Review: Law School Culture and the Lost Art of Collaboration

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By Andrea Boyack, Washburn University School of Law

Michael I. Meyerson, Law School Culture and the Lost Art of Collaboration: Why Don’t Law Professors Play Well With Others?, 93 Nebraska Law Review 547 (2015) [Read fulltext at Nebraska Law Review website]

Successful lawyers work together. Collaboration is extremely valuable to clients, firms, and the legal profession. Collaboration enriches the development of legal thought. Collaboration is key to lawyering effectiveness in the real world. And yet, law students receive virtually no training in how to work in a group, nor are they given meaningful opportunities to develop the collaborative skills that are so critical for their development and their practice after graduation.

Legal education fails to prepare students for legal collaborative reality. Perhaps this is because law schools judge and reward students based almost exclusively on individual effort and solitary performance in class and on tests. Although some professors have innovated by creating in-class opportunities for group work, law schools make vastly less use of teams than medical and business schools. Other professional schools place value on building collaborative intelligence, based on the reality that working effectively in a group is essential to professional success. But law schools have not incorporated this reality into their model.

Legal education’s collaboration deficit is not new news. For example, the ABA’s 1992 MacCrate Report noted that “effective collaboration with others” was a critical skill that has not been adequately addressed in law school. Harvard Law Professor Heidi K. Gardner has researched and recently published (in the book, Leadership for Lawyers: Essential Leadership Strategies for Law Firm Success) on the value of collaboration in legal practice. And it is widely recognized that law students graduate without much explicit training in art of teamwork. It is not just the schools that create collaborative deficiencies, however. Law professors themselves are poor collaborative role models. In his recent article in the Nebraska Law Review, Michael Meyerson highlights another source of collaborative deficiencies in legal education, namely, the lack of collaborative pedagogy and scholarship among law professors.

After making the transition to teaching law after nearly 15 years of practice, I immediately noticed – and have ever since struggled with – the sheer loneliness of a law professor’s work. Meyerson concedes that for most law professors “both teaching and scholarship are seen as solitary activities.” But is completely solitary teaching and writing necessary or justifiable? Meyerson’s article posits that such solitude weakens legal pedagogy and impoverishes legal scholarship. And although it is the norm in the law, it is most decidedly not the reality of many non-legal academics. In several non-law academic fields (mathematics, economics, etc.) 80% or more of scholarly articles have more than one author. Even though the number of co-written law review articles has almost doubled in the last decade, still less than 20% of law review articles are co-written. A lower rate of collaboration reflects the legal academic culture that devalues co-written scholarship (for example, co-written articles may receive only token credit towards tenure requirements). Co-teaching within a law faculty is likewise rare, and professors rarely collaborate regarding pedagogy or coordinated course plans. The criticized “law school culture of individualism” therefore starts at the top – with the faculty. And law professors are unlikely to be effective in teaching others to collaborate when they themselves cannot “play well with others.”

Meyerson advocates for a change – not just with respect to teaching students tocollaborate, but also with respect to professors themselves teaching and writing morecollaboratively. Meyerson concedes that this change may be difficult and requires that faculties learn the value of collaboration not only for students, but for professors themselves. But Meyerson explains how valuable collaboration among professors can be. For example, co-authorship can allow for efficient division of labor and can lead to richer, more vetted, and multi-faceted perspectives on and proposed solutions to a legal problem. Meyerson points out that collaboration can create social and psychological benefits as well. Co-authorship can provide motivation and encouragement and create a “sort of synergy where multiple contributors develop ideas that none would have developed on his or her own.” Building bridges between our academic silos can thus lead to a whole that is greater than the proverbial sum of its parts. In addition, working closely with other people can help legal scholars stay grounded and humble. Collaboration is also a way to mentor and give voice to new entrants into the legal academy.

There is a further societal benefit as well: as professors themselves become better collaborators, they can better mentor law students in their pursuit of collaborative intelligence. Collaboration can enrich law school in terms of the quality of and enthusiasm for legal learning. It also better prepares students to practice in the real world. Collaborative learning involves higher-level cognitive and moral reasoning, teaches listening and cooperation skills, and raises cultural and diversity awareness.

Meyerson’s intriguing article is based on his studies of collaborative scholarship and his exhaustive research with respect to the value and absence of collaboration in the law school model. He offers interesting insights with respect to collaboration in other legal fields. The article educates regarding the value of collaboration and includes thoughtful advice on how to incorporate teamwork into the classroom as well as how to incorporate collaboration into our pedagogical and scholarly lives. Importantly, Meyerson also explains that collaboration does not negate individualism. Rather, collaboration can be “a vital part of the process whereby an individual can achieve more of his or her unique potential.”

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