Thursday, June 19, 2014

If You're Going To Law School, Do It Right

The Socratic method is the method used by sage law professors to tease the law's nuances out of the minds of their brilliant pupils. In practice, it leads to lazy law professors with little real world experience calling on whichever gunner feels like talking that day. Law school is very different from most educational experiences. Professors enjoy actively hiding the ball from students. The classes consist of meandering discussions that often have no real point and leave students even more confused than before. Casebooks contain cases that take 20 pages to make a point that could be made in a paragraph. The legal education as hazing ritual model was bad when it began and only persists because the law school educational complex makes so much money selling materials to help explain casebooks and simple points of law to students. 

Taking a bar review course further illustrates how broken the legal education model is. It is only after law school is complete that someone finally thinks to provide materials (at a cost, of course) that explain the law in easy to understand terms. It is at this point that most people see that the law isn't really all that complicated. Why not teach the law in a practical way that encourages students to understand it more definitely while in law school? It's time to flip the script.

If you choose to go to law school in spite of all the warnings presented on this site, then make it as easy as possible for yourself. Go on eBay or Craigslist and look for bar review materials. When I went to law school, BarBri gave out a "First Year's Guide" that was only slightly less oblique than the case books. Forget this piece of garbage. Get the materials that BarBri provides for actual bar review. You can buy them from a sad, jobless law grad who needs the money to make her loan payment. You can try to read the case books and brief cases to help you learn to "think like a lawyer" for the first week or so. After that, do only the reading you need to be prepared for when you will be called upon in class. Use the bar review books to learn the concepts that your law professor refuses to teach you in an efficient way. You will have a lot less stress than the others in your class who want to do things the traditional, stupid way.

Law school is not just a waste of time because of the massive educational debt you incur. It also doesn't really teach students much of anything after their core curriculum classes are complete. Classes are barely tolerated by professors who would rather be working even less than they do now and serve only to obfuscate fairly elementary points that can be picked up with relative ease if presented the right way. Let me give you an example from personal experience. In law school, I was entirely unable to grasp anything about secured transactions. My professor was a nice enough guy, but the classes would have been more comprehensible if he had taught us in a foreign language. Needless to say, I did not do well on the final. When it came time to study for the bar, I read through the section through twice. It made perfect sense when presented in an easy to understand way. I was able to sum up the entire subject on two pages, front and back. The state I took the bar in gave us a breakdown of our scores, and I blew the secured transactions questions out of the water.

It is common knowledge that one's future employment prospects rest largely on 1L first semester grades. Good grades will help you secure a summer associate position after your 1L year, which will help secure a job after your 2L year, which will usually lead to a permanent job offer. If Biglaw is your goal, then this point is even more acute. You must do well straight out of the gate or the profession will leave you behind. It is not up to you to play the law school game fairly or according to tradition. It is up to you to get a job that pays enough so that you might undo this huge financial mistake before your children go to college. Better yet, stay away from law school in the first place.


  1. Well said, MA. Law school is not a stimulating intellectual experience; it is 3 months' worth of material stretched out over 3 years.

  2. I'd add that your overall point, that law school doesn't effectively teach the law, could be broadly applied to the education system as a whole. A lot of BS and not a lot of substance.

  3. I took the Pennsylvania and NY bar exams in the summer of 1993 - 21 years ago. Back then, if you got a high enough score on the multi-state (I forget what the number was, but it wasn’t too hard to achieve), you automatically passed the Pa. bar exam - they didn’t even grade the essay portion of the test (I think they subsequently made the exam more difficult). I remember thinking that a reasonably intelligent person who never went to law school could pass the Pa. bar just by taking a Bar Bri course and cramming for the multi-state. It wasn’t rocket science.

    1. Three Bar passages here, first was Louisiana, which I studied hard for. Then practiced in Mid law for a while before I took Florida and Pennsylvania bar exams . . studied on my own and then only barely, and aced them both. I just really don't think the Bar is nearly as hard as the hype. If you can't pass the bar within just a few tries, you should not be a lawyer.

