Tuesday, July 10, 2018

But Can They Read Cases? by Deborah Merritt

Professor Deborah Merritt has posted her third article on the case method on the Law School Cafe.  In this article, she questions how well students are taught to read cases.  She bases her article on a study that concludes that law students rate poorly at case reading skills.

She writes,

"Student performance in the Evensen study was distinctly mediocre. On average, first-semester law students answered just eight out of fourteen questions (57%) correctly; second-semester students fared no better. Nor did case-reading skills improve after the first year: Students in the third and sixth semesters of law school continued to average less than 60% on this test of case-reading skills. As Evensen and her colleagues concluded, 'it looks as though our students’ case-reading abilities need attention.'"

She concludes, "Despite any caveats, the results of the Evensen study are alarming. The ability to read cases is a basic skill that all law schools purport to teach: We devote a considerable portion of the curriculum to reading and analyzing cases. Yet the average student in the Evensen study reached only a basic level of case reading proficiency–and failed to improve over three years of law school."  She also notes, "Other studies, unfortunately, suggest that law schools fall short in teaching other types of critical thinking."  She adds, "If this type of mediocrity marks contemporary legal education, we need to know that–and we have to figure out ways to improve. Law schools will not serve clients–or continue to attract students–if we don’t live up to our claim of teaching students how to 'think like a lawyer.'"

I heard one of the authors of the study speak at a conference over ten years ago.  What troubled me the most from his presentation was that law students do very poorly at synthesizing cases.  This skill wasn't widely taught at the time of the conference, and it still isn't today.  Law professors need to teach case synthesis in every first-year class so that law students become proficient in this skill.

(Scott Fruehwald)



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