Quimbee

July 2nd, 2018 / By

What is Quimbee? It’s a database of more than 13,800 case briefs summarizing the cases presented in almost 200 casebooks. The covered casebooks include all of the bar subjects plus many more: antitrust, copyright, counterterrorism, cyberspace, education law, health, insurance, oil and gas, sports law, and others. The briefs seem thoughtful, complete, and well organized. If users discover an error, Quimbee invites them to submit a correction.

About two dozen law schools (including heavy hitters like Yale, Berkeley, and Northwestern) have signed up for Quimbee; students at those schools use Quimbee for free. Students at other schools can access Quimbee for a modest fee: just $15 per month for all of the site’s case briefs. For $24 per month, students can use the briefs, flashcards, video lessons, multiple choice questions, essays with model answers, and professional development courses.

Even the ABA has lent its endorsement; students who elect Quimbee’s platinum subscription receive an ABA premium membership as part of the deal. For a one-time payment of $499, these students get three full years’ of access to Quimbee’s case briefs and other services, downloads of course outlines, and the ABA membership. That’s a law school career of case briefs and other study aids (plus a bit of networking) for the price of two casebooks.

Plenty of other publishers have developed attractive study-aid subscriptions. There are also websites that offer case briefs and law school outlines for little or no charge. I focus here on Quimbee because it’s a good example of the resources that today’s law students use. These easily tapped sources raise the question: How much pedagogic value does the case method deliver when most students are using canned case briefs and course outlines?

Seriously?

Do we know that students are actually using Quimbee? The site claims that more than 169,000 students have done so, but that might be puffery. I talked to a recent graduate of another school (first in her class) who told me that “of course” she used Quimbee for three years’ of classes. She also suggested that her classmates varied in their usage. A few ignored resources like Quimbee; they read every assigned case in their casebooks. Some, conversely, relied upon Quimbee from their first day of law school; they bragged about never reading a case from a casebook. Most read assigned cases for a month or two in the first semester, then migrated to Quimbee. They still referred sometimes to the cases in their assigned texts, but they relied primarily on Quimbee to prepare for class and exams.

That’s just one student’s perspective, but I suspect it is quite accurate. Relying upon Quimbee is smart behavior for law students. They need to read cases for a few months to anchor their understanding of the case method. But once they’ve done that, Quimbee case briefs give them more efficient access to the doctrinal principles and other information they need for class. They can easily answer a professor’s questions by referring to the packaged case brief. They can also annotate those briefs with insights from class.

Students know, as I pointed out in my last post, that exams in casebook classes won’t test them on their case reading skills. Instead, they’ll need only to recall doctrinal principles and apply them to new fact patterns. A student can learn rules, context, and fact patterns from packaged case briefs as easily–or more easily–than from studying the judicial opinions. Class notes will flesh out any subtleties that Quimbee missed.

I’m sure some professors will insist that their students never use study aids like Quimbee. Their course is too esoteric. (But check out how many subjects Quimbee covers.) They ban laptops in class. (But students can download Quimbee briefs and carry them into class.) They offer unique perspectives on cases that no study aid could guess. (Sure, but that’s what class is for. And crowd-minded students can submit your insights to Quimbee or other sites for next year’s students to use.)

What’s Missing?

Students who use Quimbee are cultivating a key skill for law practice: they are navigating our information-rich world to identify the source that most efficiently gives them the information they need. We could all applaud Quimbee if law schools aimed to teach just knowledge of doctrinal principles and the ability to apply those principles to new fact patterns. But as I’ve suggested before, the case method attempts to do much more than that. What happens to our other pedagogic goals if students stop reading cases sometime during the first year?

Students can discern law’s evolutionary nature by reading case briefs, but judicial opinions probably illustrate that point more clearly. Reading opinions, similarly, will give students a better sense of effective advocacy than skimming case briefs will do. These are notable losses, ones that law schools should try to overcome in other ways. The omnipresence of Quimbee (and other study aids), however, is most problematic with respect to the other two goals of the traditional case method: teaching students how to read cases and helping them develop critical thinking skills.