    2. I agree that the bar exam is not that hard. They can only test you on black letter law. But if it is so easy why does HYS etc not have a 100% bar pass rate.

    3. @ AnonymousJune 19, 2014 at 3:19 PM - The reason 100% pass rates are rare if not impossible is because the bar exam is curved. It does not matter how an particular testing cohort scores compared to any other testing group from a different year. Rather, a line is drawn at, say, what would be a 70% score for that particular exam and the other 30% of test-takers are considered to have "failed" the exam. As the testing population and questions are different on every exam, there is no real correlation between a particular score across different exams. The bar examiners think otherwise, of course. To them, the fact that 70% passed this year and 70% passed last year demonstrates equivalence between the exams. TL;DR, it's baloney.

  4. Agree. Law school is largely a waste of time and irrelevant to the vast bulk of those who want a degree to practice law.

    Still, for me law school was very intellectually stimulating because I did not have a typical UG major and I found the philosophy discussions interesting. Not $90,000 worth of interesting, but then I thought I would get a good job after law school and that would make it worth it. At my particular toilet I would say only about 20-30% of the professors really succeeded in engaging the students and making discussions interesting and provocative. The rest were either phoning it in, incompetent, or highly boring.

  5. If I had to do it all over again, I would have used (1) old BarBri materials as suggested by MA, along with (2) reading ALR/CJS. Seriously, I found lecture to be more than useless more than 75% of the time, as lecture involved obsessing over small details and quirky fine points rather than starting general then moving to the particular.

    I can't think of another area of education that does this. In STEM, you start with big, overarching concepts, and then gradually work on more and more nuanced challenges in special cases. Other liberal artistry follows this model as well. The reason why law school is "challenging" is due to the flip - LawProfs babble about special cases, and neglect the big picture. Sure, these 30-year "veterans" are "bored" with the basics, but thems the brakes, guys. Go cry in your $200,000 per year beer if it's so bad.

    But then, how else would one grade on a curve and screw people out of scholarships? If you tought it "normally", everyone would make an A and there would be no stratification, so that CLEARLY doesn't work.

    I wasted so much time and money on BS, instead of just going big-picture like I should have known to do.

    1. ALR = American Law Reports
      CJS= Corpus Juris Secundum

  6. I totally agree with scrapping the present model of reading long dogshit cases of rhetorical ping-pong from a time when cars had rumble seats, or worse yet, before the invention of the automobile. I remember getting an A in Constitutional Law II and never even opened the book to read that nonsense. I would just be reading words anyway and not actually absorbing anything. Instead, I just read an outline and memorized the charts(suspect class-strict scrutiny, etc.). The Socratic Method in law school is like "wax on, wax off" to teach karate, except one is real life and the other is a movie...however, both are business enterprises.

    Further, I find it deplorable when after all the time, money and effort is spent in law school and only to find dismal bar passage rates to where the ABA has to mandate 75% (it really should be 90%+). Of course, there is individual responsibility but in no way can any law school deny any responsibility either. After all, it is the law school that educated them. If law schools have such shortcomings then it should change how law is taught and if it won't, then I agree in just avoiding it altogether.

    1. I like the idea that law schools have a fiduciary duty to their students. This would include not misrepresenting material facts to them. It would also include not admitting students who have no reasonable chance of passing the bar exam.

      But since law professors don't know how to think like lawyers, the concept of fiduciary duty is strange and incomprehensible to them. Only the concept of an automatic paycheck can truly engage the academic mind.

    2. 10:12, you're right about the "wax on, wax off" teaching. Great when teaching some high-speed karate moves, but law school is using that method to teach the intellectual equivalent of shining cars, not winning championships. After the first couple of iterations, the student is like, "Ok, I get it."

