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Law School Grades

Nick Morgan over at De Novo takes on the law-school grading establishment, with a great deal of justice. I doubt I have much to say about pedagogical method--I'm a lousy teacher, although I can explain economic concepts fairly well--but I was struck by one comment:

The obvious counterpart is that what students are expected to learn—and how they are expected to demonstrate learning—is up for grabs too. And that’s what makes being a law student wonderful, at times. I wouldn’t dare suggest that law schools normalize their pedagogy. Instead, law professors should more carefully examine the considerable challenges facing students who must not only learn the law, but learn each professor’s peculiar vision of the law, each professor’s unique and often unshared theoretical assumptions. Misunderstanding these assumptions could easily be the difference between an “A” and a “C”—a misunderstanding that may reflect a student’s mind-reading prowess, but little of the student’s legal potential.

I couldn't agree more strongly, with one caveat: that testing someone's 'mind-reading' potential isn't actually a bad thing for anyone who's going to be in a service industry. Obviously I've never practiced law, but I've found 'second-guessing' what my professors want to be a process very similar to guessing what my clients wanted when I was a web consultant. Indeed, it's nowhere near as frustrating as guessing what some of my former bosses wanted, especially the one for whom every project constituted a test of my 'business acumen.'

I'm spending the week starting my exam preparation for this term the same way I did last semester: putting together a project plan listing each of the topics covered by my professors, and allocating a bit of time to cover each. When I write my outline, the first thing in my mind is, "What does Prof. X want to hear about this?" Often this is substantially different from what I'd like to say, but in this sense my professor is my 'client,' this is my 'job,' and the final product of an exam paper is simply the milestone which has to be handed in.

It's not a great strategy for learning, but I've never found that I learn very much that's useful in classrooms anyway. (Believe me, if top-ranked firms offered apprenticeship programs that would allow me to pass the bar without attending law school, I'd not be here.) It is a reasonable strategy for pleasing clients and, by extension, law professors.

I'm reasonably certain that it's a useful skill in a lawyer, too. I'll be surprised if legal clients are any better at accurately estimating what they actually want or need than the clients of a marketing agency. So to the extent that it's 'tested,' inadvertently or not, in law school, employers may actually find that beneficial.


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"I've never found that I learn very much that's useful in classrooms anyway. (Believe me, if top-ranked firms offered apprenticeship programs that would allow me to pass the bar without attending law school, I'd not be here." I may agree with little of your politics, but I agree 100% with those statements. I also think your take on how the prof/exam "mind-reading" exercises might serve as useful practice for dealing with clients/judges/juries is a good one.
The problem I have with the too easy justification of the silliness of law school examination and grading is that mind reading is simply not what is being taught. The law is what's supposed to be being taught. And if it's "thinking like a lawyer" that's being taught or examined, by which we really mean "mind reading" then why don't we say what we mean? Because, of course, the "mind reading" point isn't equivalent to "thinking like a lawyer"--it's equivalent to thinking like this or that lawyer (law professor) for a given day. That people view a semester of studying a given subject of law as preparation for an exam is among the most depressing aspects of legal education, to my mind. As one who has taught and aspires to teach, I can say the worst question most teachers think students can ask is "will this be on the exam?" It is not a virtue of the legal academy that here, not even professors find the question embarrassing. That is the shame of it all. In the end, the grades aren't going to make that much of a difference to many people's lives. But while we are here, the system creates an atmosphere that is anti-intellectual, that encourages the superficial over the profound, and that promotes legal realism of the most cynical sort even when most of our professors would claim to reject that view. (Too much packed into that sentence, but I have to go celebrate mass!)
Law school grades determine your entire future, but right now I'm just brooding about my immediate future. If the first year is all that matters, and I have to spend the next two years watching all of those who have not read a book that wasn't assigned for class since eighth grade, are incapable of having an intellectual discussion, and view the law as an automatically correct entity by circular reasoning, fly off to expensive firms and brag about their upcoming summer jobs and salaries and rarely come to class and get outlines from their law review friends and still know they will have a bright future while I sit in class in my jeans wondering why I'm even paying for two more years of this. One of the first changes that must be made if law school is made a fairer and more equitable place which rewards intelligence and not testing capability is to make the three years ALL count, not to have our fates decided at the end of our first year.
Only seven states - Vermont, New York, Washington, Virginia, California, Maine, and Wyoming - offer law office study as a road to the bar exam. You can shadow a willing attorney, take the bar, become an attorney and never step foot in a law school. Here's an article: http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0603/p13s01-lecs.html
http://seattleteacherscollege.net/brokeringbar.html Here's another article!!

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