In a Word…or More

University school of law buildingThe term “practice-ready” attorneys and the drumbeat for the profession to produce them have been making increasingly loud noise ever since the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching produced its 2007 report, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law. The Report authors praised law schools for honing the ability of law students to “think like a lawyer’ through legal analyses and the Socratic method but decried the teaching of both the ethical grounding and practice skills necessary to produce future professionals.  Law schools have been responding by increasing their emphasis on professionalism (a subject dear to our hearts) as well as clinical and other skills-based offerings.  As this transformation occurs, however, it is important not to underestimate the value of the content- rich knowledge gained through the substance of legal studies.

This connection came to mind as I read a recent op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by a former University of Virginia education professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., about teaching reading to youngsters in the elementary grades.  Pointing to the fact that verbal test scores of 12th graders in the United States fell sharply between 1962 and 1980 and have remained flat ever since, Prof. Hirsch argues that focusing on the “skills” of reading has failed to produce students who can read.  In addition, because reading comprehension essentially measures knowledge of the meaning of words, vocabulary tests were included in the tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress beginning in 2009 and the report issued last month shows no significant change in students’ understanding of word meaning over the past several years.

In his forthcoming article (due in the Winter 2013 issue of City Journal), Prof. Hirsch argues that our students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners and asserts that some of the blame belongs to teaching methods that focus on the skill of reading, ie, decoding words, as opposed to learning vocabulary in the context of general learning.  Hirsch throws out a cautionary tale about assuming “that students need to learn not a body of knowledge but `how-to’ skills that (supposedly) enable them to pick up specific knowledge later on.”

Perhaps there is some relevance to the legal education debate.  For those who argue that it is an imperative that law schools increase the attention devoted to teaching students the skills of practice, a key question is how and to what degree the enduring substance and principles underlying that law can and should be retained as part of the foundational curriculum.  Whether it is with fondness or not, most of us will recall that law school—especially the first year—not only increased our vocabulary exponentially (particularly the Latin words), it also expanded our body of knowledge and greatly honed our ability to (de-)construct and analyze.

The process of learning your A-B-Cs is of course different than the process of learning federal jurisdiction or how to brief a case.  However, it seems to me that Hirsch’s conclusion that learning substance provides students with a valuable general knowledge that prepares them to compete in the increasingly complex world may be equally applicable to the debate about the proper balance between “substance” and “skills” in the education of our future lawyers.  What do you think?

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

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