      Imagine if Mr. Miyagi "hid the ball" and Daniel spent his entire summer doing all that "wax on, wax off" stuff, only for Mr. Miyagi to tell him that the way to win a street fight is kick the guy in the nuts and run, something that he could have learned in five minutes.

    3. I for one think that the "model" of legal education is a matter best discussed after we reach the point where law school no longer costs more than most people can really afford and the annual number of graduates has been cut at least in half.

  7. "Good grades will help you secure a summer associate position after your 1L year, which will help secure a job after your 2L year, which will usually lead to a permanent job offer."

    I think this needs a little tweaking for accuracy. Good grades will help you secure interviews with high-paying firms at the beginning of your 2L year, which will help secure a summer associate position for your 2L summer, which will often lead to a permanent job offer.

    1. Connections will help more than good grades. The little rich kids (who make up the bulk of the class at the most prestigious law schools) get interviews and jobs despite lousy grades; the high-performing students of undistinguished pedigree frequently get neither.

    2. Well, @6:16, here's the thing of it. There are plenty of super-talented lawyers out there but the only real value of a lawyer to a firm is his or her ability to bring business through the door. That has a lot to do with things like belonging to the right country club or having neighbors who are high-ranking executives. And then again I knew a non-trad who went to a TTT. He wasn't rich and wasn't much of a lawyer but he had very good connections in a particular industry and could bring in real value-added work in a niche area. He convinced a big firm to give him a shot and they soon hired three new associates to work exclusively on his files. It is about connections, but they don't always have to be money-based connections.

    3. I (6:16) know that now, having learned it the hard way (as one of those non-traditional students without connections). I only wish that the truth were set out plainly: "Without connections to big money, you have very little chance of getting a job in a law firm, however good your grades may be. Stay away unless Daddy can pay cash for your three years in this place."

  8. The traditional 1L courses and a few others like Evidence and Secured Transactions are completely MOOC-ripe, which means that the actual cost could be reduced to a few dollars per course. Bar review courses are essential MOOCs and it a fairly common agreement that they are an effective way to learn. Why should there be over 250 different Torts classes this Fall?

  9. This is a terrific post. Thank you.

    The deeper aspect of the scam: law school is a legally-mandated waste of your time. You may not enter the profession, unless you have first wasted 3 years of your time (and $$$$).

    Students at Stanford and Florida Coastal buy one and the same Examples and Explanations, and rely on it.

    Then, a test.

    A professor dreams up an essay prompt that hits all the things he feels in his loins are important (i.e. any 'issue' he's ever had an editorial opinion about). Nothing else is important. Kindly raise his pet theories, and praise them from a novel angle. You have entered the ranks of genius.

    There is no systematic approach to anything.

    Despite claims by "academics" to the contrary, there is no pedagogical theory at work in law school classrooms at all. Socratic method, my ass.

    I still have not met a law professor who lit upon the "Socratic method" by reading the works of Plato so as to become thoroughly *dissuaded* by Socrates' insistence he's not teaching anything to anyone, and inspired by the utility of the same in "teaching" law.

    "I employ the Socratic method in my classroom," is just a stupid fucking line that hack-academics invoke like an ornament, like a Gucci bag, to let you know how truly sophisticated they are.

    It also serves the purpose of cutting off at the pass the objection that every reasonable person has or would have if he witnessed the crap go down..."Wait a minute! You're not teaching anything! This is a rip-off and waste of my time."

    There is no bar preparation in law school.

    Law school does not teach people how to write, or how to think, much less "how to think like a lawyer." There is no feedback. There is no investment in developing the mind of the pupil.

    It is 100% a waste of time.

    Scalia has identified the only reason law schools can get away with adding no value: " they [law schools] may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, OK?”

    It is garbage in, garbage out.

    All of the lawyers I know, old and young, have all offered exactly the same analysis of the worth of law school that MA offers in this post.

    The only training that happens in the law occurs when lawyers train other lawyers on the job.

