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!