March 17, 2007

Thinking about Professor Kingsfield again.

Writing the previous post, I ran across a couple of bloggers who talked about going back to my Kingsfield column in the NYT a few weeks ago. (TimesSelect link.) I described a talk by John Jay Osborn Jr., the author of "The Paper Chase," and wrote:
... Osborn says [law students] hate law school, and they hate it because the law professors don’t care about what the students think. “You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer,” said Osborn’s sadistically Socratic professor, Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. This legal discipline deprives students of “their own narrative,” as Osborn put it, and they need to learn how to struggle, as Osborn’s protagonist Hart did, to “reclaim” it. They need to resist what law school tries to impose....
Here's Greg, a law student who actually has had Osborn as his lawprof:
Because Prof. Osborn didn't cold-call, didn't even assign people to be "up" for a particular class, it was the narrative of a few that we heard most from.
This is the #1 problem with relying on volunteers. I, myself, have used volunteers through most of my 20+ years teaching law. It is more relaxed and does give you the good feeling that you're not intruding on anyone. But of course, you are. You're intruding on the minds of everyone in the room, even if they are passive and silent. They may avoid the fear and pressure of getting put on the spot, but that doesn't mean they're having a fine time listening to the students who enjoy engaging with the professor.

Osborn wants to empower students to "reclaim" their "personal narrative" in class, but you've got to picture that in practice. Just because the opportunity is offered doesn't mean the students will respond in proportion to their need for personal empowerment or the value of their personal narrative to the classroom experience.

Most likely, the students who bring the most empowerment to class will do the most talking. These may be the extroverts or the students who came from families or great schools that got them comfortable with exposing their minds. Having to listen to these already-empowered students may very well disempower the students who are more introverted or whose families did not debate politics at the dinner table or whose high schools were substandard holding pens. It may strengthen some students over others -- perhaps males over females or white students over minorities students.

If we care about diversity, we need to worry about a teaching method that activates some and not others. Even if you rankle at "diversity" talk like that and prefer to think in terms of individuals, you should care about systematically empowering some individuals over others. Well, if you rankle at "diversity," you probably hate "empowering" too, but the point remains! If you're going to have a classroom where students do some of the talking, it's best to get the full range of students talking, especially if the students are going into a field like law, where speaking is going to be part of the work.

Here's another law student blog post, from Aaron of The Stopped Clock:
One of the best student experiences I had in law school was being taught by J.J. White, who was probably the most like Professor Kingsfield of any professor at UM. He knew his material cold, and I had the impression that he spent more time reviewing cases and preparing for each class than did most of his students....

Had every professor at UM been like him, I would have had to work a lot harder and I would have learned a lot more.
Aaron's post is pretty rambling and entails an awful lot of personal narrative. It's hard to tell what he's driving at. And then it ends with a question for me. Hey, Aaron, I'm the lawprof. I'm the one who wants a neo-Socratic revival. That is, I'm the one with the questions. No answers for you!

By the way, I love Prof. Osborn, who sent me a nice note about the NYT column, in which he cleverly pointed out that I used personal narrative and told my own story in the column. He's quite right! Here I am, leading up to a conclusion that rejects the idea of opening up the classroom to students telling their own stories:
When I was applying to law schools in 1977, I really didn't need an anti-authoritarian novel about a young guy who lets a love affair with the professor's daughter eat into his study time. I was married and -- it seemed then -- a little old for that sort of frippery.

I was 26. What I needed was to get serious after years of underemployment inspired by books and movies about defying authority. I had to set aside that obsolescent hippie balkiness and adopt a pragmatic attitude for the task ahead. ''One L'' -- which was new then -- laid out the facts about law school and got you just scared enough to fire you up for the challenge.
And of course, "One L" is a personal narrative too. (And where's my letter from Scott Turow?!)

I'm not against personal narrative. As a blogger, could I be against personal narrative? Actually, I could. A blog could be much more personal than this, and it could also be utterly impersonal. Like a law school class, you've got to choose where you want to pitch it. Unlike a law school class, you've got a full range of choice. I think it would be downright abusive to make my law school class as personal as this blog... and to make this blog as personal as it could be... well, that would be crazy, wouldn't it? Or are you just waiting for the day when I lay my inhibitions aside and tell you what I really think... and what I really do?


Badger 6 said...

I throughly enjoyed law school. It got me thinkting and the juices flowing like I never knew I could. Of course the practice of law on the other hand has little to do with the law and mostly to do with churning out billable hours. That is why I left stress and pointlessness of private practice of law to go back to the Army Reserve and come to Iraq. Less stress looking for roadside bombs.