    1. Very few law students could be called silk purses. Most are sow's ears, or worse.

    2. "Students at Stanford and Florida Coastal buy one and the same Examples and Explanations, and rely on it."

      That is so true! If someone had the discipline to work through the E&Es for all the core subjects, he/she would be better prepared to practice than someone who went to law school without reading them.

    3. I made the mistake 1L year of actually believing that everything I needed to know for a class was in the assigned casebook and/or lectures. Unfortunately, my professors assumed that everyone was studying from commercial supplements and expected exam answers to reflect concepts never taught in class or introduced in the casebook.

      Once I realized this, I completely ignored class and casebooks and relied solely on commercial supplements. My grades improved significantly.

      Thus my question: If successful law students are learning from commercial supplements instead of their professors, why are we paying law professors $100K+ a year????

    4. For the younger folks, "garbage in, garbage out" was an old programmers' term from the days when computers filled up a whole room. If you screwed up your coding (garbage in) the machine was likely to print out hundreds of yards of greenbar paper filled with gibberish (garbage out).

    5. The Socratic method as a Gucci bag.

      I like that one.

    6. Imagining The Open ToadJune 23, 2014 at 3:11 PM

      Scalia's comment, " can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse."

      I remember this from, what, 2008 or 2009. I love how many people argued that he had gotten it backwards and/or otherwise failed to understand what he meant.

  10. This is the same crap in med school--save the Socratic nonsense. Lab books that aren't of the same edition as the text. No notes or text assignments, transcriptions bungled so students go to class, cleaning fat cadeavors for three hours and self-learning through looking at pictures, learning to read MRIs by osmosis, etc.

  11. Christopher Langdell is responsible for a lot of this nonsense isn't he? The idea that underlying laws is some kind of fundamental scientific truth which being "taught to think like a lawyer" though Socratic teaching will reveal. He also promoted law as a post graduate degree (probably as a way of screening out the riff raff) and preferred professors with minimal practical experience.

    1. To be fair, things were different in the 1870s. Law schools (which were few) had meaningful standards for admission. Nowadays even the so-called top schools bring in loads of shabby students.

      Also, Langdell's purpose was to set up an élite track for jurists whose work would evolve significant analysis: development of the law, legislative reform, careful argument. He never suggested that it was appropriate for every humdrum would-be lawyer who would deal only with routine wills and real-estate closings. He would, I'm sure, be appalled to see every goddamn Indiana Tech and Florida Coastal purport to teach its dolt students according to his approach.

  12. Another utterly ridiculous -- and not a little sadistic -- aspect of law school is the reliance on a single 3 or 4-hour exam at the end as the sole grade for the entire semester. This is especially stressful first semester of 1L. Students literally have no idea if they "get it." There is no interim feedback whatsoever. I remember walking out of my first semester 1L exams 32 years ago convinced I had blown them. Instead, I had aced every one. That's not teaching, it's gimmickry.

    1. It's actually borderline unethical that schools do this. A student can literally get almost 2/3 of the way through 1L year (and have already paid 2 semesters of tuition) before he or she gets ANY feedback regarding their performance in law school.

      In almost any other academic environment, you will have at least some idea if you are a good fit after a few weeks and can make the decision to drop out and save money if you realize you aren't a good fit.

    2. But of course that's the right way to conduct evaluations! After all, profe$$ors cannot be expected to do more than the sub-minimum. One or two extra evaluations during the course would cut into their all-important leisure time.

    3. Don't forget that law schools have been known to hold off on releasing fall semester grades until well into spring... far to late for folks to drop out and not incur the cost of the student loans to cover the spring semester. Yes. That actually happens.

