The Teacher Becomes Student: What Law Professors Can Learn from the Legal Profession

By Pritikin, Martin H. | Defense Counsel Journal, October 2014 | Go to article overview

The Teacher Becomes Student: What Law Professors Can Learn from the Legal Profession


Pritikin, Martin H., Defense Counsel Journal


FOR more than a century, the dominant mode of pedagogy in American law schools has been the Socratic method, first introduced by Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell of Harvard Law School in the late 1800's. As long as the primary goal of law schools was to train students to "think like a lawyer," the dialogue-based Socratic method has served law schools fairly well.

In recent years, however, law schools have faced increasing pressure to train students not only to think like lawyers but to behave and perform like lawyers. Particularly since the recession, clients have become increasingly unwilling to pay the hourly rates of recent law school graduates who often knew little about practice and were effectively being trained on the job. Legal employers, in turn, have become more reluctant to hire associates without experience. This has left new lawyers in classic "Catch-22," and has put pressure on law schools to make students more practice-ready upon graduation, as well as offer post-graduate programs such as incubators, residencies, and fellowships to ease graduates' transition into the employment market.

But the calls for reform in legal education long pre-date the recession. In 1992, the ABA's "MacCrate Report"1 made a variety of recommendations for "narrowing the gap" between law schools and the profession. And in 2007, two influential reports-commonly referred to as the "Carnegie Report"2 and "Best Practices"3-exhorted law professors to infuse their teaching with practical skills and professionalism.

In order to serve the needs of the next generation of law students as well as the changing needs of the legal profession, law schools must strengthen their ties to the practicing bar. And law school faculties, in turn, must strengthen their ties to practice. My own foray back into practice proved to be extremely beneficial; but it remains, unfortunately, an anomaly.

I. The Limited Practice-Oriented Focus Among Law Professors

Although some institutions have embraced reform, law schools as a whole have been slow to change. This is due in part to the ostensible tension between a focus on "practice" and "research":

Like all professional schools, law schools are hybrid institutions. One parent is the historic community of practitioners, deeply immersed in the common law and carrying on traditional of craft, judgment, and public responsibility. The other heritage is that of the modern research university... [A]s American law schools have developed, their academic genes have become dominant.4

Numerous lawyers and judges have criticized legal scholarship for becoming increasingly abstract and irrelevant to the modern practitioner.5 And survey evidence shows that law students want professors' teaching geared toward the realities of practice, and that practicing attorneys regret that they did not get better training in these areas while in law school.6

To some extent, law schools can rely on part-time adjuncts or visitors to provide practical training and assign their full-time tenure-track faculty to traditional doctrinal courses. But the Carnegie Report rejects this division and urges schools to adopt an approach that integrates "each aspect of the legal apprenticeship-the cognitive, the practical and the ethical-social."7

The notion of an "apprenticeship" implies the presence of a master or expert to which one can be an apprentice. Not surprisingly, the reform literature has widely acknowledged that law professors can and should serve as models of competent and ethical lawyering.8

The problem is, not only do most law professors not practice law, but many have not done so in a long time, if ever;9 they did so under fairly homogenous condi- tions-no more than several years doing mostly research and writing at a large firm;10 and they often did not particularly enjoy the experience (or else they would not have left practice to teach).11 Indeed, the current trend is to hire law professors with less practical experience than ever before. …

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