Law School Dreams

There's an interesting conversation going on at Madisonian.net.

Strike that.

There's usually an interesting conversation going on a Madisonian.net, but this week they're having an especially promising 'Moblog' on legal education.

My biggest cheer so far goes to Nancy Rapoport's What kind of faculty would I want in the ideal law school? which I think hits a series of nails right on the head with this advice for what law faculties should do:

  • cheer successes,
  • be engaged,
  • don't let up after tenure,
  • “addresses conflict head-on and not in a passive-aggressive (or aggressive) manner” — but also stomp on bullies [hmm, some tension there?],
  • set high standards for students, provide them with support to enable them to meet those standards, and hold them to those standards,
  • model professional behavior by your actions,
  • value those who teach in the clinic and those who teach legal research and writing,
  • have fun.

We do some of these things better than others. And I'd love it if we did each of these things better than we do now — and with a Dean search going on, we're certainly entitled to dream. But what Rapoport doesn't say enough about is how you do all those things at once. Yes “it takes hard work to create such a community and to keep it thriving. ” I get that. But are these things that require a Dean to push them? Or are they things that only work as organic change bubbling up from below? Or do both sets of stars have to be aligned?

More prosaically, as we interview Dean candidates in the next weeks, how on earth to detect which ones are likely to help foster these tendencies?

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4 Responses to Law School Dreams

  1. anon says:

    Classroom discipline at UM is a problem. Attendance should be mandatory. Professors should not let students walk in and out of the classroom while class is in session. Professors should not let students talk during class. Professors can–and should–be doing that now, regardless of the dean.

    A dean has the ability to hire more clinical professors. And he or she should.

  2. michael says:

    Interesting comments. Thank you.

    I tend to agree that a class in which there is a lot of lateness has a problem. I’m pretty tough about it.

    But there are two things that go with that: the first is that my tough anti-lateness policy is one of the two things students most often complain about — and complain most strongly about. (The other frequent complaint is that I talk too fast, although one student helpfully noted that I slow down when i use the whiteboard.) So anyone who tries to be an enforcer pays a big price in perceived student satisfaction; folks may complain that other people slide in late, but NO ONE ever compliments us for having people there on time! Some folks have thicker skins than others for this stuff.

    The second thing is that in a class of any size, there will be some days when someone really has an unavoidable reason for being late. Should we tell people not to come at all if they are a few minutes late? I would not at all be comfortable with that.

    My current, and ever-evolving, policy is this: I do not enforce any lateness policy on the class until there have been a total of ten latenesses by class members (so if there are three late on one day, and one late one each of seven other days, that makes ten in all). From that point forward, each lateness counts as half an absence. And I have a tough policy on absences too… We’ll see what students have to say about it. So far there have been far fewer latenesses than previously.

    On your second point, it’s true that — at least from the faculty view — Deans have considerable power. But they don’t have the power to create new clinical jobs just by their say-so. There are two operative constraints. The first is money. The second is that Clinical faculty don’t have tenure, but do enjoy long-term contracts that are near-tenure. University rules cap the number of people we can hire at this status (if we treated them worse — just short-term contracts — this limit wouldn’t apply). We are now at the cap. It’s possible to go to the University Senate and ask for a higher cap, but I gather that they get pretty difficult about it as they’d rather we go full tenure track. While that approach has its attractions, it is very hard to administer, and to the extent we expect both substantial and sustained writing and clinical supervision from our tenure-track clinicians may set up unreasonable demands. So it ain’t as easy as it looks. So, in short, it’s not true at UM that “a dean has the ability to hire more clinical professors” just like that.

  3. anon says:

    Well, I compliment you now on having a tough anti-lateness policy. So I am at least one student.

    But classroom discipline goes along with holding students to higher standards. It is not unreasonable for professors who teach in 209, 309, or 352 to tell students to use the back doors–and the back doors only–after class has started. I understand that many professors may not be comfortable with enforcing a policy such as this; it can be difficult to tell a student who walks in the front door to return through the back door. Yet some professors do. And I am sure that, after enforcing that policy from the outset of the semester, students won’t be barging through the front five, ten, and fifteen minutes after class starts. Many students are distracted by this, not just me. Again–holding students to higher standards.

    And I also compliment you on having a tough policy on absences. But perhaps all professors should be required to have, at a minimum, some policy on absences. After all, don’t you think it would be easier to have a uniform policy in this regard, one that all professors must follow?

    My problem is this. I know of at least one professor who consistently teaches classes of 100 students or more. Yet only thirty or so students show up consistently. Class is cancelled often. Half of the students receive As; the other half, B pluses. All professors and students should have a problem with this. It cheapens the accomplishments of other students in other classes. I am sure that this professor regularly fails to meet ABA requirements regarding class minutes (since when are ABA requirements aspirational?). Heck, I’d be willing to bet that amount of time in class is at least tangentially related to bar-passage rate. Again–holding students to higher standards.

    In regard to clinical professors, UM needs more of them. And particularly live-client clinics. I understand that money is a problem. So is work space, which is perhaps an even greater impediment. A dean can move the school in the right direction, both by encouraging growth in the clinics and by encouraging a move to a different campus where space is not an issue, or at least a lesser one.

  4. michael says:

    Again, thank you for the substantive comments.

    The law school requires all profs to have an attendance policy (although I don’t think it requires a lateness policy). It doesn’t dictate the content, although the ABA has a standard under which (it says) by turning in a grade you are certifying a fairly high rate of attendance. They do audit this — at least to the extent of asking for copies of the policies. I’ve tossed two students from my classes this year for not showing up (these were not close questions — they missed half the classes or more). I know I’m not alone in this, although I wouldn’t claim this is a universal pattern.

    One reality is that there’s a very strong norm of academic freedom which makes the community unwilling to dictate much about classroom discipline on the fear that the next step will be classroom content. Reasonable people might disagree about whether that’s over-caution, but there it is.

    The grading situation you describe above is very distressing. Assuming, however, that the prof is tenured, there’s remarkably little that anyone can do about it other than social pressure. Deans can stop raises, assign crummy teaching times. The power to require that different courses be taught exists, but is not one used lightly — since the people most likely to suffer are students if the prof ends up teaching something s/he hates. I wish I could think of something, but I’m drawing a blank. Suggestions welcomed. (Should we have mandatory curves for 2nd and 3rd year? Or is that overkill?)

    The clinical question is probably too big for the comments section. I will point out though, that the ratio of students taught per clinical prof is a tiny fraction of non-clinical. So on per-credit basis, clinics are not just more expensive but WILDLY more expensive. If you want to raise money for a program, you need to raise about 20x the annual expenditure to endow it. So every clinical prof — who serves only a small number of students — requires millions in endowment. Clinics are good – I agree wholeheartedly – but are they the best use of our rather limited endowment dollar? That, I’m afraid, isn’t so obvious given the opportunity costs.

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