  13. MA writes: "Taking a bar review course further illustrates how broken the legal education model is. It is only after law school is complete that someone finally thinks to provide materials (at a cost, of course) that explain the law in easy to understand terms. It is at this point that most people see that the law isn't really all that complicated. Why not teach the law in a practical way that encourages students to understand it more definitely while in law school? "

    You're right that bar exam materials make the law seem very simple. But that's because bar review materials give you a fake oversimplified version of the law rather than the actual complicated version. The bar exam uses multiple choice questions and essay grading by non-experts, so they have to test on a fake simple version of the law instead of the actual complicated version. They have to dumb it down and pretend it's easy to make it simple (and low cost) to grade. Bar exam materials are simple because they teach the fake simple version of the law that is tested on the bar exam. Given that, I don't think differences between bar exam materials and what is taught in law schools shows that law schools are doing it wrong.

    1. I agree in part. Much of the complaining about law school is unwarranted. There is merit in exploring problems, difficulties, and nuances (one thing that law school is supposed to do) rather than just presenting the current state of the law in simplified form (what bar-review courses do).

      That said, law school does a poor job of exploring those difficulties and nuances. Legal pedagogy is shite. And most profe$$ors wouldn't know pedagogy if it bit them on the ass.

    2. What is a not a "fake simple version of the law"? What is the "actual complicated version"?

      I think that's a very odd criticism given that no law school in the country is teaching the real tort law of the jurisdiction in which it sits, or the real contract law, or the real property law. They are all teaching fake torts, contracts, property.

      I cannot help but notice, also, that the 4th amendment is not complicated. It can be read and comprehended in itself in about 20 seconds.

      If the practice of law is complicated (I would concede that some of the practice of law is complicated, but not all of it), it would be revealing if you would identify the source of complication.

      The real source of complication is the two-way street of trying to jam real events into the frameworks provided by law, and trying to sort out the meaning of law in light of real events.

      You simply have to do it to learn how to do it. This is confirmed by everyone who has ever done it. You do not practice law in law school.

      It seems to me that many, if not the most important foundational skills, for practice are not taught in law schools, and students either have them walking in the door, or maybe acquire them in practice in an informal way.

      Logic is not taught in law school. Grammar is not taught in law school.
      All that human experience that is absolutely critical to predicting what will be persuasive and what will not be persuasive to a decision-maker cannot be taught in law school. The skills needed to discover the factual case, and then walk it through the eye of the needle of procedure, are not taught in law school.

      We should get rid of law school and "read for the law" with apprenticeships.

      The notion that a student could not become a competent lawyer without law school is as ludicrous as the notion that children could not learn to read outside of a public elementary school.

      Nothing metaphysical is happening in law school that makes them special and irreplaceable, and law schools are not working for the country.

      All of the 201 ABA accredited schools are drawing the overwhelming majority of their operating budgets directly out of the federal lending system. We all know that money is not going to get paid back.

      What is happening here is that a cottage industry - the legal educational industry - has attempted to turn a trade it into a philosophical "discipline" so as to justify its cushy, non-productive existence in the economy. It presents only barriers to entry, and has the gall to claim it presents opportunities to entry.

      I assume that if the assorted scholars of the legal industrial machine are so deeply called to think and write and speak, they can and will continue to do so in the great tradition of scholars and artists everywhere by accepting poverty in exchange for excessive leisure.

      A world of scholars would starve to death pretty quickly, but you would never be able to tell the way they put on airs about their importance to society.

    3. I'd say that almost any introductory course would offer "a fake oversimplified version of the law." Using the Socratic Method, or more commonly a cheap imitation thereof, leaves huge gaps in a student's actual knowledge. These gaps inevitably have to be filled in with ad hoc reasoning that is often oversimplified and just plain wrong. Many judicial decisions can be explained as the product of just this sort of reasoning.

    4. For most lawyers, the law is less an intellectual pursuit and more a trade. The majority of actual law practice is doing the same thing over and over. Writing a contract or handling a divorce eventually becomes an exercise in filling out the same forms over and over and learning how to handle the type of matter one specializes in. Most lawyers eventually become like a plumber and electrician, who know how to solve the problems they learn to solve and know little else.

