Are Law Schools Failing New Lawyers?

The process of legal education, particularly instruction in the basic skills of research and writing, is really taking it on the chin this week. I just wrote about a seasoned lawyer lamenting modern education in legal research, with its focus on computers instead of books as the starting and finishing point for investigation.

Today, the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (“LSSSE”) releases the results of its 2008 Annual Survey -  Student Engagement in Law School: Preparing 21st Century Lawyers, which have been made available on-line at the link. Inside Higher Ed reports that “the [survey], released today, show[s] nearly half of all law school students reporting that their education does not ‘contribute substantially’ to their ability to ‘apply legal writing skills’ in the real world.” Students from 85 schools in the U.S. and Canada took the survey and are leveling the criticism. The first bolded sentence in the Foreword of the report reads “Thinking Like a Lawyer is Not Enough.”

The survey is intended to assist schools in bettering themselves. The students have been vocal in their criticism of legal writing instruction:

“[d]espite near universal agreement on the value of these skills and competencies, legal writing, for example, is typically featured primarily in the first year, and viewed by students as a sidebar in their doctrinal classes,” writes George D. Kuh, LSSSE director and professor at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, in his introduction to the 2008 results. “The low value placed on writing is symbolized by the facts that relatively few legal writing faculty are tenured or in a tenure-eligible role and are often paid less than other faculty members. Nevertheless, good lawyers must be good legal writers; it is a skill that will serve students well as they transition to the practice of law.”

While it is conceded by survey participants that there are plenty of opportunities to practice writing in school, they feel there is insufficient instruction in “practical” legal writing and chance to apply the skill to particular writing tasks.

Besides issues with writing instruction, there are many interesting points raised in the IHE article and the results should prove captivating to law school administration. For example, students bringing computers into the classroom admit to using them primarily for non-class-related purposes. On the other hand, those students that do use them to review case briefs or take notes report that they feel better prepared. In essence, while technology might be a potentially tempting distraction, it also is a potentially effective tool if used wisely.

If you are interested in reading further, the link above takes you to the technical reports and the 2008 Results. From scanning these results and reports, the sense I get is that ever-increasing competition between schools for students has pushed administrators to expand course offerings and include greater specialization and choice in the curriculum. But, with only so much time in the day and in the three year law school process, more time for specialized courses necessarily means less time for pure instruction in the basics. Given this seemingly mutual exclusivity, law school professors in all subjects should consider paying extra attention to incorporating legal research and writing instruction within their specific subject courses. Higher level research and writing courses should be made available to students wishing to avail themselves of the chance to hone this vitally important legal skill. Better writers and researchers make better lawyers. Recalling my own transition from law school to law practice, I am convinced that any tool, instruction or edge available in law school to ease that transition would have been a welcome one indeed!

8 comments on “Are Law Schools Failing New Lawyers?

  1. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the many ways in which law school education fails not only law students but the public.

    In 1996 I wrote about this in “Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places” in my FindLaw column

    In it I quote from the highly regarded MacCrate Report which found that there are 10 fundamental skills needed by a lawyer and law schools teach only 2 and don’t teach those well. There are also 4 fundamental values (like promoting justice) that are not emphasized. The comprehensive recommendations to law schools and the legal profession in the report began to be followed up on by the Delegates of the ABA. At that point a new executive director was hired by the ABA, a law school dean opponent of the MacCrate Report. Since the mid-90’s I have read nothing about implementation by the ABA of the recommendations.

    The major theme of my blog is the inadequacy of legal education.

    Take a look at my somewhat satirical but deadly serious Request to be Appointed Law School Industry Czar.

  2. Thanks Ron. It unfortunately is not surprising to me to see these criticisms. Much like the now-infamous “No Child Left Behind”, when politics and money enter the education arena, true educational purpose and end-result necessarily will diverge.

    Thanks for the links and the excellent reading, as well as adding to the conversation on this important topic.


  3. As a law student I take offense at these…
    I can’t even finish that. I wrote a blog post about how completely useless every class (other than clinics) in law school are.

  4. Can anyone find examples of schools or other modes of instruction that are doing it right? As a first-year student, I’m hearing and reading more each day about how my legal education will fail at instructing me to be good lawyer. Is the law school industry so slow to respond that this is true everywhere?

  5. For the better part of two decades I have been saying much the same thing as this LSSSE survey, although without the empirical data to back up my assertions. Based on my anecdotal observations, most law students & recent graduates are insufficiently taught to perform quality legal writing tasks. In an effort to help with this perceived dilemma, I inquired of my alma mater (the New England School of Law, now known as New England|Boston) about teaching a combined legal research & writing course, but with a specific angle towards on-line computer assisted legal research (CALR) & computer-based writing & editing. Unfortunately, this was around 1996, & the general response from the school was that the CALR vendors (Lexis & Westlaw) should be responsible for such training. I attempted to point out that by leaving such critical training to the vendors (who, of course, had a vested interest in pushing their particular products to the exclusion of all others), the schools were shortchanging their students. Alas, my pleas fell on deaf ears & legal writing (taught by an adjunct faculty member) remained a separate course from CALR (taught by the vendors).

    In response to your query, lbergus, I strongly encourage you to look at academic legal programs similar to Northeastern University School of Law. In my opinion, the majority of American legal education focuses on the academic (theoretical) & lacks practical application. Although there have been increased clinical programs at many law schools which have helped increase law students’ practical understanding of the law, such programs are not mandatory & many law students graduate with little more than their theoretical legal education & whatever they might have picked up during summer associate programs. More specifically, I encourage you to seek out as many clinical placements as you can find at your school. And if your school doesn’t offer what interests you, look at other nearby law school’s clinical programs & seek permission to participate in them (this is what I did in 1989 when NESL lacked a clinical program focusing on indigent tenant defense practice).

  6. I would be very interested in learning of any innovations in this area as well. I suppose the perennial problem is measuring the success of alternative approaches to identify what works and doesn’t.

    Our section’s frustration with legal research and writing was that it was even more divorced from reality than our other 1L classes. Why should legal writing be a skill taught in a vacuum? If I were in a position to implement it, I would lean towards integrating writing assignments with the core 1L classes, using issues and fact patterns from current cases in the subject area to challenge students. LRW faculty would be focused on providing more immediate feedback and work-shopping writing strategies and ideas.

  7. While I don’t have first-hand knowledge of any schools employing our incorporation idea, I would definitely suggest looking into any clinical programs your school offers. I learned more about drafting in my clinics than I did in all of my core classes combined. I also recommend approaching your professors and see if you can get them to include practical writing assignments in your courses, particularly smaller, higher-level courses. Finally, I suggest looking into unpaid internships in the overworked and understaffed public sector and government agencies, particularly administrative hearing boards, where you will be inundated with more practical writing experience than you possible could digest. Since schools are not offering the kind of experience you can use, consider taking the initiative to craft the education you need.

  8. Pingback: The True Amoral Nature of Technology « Advocate’s Studio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s