Ron said...

Or are you just waiting for the day when I lay my inhibitions aside and tell you what I really think... and what I really do?

It won't be "Althouse" then, just "Ann's Place!" I'll bring a loofah.

There's a good story/film in someone who winds up getting peoples confidences, and then blackmails them all through his blog...

Kirby Olson said...

I am curious about the attempts of various groups to change academia from a meritocracy to a victimocracy. How prevalent is that in law schools? I think that Hmong equals, there is still an attempt to rise above which drives talented students and talented professors to try to do better. I assume that you or more or less against victimocracy and for meritocracy, and yet you are also a fe-mi-nist for instance, and are keen on seeing even in yesterday's post -- a slight against female rock singers who sound schmaltzy by Cracked, I think.

I know there's no answer but in a sense that's the essence of the culture war. Those who believe in merit no matter the background, and those who insist that victimology is all and work ethic or God-given talent nothing much. I read this blog partially to get a reading of the way the climate is going at your school but you rarely address this issue head on. Could you, would you?

I assume that lawyers like those in the Paper Chase would have been dead set against victimology, and that the newer generations would hate them for just that reason?

Then there's the larger issue of the law itself: criminals as victims, or criminals who simply take shortcuts to a society's rewards and therefore deserve punishment. Democrats seem to me to be moving almost entirely toward a victimology stance, whilst Republicans tend to be moving toward a meritocracy stance. Like you I'm somewhat in between these groups, but I at least am leaning toward meritocracy because ultimately I think it's the only system that makes any sense.

Athena said...

I don't hate law school because of my professors, I hate law school because of many of my fellow students. You know the kind of student-- came to law school so he could get a job and make a lot of money. He's unabashedly culturally illiterate, a linear thinker, a plodder, someone who has never bothered to ask the big questions about life, and he and his ilk run the show in many arenas in law school.
My other reasons for hating law school: I'm a 3L--lots of loans, no job, despite journal experience, a publication, interesting internships and clinics...not to mention a masters degree in a difficult subject from a difficult school, and a bachelors degree from a top LAC. If the legal profession can't value what I bring to the table--- don't I get to whine a little bit?
My professors, with their wisdom, interesting takes on legal subjects, and dedication to making my law school a better place are the one bright spot in my day. I never felt bullied in class; I felt engaged and challenged.
Um, yeah, I'm rambling. I found Ann's series in the Times thought provoking.

Zeb Quinn said...

I hated law school. I loved law school.

Cold-calling was the norm at the law school I went to, particularly during the first two years. I didn't especially like it, but it forced me to do something that I had never hitherto really ever done as a student: come to each and every class fully prepared. I assumed that was the point.

I later realized that it also imprinted the lawyerly value and work habit of always being fully prepared before you step into a courtroom. So when law professors ease up on cold-calling that's also what they are easing up on.

If I were teaching law I'd tell the students right up front that I cold-call, and that if it bothers them then they should just get over it, because it's good for them in their preparation to be lawyers.

Ann Althouse said...

Wow, Badger 6! Thank you for serving, and for delivering such a amusingly savage blow to the legal profession. Are you doing legal work in the military?

Fitz said...

In June 1984, Paul Carrington, former dean of Duke University School of Law, argued in a now famous article in the Journal of Legal Education, that law professors who “embrace nihilism and its lesson that who decides is everything, and principle is nothing but cosmetic [have] an ethical duty to depart the law school, perhaps to seek a place elsewhere in the academy.” They did not…

All the talk about “anti-authoritarian” is simply a means to inject subversion and doubt into the study of law. Talk of more “personal narrative” simply a vehicle to inject political agendas into law review articles, redrafts and our Constitution.

It is this former law students considered opinion that the more of a mess law professors make of law school, the more pliable future law practitioners become to activist opinions from our judicial elite.

SGT Ted said...

In the military, instructors go thru two courses: Instructor trainers Course and then Small Group Leader(SGL). SGL is a mini group psychology course above all, focusing on group dynamics. One of the instructor methods that is graded is to cold call the people who are reluctant to participate in order to bring more to the training and discussion.

"If the legal profession can't value what I bring to the table--- don't I get to whine a little bit?"

You may get to whine, but you must realise that in the Army of Life, you are still a cadet/trainee. You don't really *have* anything to bring to the table yet. Once you graduate, you will be the civilian equivalent of a Second Leutenant; a wet behind the ears booksmart beginner. This is called "life".