      The nuances taught in law school are not really relevant in law practice because a client won't pay you if you spend 5 to 10 more hours than you need to researching and arguing some arcane point of law. That type of luxury is only available to lawyers who don't have to bill by the hour. Most of us do not fit that category. Writing off time means you gave away your time for free. Given the precarious existence most lawyers lead, doing this too often means the bills don't get paid.

      The reason I am telling prospective law students to use bar review materials is because at this point, law school has been reduced to a three year hazing ritual to enter the legal profession. I can count on one hand the number of times I cited a case I read while in law school. Reading a twenty page case to teach one small wrinkle of the law is the height of inefficiency.

      If law schools really want to reform, then change the curriculum after the first year to focus on practice based learning. Law schools need to get away from "Law & _____" type of classes and teach students HOW TO BE ATTORNEYS. Knowing how the third word in the fifth paragraph in International Shoe changes the whole argument is not terribly useful. Learning how to draft a pleading, write a contract, and file a divorce are the skills schools need to teach.

      Leaving the teaching of actual law practice to law firms abdicates the responsibility law schools have to their students to teach them how to perform the basic tasks required in the field they have chosen. Law firms no longer need to or care to teach students how to everything law schools won't teach them. Couple that with the massive toll a malpractice claim can have on one's professional reputation and license, and new graduates not on the Biglaw or government track are between a rock and a hard place.

    5. Reading a twenty-page case just to learn one small point of law is indeed inefficient. But that's not the only reason to read a case.

    6. That's right. You can also read cases to:

      -learn how to write in a bloviated fashion that has no use to 99.9% of lawyers.
      -learn the opinions of the elderly and deceased on collateral social or political matters
      -be reminded of how quickly sound legal principles are thrown out for external reasons.

      I would argue the format, style, and content of most opinions harms, rather than helps, a modern attorney's development.

      Beyond the ability to read and extract a rule that has not been overturned or abrogated, there is no use for old case opinions. They're not great works of literature. Only a select few have historical significance of any note. The only reason cases exist is to decide issues before the court and explain the reasoning to guide future attorneys who bring similar cases. That's it. They're not sound teaching devices for students trying to learn how to be a lawyer, and the writing in most of them is so terrible, self-absorbed, devoid of sound reason, or all three, that reading most of those cases can have very little positive effect on the modern student.

  14. Orin, with all due respect I think you are off the mark here, though we do appreciate your comments at OTLSS. The argument is not that the law isn't complicated at times, because it certainly can be. Rather, law school pedagoguery tends to obfuscate and make mountains our of molehills in the generalist classes as opposed to saying, for example, "here is the general rule, here is nuanced exception 1, here is even more nuanced exception 2, here is where the law is unsettled so let's have a debate". The fact that the 1L year is historically designed to be about general principles supports this notion. No one who wants people to actually learn something talks about Footnote 9 of Section 42-B Subsection 9A of the Makework Securities and Paperwork Act like its a real thing, at least until you take Secured Transactions or something similar during one's (often) 3L year.

    We could debate why this happens, though I think "learning to think like a lawyer" is a weak cop-out for this. My opinion is that the "majesty of the law (tm)" and "job security" trumps clear communication in many, many cases.

    Admittedly, I have a jaundiced view of how the game is played, some ten years out of law school now.

    1. Duped, thanks for the response. I think it all depends on the professor, though.

      When I teach, I generally lay out the black letter law in the first five minutes, just as you say. Laying out the blackletter law is easy, and any student can get that from an outline or a treatise (or a comprehensive case). I then spend the rest of class time exploring the nuances. In your example, I might then spend the first 15 minutes of class on nuanced exception 1; the next 15 minutes on nuanced exception 2; and the last 20 minutes on where the law is unsettled (and we'll have a debate on it).

      So who is right here depends on what MA's position is. If MA is saying that the first five minutes laying out the blackletter law is "the law" and the rest of class is useless and needlessly complicated, then I disagree. On the other hand, if the point is only that some professors are bad teachers and don't provide a helpful or clear doctrinal structure to help frame the rest, then that's certainly true of some professors but not of others.

