Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rapoport on Changing the Modal Law School

Our friend Nancy Rapoport (UNLV, below), former dean of the law schools at Houston and Nebraska (and Ohio State Buckeye fan, but we won't hold that against her), when she's not winning dance competitions, has some ideas about changing the template in most law schools:  Changing the Modal Law School:  Rethinking U.S. Legal Education in (Most) Schools.  Here's the abstract:

This essay argues that discussions of educational reform in U.S. law schools have  Faculty_Nancy_Rapoport_2suffered from a fundamental misconception: that the education provided in all of the American Bar Association-accredited schools is roughly the same. A better description of the educational opportunities provided by ABA-accredited law schools would group theschools into three rough clusters: the “elite” law schools, the modal (most frequently occurring) law schools, and the precarious law schools. Because the elite law schools do not need much “reforming,” the better focus of reform would concentrate on the modal and precarious schools; however, both elite and modal law schools could benefit from some changes to help law students move from understanding the theoretical underpinnings of law to understanding how to translate those underpinnings into practice. “Practice” itself is a complex concept, requiring both an understanding of the law and an understanding of how to relate well to others. Because law students may not understand how to relate well to those with different backgrounds from their own, law schools should do more to explain how one’s perspective is both limiting and mutable. Too many law schools suggest that students can “see” different perspectives by, essentially, merely thinking harder. The essay concludes with some suggestions regarding possible reforms of U.S. legal education, focusing primarily on the modal law schools.

Interestingly, one theme in Nancy's piece is that students don't get those contextual and non-legal skills from their undergraduate liberal arts education.  Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice either disagrees or doesn't think it matters to a lawyer, judging by an interesting reaction to my post on the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of law practice.  And coming from the standpoint of doing "New York criminal defense," he may well be right.  I'd agree that there is a segment of the law - mainly litigation, and particularly criminal litigation - that doesn't need to see a whole lot of change in the doctrinal approach, and would benefit from students' intense and relatively narrow exposure toclinics or other intern-like experiences.  But that's looking at the legal  6a00d8341bfae553ef016764ae86a6970b-320wiprofession and its place in the rest of the - sorry, Scott - increasingly interdisciplinary world through the wrong end of the telescope.   I don't expect anybody to buy it merely on my authority (a wobbly stool to be sure), but I spent 26 years out there in the real world as a real lawyer.  It's that experience, not academic theorizing, that's the basis for the conclusion that Nancy's assessment is likely correct, and that more and more of what the vast majority of lawyers is going to be doing sits in the overlap of that Venn diagram.

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Sorry for not noticing this post earlier, but just to clarify: breadth of knowledge matters for lawyers, in general, and even criminal defense lawyers, though we can afford to be a lot dumber than other lawyers since the stakes we deal with are so much less significant.

But it's not the role of law school to compensate for an inadequate undergraduate education. If colleges are dropping the ball, the solution is for colleges to do better, not law school to compensate for the inadequacies. For every law school course that fills in the holes left behind by an inadequate undergrad education, a piece of the law school education the students are paying for and desire is lost. So this whole interdisciplinary nonsense trades off legal education for inadequate undergrad education.

To the extent law schools need to be engaged in a problem caused by colleges, stop admitting students who aren't qualified to study law or become lawyers. Send 'em back for remedial ed if need be, but law schools exist to teach law, not Law and Rocks for Jocks.

If there is a bunch of waste time in law school such that law school can afford to fill holes in undergrad education with interdisciplinary courses, shorten the length of law school and save the student's from paying law school prices for undergrad courses. Trust me, they won't mind a year's less tuition.

To the extent this means there will be less work for law profs with fewer students and shorter law school, bummer. They can always get a gig teaching undergrads. Hope this clears things up.

Posted by: shg | Apr 26, 2012 7:20:37 AM

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