If law school classes teach students to think like lawyers, then why are so many final exams poorly written? It’s not that students “can’t write,” it’s that we haven’t really taught them to think like lawyers.
Joan Rocklin is the latest educator to tackle this issue, in a paper just posted on SSRN. Rocklin explains why law professors should teach exam writing to their students and, equally important, how we can do that effectively.
The optimistically named “spring” semester has begun at most law schools. One-L’s nervously await their fall-semester grades while climbing a mountain of new reading. Two-L’s focus on their externships, student organizations, and job searches, while mostly ignoring the assigned reading. Three-L’s celebrate with glee the fact that this is their “last first day.” They haven’t even opened their course syllabi, much less the assigned readings.
In a very thoughtful essay, Bob Kuehn reminds us what’s wrong with this picture. Whether the students do the readings or not, they’re not learning enough of the professional skills they will most need as new lawyers. Study after study demonstrates that law schools fail to give students enough education in professional essentials like listening effectively, interviewing, counseling, negotiating, identifying client goals, strategizing to meet those goals, and problem solving.
Law schools prepare their graduates to perform as superb appellate lawyers, but only mediocre (at best) lawyers for every other type of legal problem or client need. Graduates slowly learn how to lawyer for those clients, but they don’t give their early clients and employers the excellence those groups deserve. And, without a sound foundation at the start, these graduates may never become the superb counselors, strategists, and problem solvers they could have been.
Law schools have made progress, but we haven’t traveled nearly far enough–and our progress has been crawl-like. As 2017 unfolds, I hope to offer some ideas for more effective progress. Meanwhile, put Bob’s essay on your personal first-week reading list. And then, do more: read the underlying studies and reflect on what they mean for legal education. Let’s try for a newer new semester this time next year.
Ed. note: This post was co-authored with David Frakt, an attorney and the chair of Law School Transparency’s National Advisory Council. This was originally published on Above the Law.
The United States Department of Education (ED) notified Charlotte School of Law on December 19, 2016, that its students would no longer be eligible for federal student loans. The decision, as with the American Bar Association’s decision to put CSL on probation a month earlier, surprised and alarmed CSL students. Since that time, students have reached out to law schools across the country to inquire about attending in the immediate or near future. With no other law schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, there are practical limitations on the choices CSL students face.
Several students report to us that, despite CSL’s assurances, information has been both limited and not particularly useful as they try to assess their options. Furthermore, these students report that administrators have been unavailable to answer questions. The school appears to have completely shut down for winter break from December 22 through January 3 despite the urgency of the situation that has developed in Charlotte. These administrators have likewise not been available to the press since the Education Department’s announcement in December.
It is not yet clear that the school will resume classes on January 9, as scheduled. And even if the school does resume operations next week, students still have an understandable desire to explore available options.
In theory, students have four options.
At this point, CSL students cannot make informed decisions because CSL has not been sufficiently transparent. As such, Law School Transparency has sent CSL a letter with an urgent request for information that will help CSL students make the choice that is best for their personal career ambitions.
Infilaw, which owns Charlotte School of Law and Florida Coastal School of Law, must be transparent about any pending or reasonably foreseeable ABA sanctions at Florida Coastal. As CSL develops its plan for CSL students to transfer to Coastal, they must ensure that CSL students are fully informed about Coastal’s compliance with ABA standards. Students need and deserve to know about the potential for similar problems to emerge at Coastal.
In November, the ABA placed CSL on probation because of its exploitative admissions and retention policies. Coastal’s admissions statistics are not meaningfully different than CSL’s. The majority of students at both schools face extreme risk of failing the bar exam. These two schools also have the highest attrition rates in the country. It’s possible that the ABA has already warned Coastal that it is out of compliance with the ABA standards, much in the way that the ABA warned CSL in February 2016. Indeed, Coastal’s dean announced the school’s intent to raise admissions standards this past fall. Infilaw should disclose any communications from the ABA that in any way indicate potential sanctions against Coastal, including fact-finding inquiries that the ABA will use to evaluate whether the school has sound admissions and retention policies and practices.
Infilaw should be transparent about communication with the U.S. Department of Education regarding Florida Coastal School of Law’s continued participation in the federal student loan program. The ED cited two independent reasons to deny CSL’s participation in the federal student loan program. First, the ED cited CSL’s non-compliance with the ABA standards. Second, the ED cited CSL’s “substantial misrepresentations regarding the nature of its academic program.” The ED based this finding, in part, on CSL’s failure to disclose until November 2016 that the ABA found the school non-compliant with the ABA standards in February 2016. If Coastal has received notice from the ABA about non-compliance, it has not disclosed it to date. That could provide a basis for the ED to take similar action against Coastal.
