Over the last few years, law schools have been a target for endless criticism, aimed at rankings manipulations, high tuition for few available jobs, tenure, for-profit law schools, and curriculum. And as written about here before, even President Obama has gotten in on the fun.
However, as a current law student, I would like to applaud law schools for where they do succeed: curriculum and teaching methods. Attacks on those fronts fail to recognize the positive steps made in formative learning and portray law students as easily duped children incapable of taking responsibility for their education.
Undoubtedly, certain aspects of law schools need to change. Graduates are leaving law school with more debt than ever before. (Indebted 2013 graduates of Northwestern University’s and University of Chicago’s law schools had average debts of more than $150,000. Indebted graduates of Chicago’s four other law schools had average debts of more than $110,000.) Graduates also have fewer job prospects. Non-employment rates for 2013 graduates range as high as 20.5% (Northern Illinois University) and 20.8% (DePaul University), according to LST Score Reports. As graduates struggle to find jobs, law schools have seen a precipitous decline in applicants and enrollment. To cure these ailments, schools have considered allowing graduation after two years or five semesters.
Last month during his commencement speech at William & Mary Law School, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia addressed many of these concerns and widely criticized law schools, including the University of Chicago where Scalia taught law from 1977 to 1982. He agreed that students pay too much and echoed another recently popular sentiment, law professors are paid too much. However, he dismissed the idea of a two-year degree program and instead proposed an overhaul of the elective-heavy 2L and 3L years.
Others have advocated for different methods of overhauling the legal system of learning. Many who want to keep the three-year system prefer that students spend more of their third year in clinical practice or externships. In her paper for New England Law, Law School Game Changer: (Trans)formative Feedback, Associate Professor Elizabeth M. Bloom argues for a more simple solution: retreating from summative assessments and opting for formative assessments. Of course, we are all familiar with summative learning in law schools, i.e., the typical end-of-semester, 100-percent-of-your-grade final exam. Formative learning encourages multiple assessments throughout the semester so that students can learn from professorial feedback.
There are obvious benefits to a more practical 3L year, but I think, generally, the current elective 2L and 3L system serves students well. Though Justice Scalia denounces them for allowing students “to study whatever strikes his or her fancy,” electives can be extremely useful, especially as lawyers’ roles are becoming redefined, and more confined, in our technological age. For example, with an eye on working in business litigation but with no business background, I took Business and the Law last semester and have registered for Business Organizations in the fall. Though Scalia advised not to take “law and anything,” I think these electives allow me to fill some educational gaps from my undergraduate studies and supplement the practical experience of clerking for a business litigation firm.
And even though Bloom believes many schools fail to provide adequate feedback and many students ignore or cannot understand what feedback is given, my personal experience suggests otherwise.
I am currently a rising 2L at Loyola University Chicago Law School. During my first year, the final exam still counted as the sole grade for almost all of my core 1L classes, but opportunities for formative learning still abounded for everyone. Despite Bloom’s claim that “teachers bemoan the amount of time it takes to provide feedback,” my professors and teaching assistants made it abundantly clear that they were willing to speak extensively about any topic during office hours. They also made it clear that, come exam season, they were willing to talk through any practice exams. Some classes even offered graded practice exams, which were returned with helpful comments. TAs willingly spent their days reviewing student outlines. Legal writing professors held individual conferences with each of their students and talked through every error, whether it be in the paper’s logic or grammar. Thus, while students may not have been graded at every interval, they had ample opportunities to learn from their mistakes, whether or not they took those opportunities.
Bloom does hit the nail on the head with her analysis of “student dependency,” whereby students try to “game” law school by taking feedback only on what is expected to show up on the exam rather than all the important information. However, instead of holding students responsible for this behavior, Bloom falls back on two studies that say students either do not read feedback or lack the “assessment literacy” to efficiently understand it.
These studies, one of which looked only at undergraduates and the other of which looked generally at “higher education,” do not accurately reflect the law student attitude that I’ve witnessed. Law students can certainly interpret feedback; moreover, within the highly competitive atmosphere of law school, they relish the thought of feedback because it presents a chance to get ahead of the class.
Some students certainly need particular attention in the feedback process. However, most of the students who do reject feedback are those who purposely ignore it. If they choose to do so, they are presumably adults capable of making that choice rather than, as Bloom suggests, adults incapable of reading feedback or lacking the “assessment literacy” to understand it. Fortunately, my experience with my peers demonstrates the opposite.
Taking into account the positive steps in formative assessment that have already been made and many students’ inclusive attitude toward learning and feedback, I believe that the complete curriculum overhaul is not as urgent as many claim. As times and the economy change, fluctuations in the legal job market can be expected to take a negative toll on law schools, but that does not mean that law schools’ curricula are the problem.