the nines? He felt as if they—and now everyone else—could see right through him. They could see what was obvious to him, at least in that moment: He was in over his head. It was true that after the interview season at the Law School last fall, he had warmed up to the idea of dressing for success. He felt comfortable in shirtsleeves and a tie. And his wife, Kris, was proud of him. She knew that he clung to an idealized notion of an attorney as a "counselor." She had helped to make his transition from law school to the working world more comfortable by finding a store over at Hilldale Mall where they offered custom fitting. He and Kris liked buying clothes from the elderly salespeople who worked there; they said the outfits made him look dignified. But now, as he looked down at his feet and wondered if his shoes were the right size, he just felt like a phony.
He thought of his girlfriend in high school, who had said she wanted to become a lawyer, and he had tried to talk her out of it. Why?
He thought of what his father had muttered, a few years back, when given the news that his son would be applying to law school. "Does the world really need another lawyer?" had been his father's only response.
Just then, V., the most senior attorney in the room, walked over to him. Our hero pulled himself out of his thoughts and tried to look confident. "Don't slouch," he said to himself. V. was a big, nice man. He had been with the firm for more than forty years, and had recently gone "of counsel" after a distinguished career. Without asking, V. poured beer into our hero's half-emptied glass.
"Congratulations on being hired," he said. Our hero reminded him that he was only there as a law clerk for the summer. It would be some months before the firm would decide whether or not to keep him around on a permanent basis after graduation. V. just winked, as if he knew something that our hero did not. After a long pause, he said, "You're here because you're a fine young man and you've got a knack for the law."
"Is that how you felt when you first started out?" asked our hero. He was fishing for something he wasn't going to get. As an attorney, V. had been so successful that if he had ever felt uncomfortable in the role, the feeling had long since passed. There was little chance that V. would dredge up such memories for the benefit of a young law clerk. But the question was a good one, anyway. It prompted the old, seasoned attorney to let out a number of musings about what it had been like to start in "the profession"—as he called it—back when a gentleman would have been embarrassed to walk down the street without his hat and cane.
"But I can see that you're looking around for someone to come and rescue you from these old stories about attorney pride
." said V., good naturedly, after he caught our hero looking around the room.
"Not at all," said our hero. And he meant it. He had glanced over his shoulder, but only to find out who was within earshot. "I sometimes feel like they don't do a good job of teaching us about that at the law school," our hero confided in his boss.
"Son," came the reply "there are two sides to our job." V. raised his eyebrow and paused for effect. "The first side is what they teach you about at law school. The technical part. And from your grades I can tell that you're going to be skilled in those aspects of the profession."
"I'll let you be the judge of that after I finish my first assignment," volunteered our hero, when it was apparent that he should say something. He doubted that V. actually remembered what his law-school grades were, although all of the attorneys at the firm had reviewed his transcript prior to extending him the summer offer. Our hero also doubted whether his grades would prove to be a good measure of his success (or failure) as an attorney. He was intrigued by V.'s intimation that the "second side" to the job, unlike the first, would have little to do with grades or with what he had learned in school.
V. continued. "Now, as for the other half. You're going to be serving at this job for a long time. Serving as a counselor to the people of this city. They will come to you when their lives are falling apart; or when they are giving birth to something." Measuring out his words, he squared up to our young hero and continued speaking. "It is you
whom they will choose to visit at those important times. I want you to realize that it is a great responsibility, son. And it is an opportunity. An opportunity to make a difference in their lives."
Our hero smiled. He looked around the room and nodded. He pictured himself and his friends eating popcorn back at the movie theater and dreaming of the future, which had arrived. He hadn't earned his parents' approval, but it didn't seem to weigh on him as heavily as it had before. He looked down at his shoes and his feet felt comfortable in them. Meanwhile, he sensed himself sitting up higher in his stool—a little straighter than before.
Blogging the Law School Curriculum
I mentioned that I've been collecting views on the law school curriculum. Ethan and I are giving a presentation to the faculty in April. And in part because it's just how we are, and also because we're both graduating and want to leave our mark on the place before we end our careers there (as students), he and I are taking the opportunity very seriously
Maybe I'll bring Ethan in as a guest blogger? It's a good idea. Rather than e-mailing each other back and forth as we prepare for the talk, we should be speaking in a public forum. You may find it interesting to follow our train(s) of thought between now and April 8th.
Also, I'll put in a plug for comments, which I've recently re-enabled. If you are a student or faculty member at, or an alumnus of, the UW Law School—speak up! Or if you just have some ideas about how the law school curriculum could be made better—let us know! Or, as is the most likely case, let us say you know someone who went to UW Law School and, in speaking to them these days, you wonder what happened to the person you knew, and you fear that perhaps they didn't go to UW Law School at all but were kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an evil lawyer drone
!!!! Give us your testimonial!
I'll try to throw out some posts that are worthy of feedback. And we will pursue this alien-lawyer-drone theory, among others.
I've got books all around me... but ain't got you
Been checked out for a while catching up on my reading. During the early part of the semester I was swept up in the anticipation of baby D's then-impending arrival. (Read swept up to mean "wasn't doing my school work.") And after he came out to meet us on Feb. 7, I was mesmerized by his cuteness and refused to leave the apartment. I ultimately became convinced that all things law-school related were insignificant and dull. True enough. Be that as it may about ten days ago I got a kick to start reading again. Now I'm almost caught up (thank god).
Something to get excited about: On April 8th, Ethan and I are giving a presentation to the law school faculty (and hopefully lots of students) entitled "Student Perspectives on Curricular Reform." Last Thursday we met with a focus group to get the ball rolling and come up with good ideas. We've also been reaching out to alumni and faculty and will continue to do so. Long story short--I've got a lot to post about. Watch this space.