Coastal might be a reasonable alternative for some CSL students, but it is not fair or ethical or consistent with the school’s fiduciary duty to withhold this information from CSL students considering a transfer (or, for that matter, current Coastal students).
Infilaw should be transparent about its plans to facilitate transfers within the Infilaw System, including moving expense reimbursement, alternative class schedules, tuition discounts, and whatever else students need to ease the transfer after Infilaw and CSL withheld critical information for nine months. Even assuming that Coastal does not face any immediate issues from regulators, Infilaw and CSL should recognize that simply offering students the opportunity to attend another law school in the Infilaw system is not enough to discharge its legal and ethical obligations to students. This is especially true given Infilaw’s financial interest in moving students to one of its schools that has access to federal student loan dollars from one that does not.
Students who choose to relocate 400 miles from Charlotte to Jacksonville will incur substantial costs, including transportation costs, moving expenses, and early lease termination fees. Students who seek to join the bar can ill afford to have negative credit reports or collection actions taken against them for breaching a lease. It is essential that administrators promptly develop and communicate a fair, simple, and transparent approach for students to file for reimbursement.
Charlotte School of Law should clarify whether it will permit and facilitate students who seek to visit another law school this semester. At least a handful of current CSL students have inquired with other law schools about visiting this coming semester. As one law school in North Carolina told us, the obstacles to a visit are not with their school — they are prepared to promptly review and act upon any applications for a visit. Rather, the question is whether CSL will approve the visit, accept the credits towards CSL degree requirements, and waive degree requirements that cannot be met at the visiting school, such as the course on North Carolina distinctions.
The school has sent mixed messages to students about the possibility of visiting at another school. CSL should publish clear guidance on visits as soon as possible, and should do everything possible to facilitate visits for students who request them. We asked Traci Fleury, assistant dean of academic services, for clarification. She did not respond to our phone call.
Charlotte School of Law should devote more resources to student service and administrative offices. Completed applications, whether for a visit or a transfer, typically require a letter of good standing, an official transcript, and, for visits, a letter promising to accept credits from the visiting school. Students report to us that they are still waiting on one or more of these items from CSL. Dean Fleury indicated in an email to a student that a team of five people is working through transfer packets for students. But time is of the essence, and Infilaw schools have been accused of purposefully impeding transfers in the past. Thus the school needs to devote even more resources so that inattentiveness does not prevent students from making informed choices about their futures.
Charlotte School of Law should clarify why it indicated that the school will submit a “teach-out” plan to the ABA in March. A teach-out plan helps students find a reasonable opportunity to complete their program of study. The ABA accreditation rules require a teach-out plan for any school that loses access to the federal student loan program. However, Rule 34 also requires a teach-out if the school intends to cease operations. CSL has already informed students who had been planning to start this month that the “spring start” for which they had been admitted has been canceled. With deadlines for transfer and visits looming, and nearby schools preparing to begin classes as early as tomorrow, CSL should clarify whether the school plans to cease operations in the near future, or if it is even considering such a step, as this will obviously have an impact on the decisions that students make.
While we understand that the situation is fluid, and that the school’s plans may be contingent on a variety of factors that are outside of its control (such as regaining federal funding), CSL must not let uncertainty prevent timely release of information. If in doubt, CSL should err on the side of full disclosure and immediately release any information that could conceivably affect its students’ decisions.
Erica Moeser, President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, sent a memo to law school deans today. The memo reported the welcome, but surprising, news that the national mean score on the MBE was higher in July 2016 than in July 2015. Last year, the national mean was just 139.9. This year, it’s 140.3.
That’s a small increase, but it’s nonetheless noteworthy. LSAT scores for entering law students have been falling for several years. The drop between fall 2012 and fall 2013 was quite noticeable: Seventy percent of ABA-accredited law schools experienced a drop in the 25th percentile score of their entering class. At 19 schools, that score fell 3 points. At another five, it was 4 points.
LSAT scores correlate with MBE scores, so many observers expected July 2016 MBE scores to be lower than those recorded in 2015. Moeser, for example, has repeatedly stressed the link between LSAT scores and MBE ones. She recently declared: “What would surprise me is if LSAT scores dropped and bar pass rates didn’t go down.”
Moeser just received that surprise: Students who began law school in fall 2013 had lower LSAT scores than those who began a year earlier. The former students, however, beat the latter on the MBE after graduation.
So What Happened?
Unpacking this news will take more time and data. Moeser mentions in her memo that the mean MBE score increased in 22 jurisdictions, fell in 26, and remained stable in two. Teasing apart the jurisdictions will provide insights. School-specific results will be even more informative in exploring why the overall score rose.
