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January 6, 2012


Neither sacred nor profane: Real life, real law schools

by dan rodriguez

In the middle of the AALS annual meeting and reflecting upon how we in the legal academy explain, justify, defend, and yes, critique, what we do:

In a provocative speech at the AALS luncheon this afternoon, federal appellate judge Jose Cabranes (introduced by his former student, Justice Sonia Sotomayor) sharply admonished law schools to focus more squarely on bread-and-butter courses, to curtail efforts at globalization, and to attend more constructively to the third year of law school to see whether it could better be utilized as a transition into the profession.  The present state of legal scholarship came under criticism by Judge Cabranes as well.

Much of the critique by the learned judge rests on an empirical basis that is anachronistic.  Changes in legal education in the past decade have been substantial and innovative.  This has been true at Northwestern; this has been true elsewhere.  But what is vexing is how poorly American law professors, including deans, have described and explained these innovations to the press and public.

Bread and butter courses?  The first-year curriculum at every law school, while not without problems, focuses on core competencies and subjects.  This focus aims to prepare students for upper-divison specialization; it also prepares students for bar examinations — and that is a good, not bad, thing.  Much of the upper division is elective, yet students pursue advanced work in what, by any measure, is within the core of the legal canon.  The challenge for a law student in a diverse, complex professional environment is to make the most of what is, after all, just two years of advanced work.

The retreat from globalization?  Huh?  The attention directed by substantial segments of the professorate to problems of the world is, to me, a source of pride.  The concern usually voiced is that American law schools do not do enough to orient students toward the increasingly international legal environment, not that they do too much.  But, here again, perhaps we do a poor job in explaining what we do and why we do it.

The third year of law school?  A tough subject, to be sure.  The (proper) rise of clinical education, the focus on supervised research, the availability of salient of relevant extracurricular activities, and so on, all suggest that students are rightly pushing law schools to develop and maintain substantial programs as bridges into the legal profession.  The predicament of the legal economy make these programs more essential.  And, to the best of my knowledge, law schools are heeding the message.

There is much to say, to be sure, about many elements of the modern law school curriculum.  Eminent thinkers and jurists, including Judge Cabranes, admirably wade into these debates.  Still and all, these broad-scale critiques ought to be framed around current information about what actually goes on within the walls of American law schools.

I extend an open invitation to my colleagues in the bench and bar to come to Northwestern and kick the tires.  Take a look around; talk to professors and students; look at our curriculum; talk to our alumni.  Do the same at other law schools.  Then let the constructive debate begin!

UPDATE: I have referred liberally to remarks of Judge Cabranes at AALS.  Because I haven’t reproduced his remarks in full, I urge readers to seek out a tape or transcript to see the good judge’s comments in their full context.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joey B
    Jan 7 2012

    Legal education’s main problem is the expense. What students receive – in terms of job prospects and transferable skills – is not at all proportionate to the cost of the degree, even at very good schools. Solve that problem and I’ll quit my complaining about the way law is taught.

  2. CHS
    Jan 7 2012

    The cost of law schools cannot be divorced from the cost of higher education in general. Are universities going to have law schools that cost drastically less then their undergraduate divisions?

  3. PMC
    Jan 11 2012

    I am a NU Law alum (class of 2005) and have always been puzzled by one aspect of legal education. You write:

    “Bread and butter courses? The first-year curriculum at every law school, while not without problems, focuses on core competencies and subjects. This focus aims to prepare students for upper-divison specialization; it also prepares students for bar examinations”

    But we don’t take the Bar until the summer after our third year of law school. And I think you would be hard-pressed to find NU Law students who had a firm grasp of most of what they learned during their first semester 1L year nearly three years later. So why teach all the Bar-prep classes the first year of law school? Why not save some, and keep them as required courses, for the 3L year? The idea that students should be allowed–even encouraged–to take a variety of subjects during 3L year that will provide no preparation at all for the Bar is bizarre. It’s also limited to “elite” law schools–I can tell you that law students at “third tier” law schools take 3L courses that prepare them for the Bar. I, on the other hand, was taking an immigration law class which, while interesting, was irrelevant six months later.

    This is just one example of how legal education is impractical and inconsistent with even the academy’s own stated justifications for what is taught and when.

    Good luck with the new job–I will always wish the best for NU Law.

    • dan rodriguez
      Jan 11 2012

      Thanks for writing, NU ’05 alum. Great questions. Thoughts from other alums?

  4. PMC
    Jan 12 2012

    You’re welcome Dean Rodriguez. I was actually most interested in hearing your thoughts – if core classes are taught in large part to prepare us for the Bar, why place all of them in the 1L year? And why not require any courses in 3L year that would serve that purpose? I think if you surveyed your faculty, you’d find broad agreement that most student forget the fine details learned in 1L courses–at least at the depth required for the Bar–by the end of law school. So I don’t see how limiting those classes to the 1L year serves any Bar prep function at all. But as I said, I’m interested in your views. Thanks.

    • dan rodriguez
      Jan 14 2012

      I agree with your broad observation that, all things being equal, concentrating on core bar material, of the sort that the first-year courses emphasize, later in one’s law school career would help in preparing for the exam. (Although I am not sure I agree that most students forget the level of detail that is required, particularly since nearly everyone takes some sort of bar review course).

      In the end, there is a tradeoff involved. What we hope to do in the first year with these core courses is two-fold: first, use canonical cases, other readings, and lectures to provide the kind of foundational information that will help guide study in the second and third years and, second, create capacities to learn skills of legal reasoning, advocacy, and analysis — what has tritely been called over the years “thinking like a lawyer.”

      But I don’t want to avoid your good point. We need to develop curricula that help students prepare for practice, preparation which includes passing the bar exam in any state where our students sit. Of course, our extremely high bar pass rate suggests we do a reasonably able job at that, although your observations rightly raise the question of whether and to what extent the NU Law School is principally responsible for this sky-high rate or is too much left to the students’ own efforts.

      Thanks for the question.


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