We have a joke in the military; whats the difference between a 2nd LT and a Private First Class? Answer: the PFC has been promoted twice.

M. Simon said...

Or are you just waiting for the day when I lay my inhibitions aside and tell you what I really think... and what I really do?

Actually we'd like to see the pictures.

Badger 6 said...

Prof. Althouse -

No Judge Advocate General work for me. I command a company that hunts roadside bombs in Falluja and Ramadi, Iraq's wild western province of Al Anbar.

We did mobilize out of Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. On a long weekend, I went to Madison and bought a stuffed Badger and UW Law hat and t-shirt. Had to being so close.

I have no idea what life holds for me when this is overwith; would like to use my law degree but don't see the private practice of law in my future. Maybe I could come to Madison and open a clinic specializing in Veteran's issues.

Badger 6

Maxine Weiss said...

"I have no idea what life holds for me when this is overwith"

63 % of students enter law school with exactly that mentality.

Can you imagine entering Medical School, and having no idea what you'll do with the degree?

And yet Law Schools continue to funnel in the clueless, the uncertain, the drifting.


MBA, PhD programs, Humanities (gasp).....those make better catch-all fields for the uncertain.

Law, Medicine, Architecture/Engineering...those disciplines are too narrow, and costly to pursue to have any degree of uncertainty, or undeclared exploration.

Peace, Maxine

Maxine Weiss said...

"Or are you just waiting for the day when I lay my inhibitions aside and tell you what I really think... and what I really do?"--Althouse

What makes you think that readers/students don't already know, without your saying a word.

Not everything needs to be spelled out.

You've said far more by saying nothing.

All the things you've unwittingly revealed about yourself, by carefully not revealing.

You are making choices even when you don't know you're making them.

Peace, Maxine

Doyle said...

Badger 6 -

Wow. Good luck.

John Kindley said...

As much as I dislike Maxine's abrasive insensitive comments (tagged, ironically I presume, with "Peace" at the end), there is a nugget of truth buried within her second-to-last belch of passive-agressiveness. Law school is a default path for many who are uncertain about what they want to do with their lives, and as a default path it is an awfully time-consuming and expensive degree that is narrower and does not provide as many opportunities for "branching out" as many of those entering law school believe.

It doesn't have to be this way. Law should not be just the province of lawyers. I get the feeling that a paralegal is probably better prepared to actually practice law upon the completion of his/her degree than a lawyer is upon the completion of a J.D. As a practicing lawyer who did do my time, I would have no problem with a paralegal hanging out a shingle and practicing law (so long as there was full disclosure to clients of what degree he/she held, of course).

I did enjoy and engage with the intellectual stimulus of law school, but seems like what we did there could be the stuff of an advanced law degree. Moreover, one year of Socratic-method type lectures is probably enough to teach students "how to think like lawyers." I learned a lot more in law school from researching and writing legal scholarship for possible publication than I did from the lectures (professors being more Socratic and less subjective would be an improvement), and in such research and writing felt the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of doing something productive, that might have actual value to the profession, as opposed to vainly jumping through the hoops of law school lectures and exams. If big firms demand the weeding out process provided by competitive exams, one year of such exams is enough to do that (and those first year exams pretty much serve that purpose now anyway).

It's quite understandable and natural that a young person in modern society may not yet know exactly what they want to do with their life, and may be ill-prepared to commit a big chunk of time and money to one narrow possible path. Lowering the artificial career entry barriers in law and in other fields, particularly those which seem primarily designed to protect the turf of the already credentialed, would make for a freer, happier, and less debt-ridden society.

Freder Frederson said...

I did enjoy and engage with the intellectual stimulus of law school, but seems like what we did there could be the stuff of an advanced law degree.

Anyone who thinks law school is intellectually stimulating wasted their undergraduate years in an intellectual wasteland. The thing I hated most about law school was how intellectually stultifying it was.

I was a chemistry major as an undergraduate and worked five years between my B.S. and entering law school. When I was an undergrad I felt I was graded fairly. I knew that the people in my degree program who did better than me were either smarter than me, studied harder or both (and likewise those who did worse were dumber, partied more or both). I law school, where I did well, but was not a star (top 25%, wrote on to law review) I never felt that way. While there were some very bright people at the top of the class, a few of them were dumb as a box of rocks. Likewise, some people who were very bright were just barely getting by. And while law school was a lot of work, it wasn't hard work, just really tedious work, and rarely thought provoking or intellectually stimulating.