For now, I offer four hypotheses in descending order of likelihood (from my perspective):
Casebooks are shockingly expensive. The latest edition of Stone, Seidman, Sunstein, Tushnet, and Karlan’s Constitutional Law has a list price of $242. It’s even more shocking when you consider where the money goes. Not to pay for the cases and other primary materials that make up most of a casebook’s contents: they’re public domain and free to all. Mostly not to cover printing costs: the paperback edition of The Power Broker (to pick a book with the same word count and heft as a casebook) has a list price of $26, and you can buy it on Amazon for $18. Mostly not to authors: royalty rates are typically 10% to 20%. No, most of that money ends up in the pockets of the casebook publishers and other middlemen in the casebook chain. This is a tax on legal education, sucking money from law students and from the taxpayers underwriting their student loans.
In a perceptive and persuasive recent essay, Choosing a Criminal Procedure Casebook: On Lesser Evils and Free Books, Ben Trachtenberg runs through these numbers and reaches the obvious conclusion: law schools shouldn’t be asking students to shell out the big bucks to read public-domain legal materials. Casebooks should be cheap or free.
Trachtenberg’s preferred solution is that law schools, alone or together, fund the creation of “top-quality casebooks” which could then be made available to students for the cost of printing. Here at Law School Cafe, Kyle McEntee endorsed Trachtenberg’s suggestion and added that “it may make more sense to do this through an external organization funded through grants” to save students even more.
Today’s New York Times includes a column by Elizabeth Olson discussing online initiatives by law schools. Elizabeth was kind enough to quote some of my thoughts on this issue. If you’d like to read more about my suggestions, which encourage law schools to adopt a more innovative spirit with online courses, you can do so here. This is an area in which we could do well by doing good–if we’re just courageous enough to break some of our conventional boxes.
An increasing number of law schools are creating online courses, certificate offerings, and degree programs. As newcomers to online education, we should look to existing programs for inspiration. One of those is Harvard Business School’s successful CORe program, an online certificate course in business basics. I wrote about CORe’s suitability for law students several weeks ago. Here, I examine three lessons that the program offers to law schools interested in online education.
At least three law firms have now adopted ROSS, an artificial legal intelligence system based on IBM’s pathbreaking Watson technology. The firms include two legal giants, Latham & Watkins and BakerHostetler, along with the Wisconsin firm vonBriesen. Commitments by these firms seem likely to spur interest among their competitors. Watch for ROSS and other forms of legal AI to spread over the next few years.
What is ROSS, what does it do, and what does it mean for lawyers and legal educators? Here are a few preliminary thoughts.
Bob Kuehn has written a terrific essay refuting the notion that clinical courses are too expensive for law schools to offer. His online piece includes plenty of hard data; some he gathered and some he drew from other sources.
Kuehn’s essay reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a member of my university’s board of trustees. I alluded to the challenges that public universities like ours face with reduced tax support for higher education. He responded differently than most trustees or administrators, who are happy to bemoan losses of public support. “There’s plenty of money,” he said. “It’s just a question of your priorities in spending it.”
And, of course, he was right. For the current fiscal year, my university predicted revenues of $6.1 billion dollars and expenditures of $5.5 billion. Even if revenues fell to match expenditures, that’s a lot of money to distribute.
Most universities, let alone law schools, are considerably smaller than Ohio State. About half of our budget, furthermore, stems from the medical school and health care center. (This is an interesting fact about many university budgets, that health care research and delivery is matching or exceeding other educational expenses.) Still, my board member’s comment is apt: Law schools operate sizable budgets and they have considerable discretion in allocating that money.
We don’t favor LSAT scholarships over need-based ones because budgets force us to do so; we make that choice to pursue higher rankings. Similarly, we don’t cater to the demands of tenured research faculty, rather than expanding clinical education, because our budgets are limited. We make that choice because it suits us (the tenured faculty) and because we hope, once again, that our choice will propel higher rankings.
Bob provides a welcome antidote to these ingrained choices. Expanding clinical education wouldn’t actually raise tuition; it would simply require faculties to change their priorities. And even those changes would be relatively small. We have to ask ourselves: What is the real root of our resistance to clinical education?
I read recently about an organization that provides efficient, effective legal services to low- and middle-income clients. The organization, Chicago’s Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (“CARPLS“), has been serving clients for almost a quarter century. They currently help about 28,000 clients a year at an average cost of just $33 per consultation. How do they do it? And what can legal educators learn from CARPLS’s success? Read on.
Have something you think our audience would like to hear about? Interested in writing one or more guest posts? Send an email to the cafe manager at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are interested in publishing posts from practitioners, students, faculty, and industry professionals.