Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Law School Faculty - Academics vs. Teaching

The WSJ Law Blog touches on a topic that was quite the hot topic at DU when I was graduating law school 5 years ago,

It’s often struck us as an obvious question: how can law schools provide better real-world training to students when their faculties are made up of article-writing academics?

The answer: they can’t, at least according to a new article to be published in the South Carolina Law Review by adjunct Georgetown law prof and deputy staff director of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Brent Evan Newton...

Much of the problem, Newton writes, owes to the fact that many law professors have too little experience or understanding of the practice of law to teach practical skills to students. “Could such a professor who writes law review articles about the First Amendment effectively represent a client in a civil rights litigation? Could such a professor whose expertise is securities regulation effectively represent a client or the government in an SEC enforcement action?” he wrote.

When I entered DU we had the highest rated class to that point in the school's history and a new law school building would be opening the next year. There was genuine excitement about the rising reputation of the school and what the future would hold. All of that was tempered in the next few years by very sub-standard bar passage rates, which obviously hurt graduates but also the school's reputation generally. There was a real push by a then professor of mine, Lucy Marsh, to move the school faculty away from its domination by legal academics and towards more practical education. (An aside, Prof. Marsh's father, Thompson G. Marsh, was actually the first full time professor in the history of the school in 1927. His portrait still hangs in the law library.)

I happen to have had very good professors who were full time academics but, as they say, anecdote is not plural for data and this study confirms many long held suspicions.

I think there is a tremendous amount of merit in the argument that a law school faculty more focused on practical application of the law than research and publishing will raise the quality of the education for future lawyers. I'm glad that this discussion is generating national interest and I hope that future generations of law students will come to benefit from these changes.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

It is an interesting issue from a comparative perspective as well.

In non-common law countries, the quality of law school instruction (I have known many foreign lawyers and law students who agree on this point), is far worse than it is in the United States. Lecture classes for hundreds of students on settled points of black letter law taught by faculty that read from their very dull notes (on a par with a very poorly done outline in the U.S.) and have exams graded by TAs are the norm. And, the published academic scholarship is stuffier in writing style.

But, those professors have much more practical experience than U.S. law professors. In those countries it is the norm to be a practicing lawyer for many years while trying to break into the law faculty with publications, and many professors continue very sought after part-time practices after becoming faculty. Most European and Japanese law professors are accomplished at doing what they are in the business of teaching. The faculty career track there is more like the career track for judges in the United States.

But, while their writing may be stuffy it is far more influential in making law than it is in common law countries. Since precedent is weaker in civil law countries, by design, academic articles have practical influence in the application of the law similar to that of important court precedents in the U.S., and judicial opinions have a secondary importance on a par with law review articles in the U.S.

So, it isn't necessarily true that lawyers with great practical experience can impart their practical wisdom to students in a classroom setting. It does seem to be true, however, that practical experience can make a profession more influential in the way that law is practiced.