How Law Students Would Reform Law Schools

by Jeff Schmitt on

Dane Shikman of George Washington Law

Dane Shikman of George Washington Law

LAW SCHOOL NEEDS TO ADDRESS CURRENT ISSUES AND EVENTS

More real-world learning isn’t the only change that the Best & Brightest would make to the curriculum. Another would be focusing less on issue-spotting, defined by George Washington Law’s Dane Shikman as “identifying legal issues in a hypothetical fact pattern and applying established rules to resolve those issues.” While Shikman, winner of the 2015 National Moot Court Competition, values the issue-spotting approach, he’d ramp up the critical thinking element. “I would enhance the focus on understanding case law and strengthening the skill of analogizing and distinguishing cases. This I think is where litigators can help judges and their clerks most — in parsing through unclear precedent and explaining why some cases apply and others do not. I think it also requires more creativity and imagination than the rote application of law to fact.”

Duke Law’s Christine Kim would take a different path. Her vision involves students experiencing legal theory and its ramifications side by side. Doing so, she says, would provide both greater context and recognition of the awesome responsibilities that attorneys carry. “I would supplement the 1L doctrinal courses with more inclusive, contextual, and modern applications of the law — specifically focusing on how individuals from lower socioeconomic or diverse backgrounds struggle with navigating the law,” Kim explains. “I believe that law school should focus more on what it means to be a lawyer, an officer of the court, and the duties that we have to society and to ensuring that all individuals get equal treatment and opportunity under the law.”

Racheal White Hawk, Arizona State

Racheal White Hawk, Arizona State

In the same vein, Berkeley Law’s Lora Krsulich pines for more contemporary and relevant coursework. The former editor-in-chief of the California Law Review calls on professors to make their courses more contemporary and relevant. “I would like legal teachers to take more liberties with going outside of the casebook and engaging with current litigation or legal issues in the news,” Krsulich says.

Racheal M. White Hawk would also encourage professors to step outside the standard Western legal systems and expose students to alternative approaches to justice. A Rosebud Sioux tribal member and Arizona State Law graduate, White Hawk offers up the concept of peacekeeping, a traditional form of Navajo dispute resolution, as an example. “It’s a very different form of dispute resolution in that the focus is more on healing between parties rather than establishing a winner and loser,” White Hawk says. “Peacemaking allows parties to sit around a circular table where a ‘judge’ or peacemaker is present. Typically, attorneys are not allowed in the peacemaking process because their training is too adversarial. Everyone gets a turn to speak and the parties work together to form a resolution.

“I’ve interviewed the Chief Justice of the Chickasaw Supreme Court, Barbara Smith, and she has noted that this process is very healing for the members of the community and people feel very invested in the outcome.”

KEEP CALM AND DITCH THE GRADING CURVE

Law schools have become legendary for brutal workloads and a Darwinian ethos. Everyone has a story about being twisted into knots by Socratic questions during a cold call. Let’s not forget those cutthroat classmates who don’t share notes and are always looking to one-up their peers. One reason for the nastiness: Grades — often derived from narrow rubrics that don’t truly measure performance — matter.

To bridge this gap, Boston College’s Robert Rossi suggests a more expansive grading system. “My favorite classes in law school, and the ones in which I have learned the most, have been the ones that base grades on multiple assignments over the course of the semester, rather than on one exam at its end.”

University of Minnesota's Christopher Ortega

University of Minnesota’s Christopher Ortega

The law school curve — where a certain percentage of students are allotted a certain grade — has been the bane of law students for generations, and many graduates say they would like to chuck it altogether. Though Boston College’s Andrea Clavijo says that while the curve “terrifies us (and) it also motivates us,” she believes it ultimately creates a toxic byproduct that undermines the profession. “If the law school system weren’t so built around numbers, I think employers would be forced to place a greater emphasis on personality, work ethic and professionalism when interviewing candidates for positions,” Clavijo says. “I’ve heard employers say time and again that more important than knowing someone can do the job is finding someone they don’t mind working with at 3 a.m. when finishing trial preparation. It’d be nice to apply to jobs without the process of self-doubt the curve often creates.”

The University of Minnesota’s Christopher Ortega seconds Clavijo’s sentiment. “Law schools should replace the traditional A-F grades with a pass/fail grading system,” he says. “This will allow students to focus their attention on learning the law rather than simply fixating on grades. There are many students who can get good grades, but far fewer who possess the qualities necessary to be great lawyers.”

Of course, law schools are also notorious for their all-night study sessions and unrelenting pace that turns ambitious 1L do-gooders into cynical 3L burnouts. Hence, USC Law’s Tania ElBayar has a piece of advice for law school professors and administrators: Ease up. “I think there is a belief that you need to run yourself into the ground to excel. While I completely understand that timing can be critical and there is a lot of detailed work involved, I think that the intensity can be too taxing, and it causes the profession to lose talent.”

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