When law profs slack, the students suffer

As in most other aspects of life, the “Seven Deadly Sins” manifest themselves in legal education.

There’s plenty of Professor Kingsfield–style wrath (see class discussions with unsuspecting 1L’s). There’s both pride and envy (Google “law school rankings” for some examples). And there may even be lust.

But the one “Sin” in legal education that is the most pervasive and serious, in light of today’s legal landscape — affecting not just groups of students but every law student and recent law grad — is sloth.

Call it complacency, apathy, inactivity, inertia or plain ole’ laziness, but one thing is clear: When law professors slack, the students (and future lawyers) suffer.

Take the examination process, for example. Several recent news stories have broken about law professors “accidentally” using questions from previous exams or previously released practice questions, no doubt resulting in huge headaches for their respective administrations. (Make students retake the exam? Count it as a “pass/fail” grade? Grade as is? Any conceivable option presents some level of unfairness to some students, plus potential complaints, unnecessary costs and logistical nightmares for administrators.)

As Elie Mystal of Above The Law puts it: I know most law professors don’t like giving or grading exams. They’re busy people with many commitments that don’t have anything to do with preparing the next generation of lawyers. But given the legal economy, given how important law school grades are right now, how can professors justify putting almost no effort into the examination process?”  

Lack of productivity costs law schools, and the students who pay professors’ salaries, a pretty penny. Professor Brian Tamanaha of St. John’s University School of Law writes about the high cost of tenure in legal education. “[M]ost of the time [tenure] functions to confer immunity on professors to work as little as they please beyond teaching their assigned classes. And that imposes a high cost on law schools (in money as well as institutional productivity and morale).” 

Many law professors do work hard. A great number pull their weight; a good number go above and beyond to be there for their students; and a small number are true innovators whose commitment to their students is at the forefront. But there are also too many who don’t: teaching too few classes, giving too few hours to students, or spending too few hours on instruction and curricula.

Indiana University Mauer School of Law professor William Henderson has noted that the “salad days” of law professor-dom are over. I agree. It’s time to innovate, to improve and to embrace the changes necessary to graduate successful students who are prepared for law practice.

Legal blogger Nicole Black says: Law schools need an attitude adjustment…The current system teaches students how to “think like lawyers,” but essentially ignores the obligation to teach them how to actually practice law. It is rooted in an archaic mindset that looks backward rather than forward.” 

To me, the greatest part of that process entails not talk, but action. Merely having great ideas for change is not enough. For change and innovation, productivity must be the name of the game.

If you’re considering law school as your next step, don’t just accept the school’s marketing materials as your source for what’s new at the school. Dig deeper and talk to current students and alumni, and ask them what they would like to see change at the school. Do they feel that they got their money’s worth from their professors?

Clients are the lifeblood of any business, and law students are the lifeblood of legal education. If you’re already in law school, your tuition dollars pay your professors’ salaries. You are their client. Make their instruction worth your while.

As for the profs: If your institution is perfect; if your work is excellent; if all of your students are graduating as successful new lawyers who feel that they received a quality education, then congratulations to you. You probably needn’t change a thing about what you do and how you do it. But for those profs who could use some improvement, I propose this: Make this the year that you do just one thing to improve education at your institution.

We’ll all be better lawyers for it in the long run.

By Ursula Furi-Perry, career editor for The National Jurist


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Comments

This is a great article, and I think is true for non-law professors as well. Not only do the Professors suffers but definitely the students. This can not be emphasized enough.

I totally agree with Nicole Black's quote! Again, this is true for many colleges. After I graduated I realized very little of my college years prepared me for "working and practicing" my career, which wasn't even law. I'm sure it's moreso with law.

Hopefully, a combination of schools, students, and professors look more deeply into this and apply some changes to better everyone.

Let's examine the author's claims. The author states that sloth is the "most pervasive" sin among law professors and that it affects "every" law student and recent graduate.

How does the author support these claims? First, there is a reference to "several recent news stories" about the re-use of exam questions. Two points here. First, "several" is a sloppy word meaning "I'm too lazy to count precisely." Second, it would be more accurate if the author had counted the number of incidents, not the number of news stories. Each incident (such as the recent flap in a 1L course at NYU) generates multiple news stories.

Second, there is the quotation from Professor Tamanaha. Let's be clear about what he said. He said that "most of the time" tenure confers immunity on professors to work as little as they please. It is true that a certain immunity exists. But this is not the same thing as saying that most of the time professors _actually use_ the immunity to work as little as they please.

Indeed, in the very next paragraph, the author has to confess that "[m]any law professors do work hard."

The author is right to say that there are "too many" who don't work hard. But that's because the correct number who should engage in sloth is zero. Even one sloth is rightly too many. The author deploys this sleight of hand -- there are "too many" who don't work hard -- to suggest that the number is large. But in fact the author has no information one way or the other.

The author concludes with an obvious suggestion: _if_ you need improvement then do one thing to improve. Not terribly deep, but reasonable advice. Reasonable in any context, in fact.

There are sins in journalism as there are sins in law. One of the virtues that good law professors try to teach is the value of statements supported by evidence. I wonder what grade a good journalism professor would give the author?

The content here is fine, but it's hard to respect a commentary that includes the sentence:

"When law professor’s slack, the students (and future lawyers) suffer."

I don't know if this is a grammatical error or a proofreading one. But it does not speak well of the editors. And if you don't know what the error is, ask your 3rd grade teacher (high school English teacher will work too.)

Your article decries what occurs "When law professor’s slack." One thing that probably happens is that their sense of grammar falls apart. Of course, if you mean to decry what happens "when law professors slack," it would be a very different matter.

Let's teach grammar in law schools!

I think it truly amazing that someone could believe that "thinking like a lawyer" is somehow unrelated to the practice of law. Might I also add that if law students are like clients, then the goal of any lawyer is not necessarily to give the client what he wants, but to give the client the advice he needs. The same principle applies to teaching. Finally, when students think that they are the employers of faculty, it breeds disrespect. If there is one impediment to learning that is pervasive today, it is the assumption by many students that they know more than the people who are teaching them.

Contrary to the assertions in this story, the expenses that drive up tuition are not faculty salaries. Administrative salaries and the cost of competing for higher U.S. News and World Reports rankings have driven up the cost of tuition. (See 2008 report of the office of management and budget to the Congress on the cost of law school education.) The cost of constructing new buildings and the installation of new technology is also a factor. Rather than engage in a simplistic explanation of the cost of a legal education, attributing it to faculty "sloth," I recommend that the reporter investigate the issue in a real and meaningful way. Isn't the ability to do fact finding one of the skills students are supposed to acquire in law school?

 Thanks for pointing out the grammar error. Please note that all postings in the Advice & Consent blog are commentary and not journalistic stories.