Succeeding in Law School

In a few weeks, nearly 40,000 students will begin their law school career. Though great strides have been made to improve legal education over the last few decades, almost all of the 206 accredited law schools in the United States still reward faculty for engaging in scholarship rather than improving their teaching skills. This means that many students are left on their own to figure out how to succeed in law school.

One recent development in legal education is the full-time academic success professional. These staff members, usually without faculty rank, are hired to help law students understand how to succeed in law school. They help students by teaching time management, note taking, briefing cases, exam preparation, and exam writing. They provide these skills in workshops, and to a limited degree, one-on-one instruction. At many law schools, a lone professional is expected to help 300 to 500 students, making one-on-one instruction challenging.

Since faculty are rewarded for publishing, many faculty go into their offices only on days when they have to teach classes or attend faculty meetings — on other days, they work from home. Even when they are in their offices, some ignore students request for help. Though anecdotal in nature, the following real story, shared with me by a law school professor, illustrates the plight of many law students. Professor Smith (real names are not used to protect their identities) was visiting at a top 50 law school. His office was next to Professor Frost, who was busy working on a scholarly article. On numerous occasions, students looking for help would knock on Professor Frost’s door, with no response from inside the closed door. Professor Smith knew that Frost was in his office because he had seen him enter the room earlier in the day, and had not seen him leave — Frost was intentionally ignoring students to work on his scholarship.

This faculty neglect may seem harsh, but keep in mind that faculty members at most law schools are not rewarded for their teaching abilities. As long as they are minimally competent in the classroom, they will not get fired. Also, some faculty who are horrible in the classroom receive promotions and university honors because they are recognized scholars. Law schools deal with the horrible teachers by assigning them to very small classes, where the harm they cause to students can be minimized. Faculty members quickly learn that scholarship is rewarded over teaching, so they take steps to improve their scholarship at the expense of improving their teaching abilities.

So what is a law student supposed to do with little to no faculty support and an overwhelmed academic success department? The approach taken by most law students involves self-help. There are dozens of publishers that sell study aids ranging from books, outlines, charts, flash cards, audio, and video. There are more aids than any student can ever sift through during a semester, let alone the quality difference between resources. Some students that have more money than others buy lots of these resources, but they will never have the time to use them all. In addition, law students look for free online resources, such as the kind on law school academic success YouTube channels.

Next is the rise of the law school tutor. Tutors provide the individualized supports that helps students succeed. Tutors are able to spend the time students need diagnosing their problems and providing students with the tools they need to succeed. Also, tutors are able to meet with students at times more convenient for the student — usually in the evening, long after the full time academic success professional has gone home. Many graduate students today are used to private tutors, having grown up with tutors from elementary school through college — their parents view tutors as the cost for student success.

Legal education remains one of the last bastions of how education was done in the United States 50 years ago. It was during the 1960’s that education moved from a sink-or-swim model to a more democratic model. By democratic, one where every student is provided with resources to succeed. But law school remains, by and large, mired in the sink-or-swim approach. It is not uncommon to hear faculty say that students fail because they weren’t smart enough for law school. While that may be true for some, many could have succeeded if they had been provided with more resources.

Even the assessment method in most law schools is designed for faculty convenience rather than student success. Most law schools provide a single final exam at the end of the semester — either the student passes or fails. So why wait till the end of the semester to provide any feedback to the student? Because requiring faculty to grade multiple assessments during a semester will take faculty away from the law schools primary goal: writing scholarship that will improve the law school’s ranking among other faculty.

Until law schools decide that students are their primary focus, students will be left trying to find their own way. Those who have more money will do so faster as they will find tutors to guide them. The rest will flounder a while, until they can figure it out on their own or fail.