    2. In one of Brian Leiter's most insolent messages, sent to a Las Vegas attorney, he pretended to reveal what "thinking like a lawyer" means. Not surprisingly, his definition was nothing but a description of the first-year law school curriculum. A more circular and self-serving definition could hardly be imagined, even by Leiter.

  15. Orin Kerr himself may be the nuanced exception. He may be that one professor out of twenty who both knows his subject thoroughly and knows how to lead a good discussion. If all the professors at George Washington were reported to be as good as him, I might give serious consideration to borrowing $200,000 to attend his school.

    However, at George Washington as elsewhere, many of his colleagues publish public-policy articles with only the most tenuous connection to legal practice. I have one particular professor in mind as representing that class. I would feel absolutely cheated to take classes in that professor's specialty. That's one good reason you won't find me doing so. I'm also committed to initiating and supporting reasoned discussion about the (inflated) costs and (dubious) benefits of attending George Washington and other well-known trap schools. Sure, it isn't American or Brooklyn or Hastings or Miami, but a student should be extremely wary of paying anything close to sticker price to attend George Washington.

    1. Exactly. Kerr is one of the few non-scamblogish professors that still "gets it," IMO, or at least is willing to go on record for saying so.

      Many, many others either don't see and/or are unwilling to see, so the downward spiral continues.

  16. Carthage must be footnotedJune 20, 2014 at 7:41 PM

    I’m a former law professor, and I have a slightly different take on this then Orin.

    When I was in law school, I would have disagreed with this post 100%. Law school can teach a handful of particular, distinct skills. The main skill it teaches is how to write a law school exam—which is a skill that has cognates in writing bench memos for judges/appellate briefs.

    The questions that I didn’t ask until I was a law professor:

    1. Does the Socratic method do a good job of teaching the above skills?
    2. Are those the most useful skills for our students to learn?

    Many law professors cannot answer those questions from an unbiased position because one side of the answers, if true, would be hard on their egos.

    The Socratic method must do a good job of teaching those skills, law professors tell themselves, because we are invested in the myth of our own success. The system that produced us must be good. Maybe not perfect—maybe in need of some alteration—but generally good. Law professors are theory-heavy and practice-light. If the answer is “no, this skill is not useful,” then we have a huge problem, because law profs—and our colleagues—are fundamentally not equipped to teach any other skill.

    And so we avoid the truth.

    The Socratic method is a shitty method of teaching. As a law student, I could see only my own success. I did awesomely in law school, so of course the Socratic method appeared to work. As a law professor, when I graded exams, it became clear that a large percentage of my students weren’t learning the skills that I had tried to teach them, and when I talked to my colleagues, I was told that this was just the way things were, that the students who failed were dumb/lazy/slow to get it.

    But I knew my students, and while I’m sure some were dumb/lazy (inevitable in any large class) I didn’t buy that most of them were. And I’ve learned a number of different skills in my life over a variety of disciplines, and I know how good students generally are at learning skills that are well taught.

    Thinking like a law professor isn’t hard; we are just incredibly shitty at teaching it.

    (The second problem is that we use the Socratic method to teach two things at once: both the substance of the law and this ineffable “thinking like a law professor” skill. When both are opaque, it’s sort of like blindfolding your students, handing them legos dipped in goo, and asking them to construct a railroad depot, with the added caveat that you do not, in fact, want a railroad depot; you really want a museum of trains, something that only looks like a railroad depot from a distance. The fact that some students manage to produce the appropriate museum is no reason to pat ourselves on the backs.)

    As for the second question, it became quickly obvious to me that most of my students would not, in fact, ever need to think like a law professor—that if I wanted to help them succeed, I needed to give them projects and tasks that mimicked the sort of things they would actually be doing in practice even though I taught nonclinical classes.

    But I know fuck-all about practice, and while people all around me told me it didn’t matter, it soon became apparent to me that this was a self-serving myth created by the practice-light environment of academia. In what actual world would a total lack of experience and knowledge ever be irrelevant?

    I was not comfortable saying, “Oh, well, I just made this shitty exercise up, and I know as much as you about how you’d approach this problem in real life, so snap to it, and I’ll grade you based on what I think the right answer is. But I could be completely wrong, and also, do practitioners approach this problem like this? IDEK.”

    In any event, TL;DR: Law school teaches low value skills badly, and law professors are by and large too invested in their own success to cop to this.

    1. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    2. Carthage probably deserves his own OP for this particular post. Looking forward to more.

    3. Lazy question, but does the ABA mandate the use of the Socratic method, or is this method used just because of (1) tradition, (2) as a deliberate means to make the course of study longer and more inefficient than it needs to be, and/or (3) as a way of covering up the fact that most law professors have zero education and experience in how to teach effectively?

    4. Mainly (3), with an admixture of (1) and (2) to taste.

    5. Carthage must be footnotedJune 24, 2014 at 10:27 AM

      I'd say it's (1). The thing is, I think most people are much better at self-deception than the 10:07 AM Anon is giving them credit for. People don't usually tell themselves that they are shitty at a thing they are spending a substantial portion of their life doing. Their ego just can't handle it. Law professors don't deliberately make the course of student longer and more inefficient, because that would require them to admit to themselves that they are long-winded and inefficient, something they refuse to understand. They tell themselves that the material is difficult and hard to master, and that they're very good at teaching the best students how to handle it. The latter is ego-stroking; the former ego-destroying.

      Law professors don't usually tell themselves that they need to cover up the fact that they are clueless about pedagogy; they instead tell themselves that they have been anointed as smart and teaching is easy, so they all basically figure it out with minimal instruction.

      If there's a place that this blog goes wrong in misunderstanding the law professor psyche, it is in underestimating the debilitating effect of law prof ego.

      If law professors actually believed that they were overcomplicating matters and that they really needed education, they would DO something about it--but they don't want to believe that they're doing anything wrong, because that would imply that they are all dumb.

      I'd classify the attitude more as reckless indifference to the truth rather than outright purposeful evasion. The reason we have such a terrible situation, in addition to the financial crap, is that law professors fundamentally do not wish to understand what they're doing (and failing to do). Law professors, like most people, want to believe they're fundamentally good people doing good work.

      The only reason I was able to be honest with myself about the situation is that, unlike most law professors, I had a way to make six figures without teaching in law school. I'm not a better person; I just didn't have the same cognitive dissonance that most law profs do.

  17. The Socratic Method is utterly useless and doesn't teach anything, most especially, how to think like a lawyer. I am a lawyer and I think the same way I did in law school and before law school. I only had a handful of professors who even used it and the best did not. Law school as a model of education is completely useless. It doesn't teach anyone how to practice law, it's giant hoop all hopeful lawyers have to jump through. No one would ever seek out a physician who knew how to "think like" a doctor. There's a reason physicians/dentists/physical therapists/optometrists/social workers/teachers, etc.. have to engage in years of practical training before they are licensed to practice. Law school in its current configuration si driven by 1) money and 2) the need for law professors to be seen as serious scholars. The fact is, law school should cost 10%-20% of what is does now and should be an undergraduate degree. Finally, law professors are not making incredible discoveries. You can't discover the law because it is constantly changing.

  18. The Socratic Method is utterly useless and doesn't teach anything. Law professors have bottom less egos that need constant validation. That's why the paid 2-3 times what their students will make in practice and work 6 hours a week 9 months a year. The rest of the time they're purusing "legal scholarship" which benefits no one and is read by no one. When is the last time research in a law review article was used to cure an illness? Bottom line, law is the only profession where practioners aren't being taught how to practice in school. No one goes to a physician becuase they learned to "think like" a doctor. Fail.