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