Review: Rethinking U.S. Legal Education: No More Same Old Same Old

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By Rory Bahadur from Washburn University School of Law

Professor Rapoport begins this article with the well-supported premise that, “Teaching students how to think about the law is no longer-and probably never was-enough.” But she doesn’t stop there. The article presents a well thought out, empirically supportable, alternative to the current, typical (and empirically unsupportable) law school curriculum.

Law School, according to Professor Rapoport, should be divided into three distinct phases, each with a specific outcome in mind. This outcome based curriculum provides lawyers with the actual skills they need to be practicing lawyers rather than the very limited skill of gleaning fine details from court opinions honed by the Socratic Method.”

The aim of the first year of law school should be dedicated to “Creating the Skilled Novice.” The second year of law school should result in students becoming “Novice Problem Solvers.” Finally, the third year of law school should be devoted to “Creating a Novice Professional with Basic Judgment.” Professor Rapaport describes in detail the aspect, aims, and characteristics of this three-phased law school curriculum.

The empirical bases of Professor Rapoport’s suggestions are well documented in detailed and comprehensive studies such as Best Practices, Carnegie, and McCrate (which most of legal academia has blatantly ignored thus far). Professor Rapoport suggests the following reasons why legal academia continues to ignore solid education:

  1. “Law Professors have a cushy life.” In our current, high-salaried jobs, “we get to study what we want” and we don’t have to worry about putting “the client’s interest first.”
  2. Most law professors are blissfully ignorant of education theory and research.
  3. Law schools reward the production of scholarship rather than the “painstaking amount of time it takes to think seriously about the curriculum, develop new courses that reflect the building of skill sets over time, determine better ways to evaluate whether a student is actually developing those skills, and recalibrate the curriculum,” if outcomes are not being achieved.

The larger and more troubling question is whether perpetuating the inertia driven Socratic, legal education charade has now become an ethically questionable endeavor in light of the sound and copious educational research compiled against it. A colleague of mine suggested that the real reason for the adherence to discredited methodology in legal education is laziness. Surely that can’t be right, even though I have not heard a more credible alternative for the resistance to change.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning