How Would Blackstone Teach Today's Law Students with Learning Disabilities?: A Proposal

By Schmitz, Suzanne J. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

How Would Blackstone Teach Today's Law Students with Learning Disabilities?: A Proposal


Schmitz, Suzanne J., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Abstract

Although Sir William Blackstone would not have known if he had been lecturing to students with learning disabilities, today's law professors are. Law schools are legally required to accommodate students with learning disabilities unless the requested accommodation would alter the fundamental nature of the program. Courts give great deference to academic institutions in their determinations of what would alter the fundamental nature of the program; however, courts do expect law schools to deliberate and consider alternatives to the program requirements and to reach a rationally justifiable conclusion that the available alternative will either result in lower academic standards or require substantial alteration of the program.

Law faculty who clearly articulate the goals and objectives of each of their courses will be better prepared to meet this legal test. Moreover, they will be better prepared to accommodate requests of students. Those who are deliberate about their goals are able to consider alternative means of helping students learn the material and alternative means of assessing student performance. In this way, these faculty members will avoid law suits. Law schools should institute institutional incentives to encourage faculty members to do just that. Law school administrators must educate faculty members and others about the legal requirements and types of disabilities to be accommodation. Further, they might adopts such incentives as financial rewards and released time for faculty who are interested in more clearly defining their educational goals and methods.

I. Introduction

William Blackstone would not have known if he had been lecturing to students with learning disabilities, but students with learning disabilities are in today's law school classrooms. In too many cases, however, legal educators might well be in the age of Blackstone, because they are unprepared to respond to the needs of these students. While courts are willing to defer to the academic expertise of institutions such as law schools, courts do expect law schools to carefully respond to the requests of these students. (1) This paper will discuss the need for institutions and faculty to act.

Part II of this paper explores Blackstone's views on legal education and some views applicable to this issue. It also provides background concerning students with learning disabilities and their impact on law schools. Part III offers the legal background to the issue, including the deliberative process courts expect of postgraduate institutions. Part IV explores that deliberative process as applied to typical requests for law school accommodations. Part V proposes two tracks for law faculty and law schools to better prepare them for law students with disabilities.

II. Background

A. Blackstone on Legal Education

When William Blackstone was preparing to lecture at Oxford, the two major means of legal education were apprenticeships and Inns of Court. Blackstone criticized apprenticeships as emphasizing the practical at the expense of basic legal principles and criticized the Inns of Court for failing to provide sufficient supervision or guidance. (2) Blackstone proposed to place the study of law in the University. He offered a series of lectures to lay out a "general map of the law," stating the fundamental principles of law. (3) His goal was "to render the whole [of law] intelligible to the uninformed minds of beginners." (4) Blackstone's approach was "so ubiquitous and readable that he made it appear easy to learn law.... It was the very lucidity and conciseness of Blackstone that concerned advocates of more comprehensive legal education" in nineteenth century America. (5)

Blackstone argued for a fairly inclusive approach to legal education. A basic understanding of the law was necessary to those with considerable property, those who wrote their own wills, those who would serve as jurors, magistrates, judges, or legislators, those who conducted business, the nobility, clergy, physicians and those engaged in foreign commerce. …

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