Students probably learn the basics of case reading during their first months of law school, before they begin relying heavily on Quimbee. But case reading is not an all-or-nothing skill. It is like playing an instrument: you get better if you practice. Students who read judicial opinions throughout law school almost certainly read opinions more effectively than those who rely upon Quimbee. For some graduates, that doesn’t matter; they will practice law in fields that require little reading of new cases. But for other graduates, they are behind the curve. They are less “practice ready” than their professors believe.

Even more worrisome, case briefs and other study aids shortcut the critical thinking skills that the case method was designed to teach. It’s much harder to read a judicial opinion than a case brief–and that’s the point. Law schools have relied on the case method to teach students careful, critical reading; analogical reasoning; and the recognition of patterns that lurk below a court’s language. Students learn some of those skills by reading case briefs and following class discussion, but they don’t sharpen those skills as much as professors believe.

Who’s to Blame?

It’s easy to blame “lazy” students or “profit-hungry” publishers for this state of affairs, but the fault lies with legal educators. We’ve rarely tested students in a way that rewards actual case analysis. Nor have we kept up with the times. There are too many legal principles to teach most subjects effectively through the case method; the internet makes secondary sources like case briefs easily and cheaply available; and crowd sourcing enhance the quality of those sources. Our students will rely upon trusted secondary sources while in practice: Why shouldn’t they do so in law school?

We have to change our teaching and testing methods if we want to restore high levels of critical thinking in law school. I’ll offer some concrete suggestions in a future post, but my next post will review empirical evidence about how poorly law students currently perform on case reading and some types of critical thinking. Just in case you don’t believe what I’ve reported here.

 

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  • Mark Fletton

    What’s next? A resource which gives them A grade exam answers to the the questions they’ll be sitting, at $400 a pop? Why not just cut out the middleman and sell off the degrees at, say $3,000. Saves all that studying and exam stress. Who needs that when you could be soaking up the rays? Another excellent article, Deborah. Thanks.

  • Tom Sharbaugh

    You may also want to take a look at the business-related subjects covered by the recorded lectures provided by Hotshot Legal at Hotshotlegal.com (reviewable for free). A number of prominent law schools have signed up for this service, which could support the flipped-lecture practice for upper-level business topics. This and similar services disregard the case method entirely but perhaps that makes sense in upper-level courses. I have used prerecorded lectures for a number of classes each semester (for an upper-level course) and then used the class time to discuss problems and custom case studies that were distributed before class.

    • DeborahMerritt

      Thanks for this reference–it’s another excellent sign of things to come. And I think your approach makes sense: we need to move faculty time away from the big lecture/socratic classes and focus it more on small-group work, feedback, and similar activities.

  • Scott_Fruehwald

    If the use of Quimbee is as widespread as you say, then it is easy to understand why so many students are failing the bar. One thing all education scholars agree on is that learning is hard work. See Peter C. Brown et.al., Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning 3 (2014). There are no shortcuts to learning.

    Using canned briefs will especially hurt those who come to law school without metacognitive skills and effective study skills. They need more work on the basics.

    I agree with you that law schools overuse the case method, but using canned briefs, pre-existing outlines, or any kind of short cut will only make the situation much worse.

    Also, making errors is a significant part of learning. If students come to class having memorized canned briefs, they will not make mistakes, and they will miss important learning opportunities.

  • I wonder what your take on CALI lessons is? They are written by law faculty and are modeled – somewhat – on the Socratic method. A hypo is followed by multiple choice questions and feedback. It’s not a quiz, but it is formative assessment. Students sometimes complain that CALI lessons are too hard, but sometimes, that is the point. Authors will steer students into wrong answer as a way to illustrate the nuance of the subject.

    Lately we are working on a multiple choice question bank/delivery tool for law faculty to create their own formative assessments. We don’t want to just dump MCQs for students to “click until correct”, but getting this right is going to take some time and effort.

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