Friday, August 14, 2009

Legal education and the limits of resources

If we start from the premise that students learn better if they have the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member than if they do not, we immediately face the problem of scarcity: how can a relatively limited number of faculty members engage on an individualized or small-group basis with a large number of students? There are many possible answers, but no simple ones.

We could, for example, double the number of faculty, but only by either doubling the cost of law school or halving aggregate faculty salaries. If we chose to double the cost of law school, in turn, we could either double tuition or find other revenue sources -- but it is hard to believe that our society wishes to double its investment in legal education, by whatever mechanism.

We could keep the number of faculty constant, but double the amount of teaching that we do, but only by reducing something else that we do by the same amount; unless that "something else" is of no value (and just to avoid being misread, I do think that scholarship has value!), reducing it will be a cost.

We could find ways to impart the knowledge and understanding currently conveyed in classes by some more efficient means that required less of faculty members' time, thereby freeing up faculty time for more individualized teaching; but it's not clear to me that there are more efficient means for helping large numbers of people to learn and work with law than our current Socratic classes. This doesn't abandon the original premise that students learn better from working closely with a faculty member; our large classes may be ideal for teaching up to a certain point, but at that point another, more individualized approach may be needed to help the students go further.

I've put all these in extreme ways, to be sure. There may be ways to make some valuable changes in each of these three respects (perhaps a subject for future posts). While legal education is often said to be a conservative institution, law schools have in fact developed more small-group, practice-related education over the past 30 years -- this is what the clinical legal education movement has been about -- and it's turned out to be quite possible to move in this direction without up-ending our institutions. Though we have not gone as far as many (myself included) would like, we may well be able to go further, and to do so by a relatively organic process in which this form of education gradually spreads as both existing and new faculty find it meaningful and worth carrying out.

But I wonder if we also need to "broaden the frame." Law school lasts only three years for full-time students. Put differently, full-time students normally go to school for 6 semesters, each with 14 weeks of classes, or 82 weeks of classes in all -- just over a year and a half of in-class instruction. That really isn't a great deal of time. It seems very likely (and there's some survey evidence to confirm) that much of what students learn in their law school years that prepares them for practice they are learning from their part-time or summer jobs, and that much of what newly admitted lawyers are actually doing is learning on the job. These observations suggest that we should try to understand our students' education as a process that continues in between classes and after graduation. If law schools can contribute to their students' out-of-class education as well as their in-class learning, they may be on the path to broaden the frame and the effectiveness of their students' preparation for practice.

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