In this final installment of my occasional series on the past, present, and future of the law school casebook [first post here] [second post here] [third post here] [fourth post here], I’ll return to some crumbs that I left on the trail earlier, then take some swings at connecting them into some bigger payoffs.
A 360-degree tour of the casebook, as one of the most durable tools in higher education (really!), yields some possibly interesting ideas about the future of legal education generally – and maybe even higher education.
This occasional series about the law school casebook, for decades the fundamental teaching unit of American law students and many law students elsewhere, makes the case that micro changes in pedagogical expectations – what we teach with, rather than what we teach – have the potential to open pathways to macro changes in institutional culture both in schools and in the broader profession.
Earlier posts have outlined the broad claim, explored the motivations and incentives that drive the persistence of the casebook model, and even defended the uses of casebooks from the point of view of both students and professors. [First post here] [Second post here] [Third post here]
In this post, I want to turn the screws a little bit. The clearest and most direct argument in opposition to the current casebook model is economic, pure and simple. Casebooks cost students a lot of money, money that they often don’t have, money that they shouldn’t have to spend on teaching materials in law, and money that they might better spend on other things.
In this series of posts about the law school casebook [first post here] [second post here], I’ve suggested that the casebook is both emblem and instrument of how the legal profession perpetuates itself as a field.
The obvious subtext is that I believe (along with others) that the profession is overdue for some substantial re-thinking and re-implementing, and that change begins at home. [Since this series began, the chorus of similar calls has gotten louder and louder. See, for example, this post from Dan Rodriguez, “Toward evidence-based legal education reform: First, let’s experiment,” and this announcement of an interesting new venture at the University of Pennsylvania.] Lots of time, attention, and money are flowing into re-regulation of law practice, legaltech solutions, and other things. Some good time and attention is being directed to modifying the edges of legal education, particularly via new forms of experiential education. Almost no time or money is going into re-thinking the intellectual backbone of law’s entire system of systems. That’s my interest in the casebook.
My occasional series about the law school casebook continues. [First post here.] This is about the future of law, law practice, the legal profession, and legal (and higher) education, filtered through the lens of contemporary law’s most essential artifact, the teaching tool that unites every professor, every lawyer, every judge, and every student, regardless of field, in a shared experience. The casebook.
Law professors love to write things like “use this as a lens for that,” because it makes them feel and sound like their academic colleagues in other parts of the university. “We’re researchers, too!,” we like to think, even if we rarely say so out loud.
That micro bit of casual academic sociology is the key to this installment, which is in other respects an effort briefly to explain where casebooks come from and why, despite generations of legal professionals complaining about them, neither their fundamental forms (including prices) nor their contents seem to change much.
By design, casebooks are set up rarely to give readers the contents of legal doctrines, but instead to provide students with an annotated set of primary source materials from which students are expected to discern the rules. As teaching texts, as a rule casebooks are guides for the soon-to-be-initiated rather than actual summaries of law. They are devices for migrating generations of students out of “student” mode, in which they are presumed to enter law school, and into “practicing professional” mode, in which they exit it.
This is about books. It’s about legal education casebooks. A lot of what follows comes out of my experience as a law professor and speaks to law schools and law students and the legal profession. A lot of it dovetails with closely related questions about books and teaching and education in colleges and universities generally.
But I’m not writing principally for the benefit of my faculty colleagues. I’m writing principally for the benefit of practicing professionals, who often know little of the inner workings of their own educational systems, and also for the benefit of present and future students, who often know even less.