Hitting the Books

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.

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A New Paper Chase

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.

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A Hard Thing to Do

This post concludes a long response to a terrific recent piece by Mark Cohen, in which he critiqued law schools for failing to respond appropriately and systematically to an emerging “skills gap” between baseline legal education and the needs of the technology-dependent legal market. 

The first part of the response, from two weeks ago, agreed with the gist of the critique but introduced the idea that the critique opens a broader window on the relationship between legal education and the market for lawyers.  The second part of the response, from last week, explored the meanings of the “law factory” metaphor and linked it to the uses and limitations of “the legal industry” as an expanded metaphor.

That second part concluded with a series of mostly rhetorical questions about what the market might want and what the market might need. How are we to know, and when, and who are we to ask the questions, anyway?

Here’s the third part, the payoff.

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After the Law Factory

This post continues a long response to a terrific recent piece by Mark Cohen, in which he critiqued law schools for failing to respond appropriately and systematically to an emerging “skills gap” between baseline legal education and the needs of the technology-dependent legal market.

The first part of the response, from last week, agreed with the gist of the critique but introduced the idea that it opens a broader window on the relationship between legal education and market.  The end of the first part, and the beginning of this part, is this:  The law factory.

It’s become fashionable in a lot of for-profit legal worlds to stop referring generally to “the legal profession” (that’s anachronistically narrow) and to re-label its emergent parts as “the legal services industry,” or just “the legal industry,” or in tech biz shorthand, “legal.” I’ve done it myself.

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The Responsive Law School

US law schools today are subjected to a lot of criticism, much of it deserved. One big chunk that is not always deserved is this: Law schools aren’t sufficiently in tune with the needs of the market. That’s the topic of this post and others to come: What, when, how, and why should law schools care about the market?

For the moment, I set aside other common critiques of legal education, many of which are deserved. That it’s too expensive. That it crushes the souls of aspiring lawyers. That it produces too many lawyers, or too few. That law schools are staffed by underqualified teachers and undertrained scholars. That law schools are staffed by undercompensated adjunct faculty and overqualified PhDs. That some schools focus too much on theory and not enough on the necessaries of practice, while others focus too much on bar exam-readiness and not enough on law on the ground.

I want to focus instead on the problem of what law graduates today are trained to handle and what they’re not trained to handle. I’ll use that beginning to edge into discussion about the future of higher education generally. Narrow start, big finish.

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