Practice was even worse. No wonder I packed it in after a year.

Simon said...

Freder Frederson said...
"[A] few of the[] [students in my classes] were dumb as a box of rocks."

I guess mayve I'd fit right in after all. ;)

In this thread: Some people just don't seem to find law school enjoyable, productive or intellectually stimulating; some people find it immensely so. What have we learned? People are different.

John Kindley said...

"Anyone who thinks law school is intellectually stimulating wasted their undergraduate years in an intellectual wasteland. The thing I hated most about law school was how intellectually stultifying it was."

Pretty broad-stroked comment, Freder, that doesn't strike me as particularly intelligent. I probably have never been happier in my life than when I was researching and writing my law review article and then acting as lead counsel in litigation based on the subject of the article. I found it all extremely intellectually stimulating and gratifying, even though the litigation wound up in the dustbin of history due to a bunch of brain dead judges on the North Dakota Supreme Court. If you want to know what it was all about, just Google my name. You'll also find my results in the World Series of Poker (guy's got a make a living when the law gig doesn't work out).

Freder Frederson said...

I probably have never been happier in my life than when I was researching and writing my law review article

Writing a law review article is hardly the same as going to law school. It is something you are lucky enough to get to do that relieves the tedium and boredom of law school. You get to pick a topic that interests you and write about it.

hdhouse said...

Interesting. I found ghosting law papers interesting because of the minutia. I found my x-wife and her fellow students too full of themselves generally. What classes I did attend to take notes for others was kinda fun...once asked/noted by a professor that it was good to see me there as i hadn't been there much and he said i hardly recognize you to which i replied the same.

i did find a lot of the students to be pretty shallow in the liberal arts, not too inquisitive about life in general and generally walking around in a scaredshitlesshewillcallonme state of mind.

ohhh for the magic kingsfield invisibility cloak.

Badger 6 said...

I assume Maxine's remark was directed at me. What I don't think she got was I meant I don't know what I will do when I return from Iraq. I went to law school knowing that I wanted to help develop small businesses. Took Business Associations, Securities, Anti-Trust, and more with great professor who I am still close friends with. My experience was the practice of law has little to do with those critical think and analytical skills I developed in law school.

And my undergraduate experience was terribly poor. I went to a large state school that had hundreds of people in class. It was the poorest I had ever done academically. Nothing caught my imagination.

The private practice of law is inherently corrupt in my view. It starts with the billing practices in my view. All of the incentives are wrong.

Once we were digging on an IED here in Iraq, one of my Soldiers said "this sucks sir." I noted that it did, bt I thought, hey at least I am not stuck on the 17th floor of some office building trying to fiugre out how to bill 50 hours for the week.e

Pogo said...

I wish I knew Badger 6. Those comments were great.

My daughter had been thinking about law school off and on since she started college. But it's a field about which I know nothing, or so little as to be dangerous, and could only offer the advice that she should listen to my 3 attorney siblings and what they have to say about their respective jobs.

To a one, they sounded like Badger 6. She's elected to pursue other fields.

(An aside: medicine has, because of Medicare cuts in the last 10 years, turned entirely into a 'billable hours' profession. Lotsa unhappiness in that field these days.)

As for the class style, I vote for the merit-over-victim status approach (much as my non-lawyer thoughts matter). Cold calling gets by the complaint of being too shy or the wrong gender. But people hate that method, too. What some really want is to be 5, and have a mommy prof invite them to answer and cheer their every effort and hand out ribbons to all at the end of every class because we celebrate all our differences every day (even if that difference is unpreparedness). Yay! We all win!!

Sorry. Ran outta coffee.

me said...

Socratic method is the best way -- makes for the most interesting and engaging class. BUT, I like the system where you get one pass a semester. Makes it harder for the prof to keep track of, but reduces the humiliation factor, which I HATED. There's nothing worse than sitting there watching someone reduced to a pile of jelly by the prof.

Aaron said...

I just came across this post. If you had difficulty understanding my point, I suspect that the reason is that the post is largely critical of something you wrote. ;-)

You didn't inspire me to reconsider my assessment of your analytical skills by describing me as a law student. Nor, for that matter, by "pulling rank" to avoid answering the tough questions. (Granted, if I were your student, by virtue of the imbalance of authority, I might not have called you on it. Is that the atmosphere you try to create in your classes?)

So let's try again: Please provide a clear definition of what it means to "think like a lawyer," and which law school teaching methods have been legitimately established to establish those skills.