A Quick Response to Law School Critiques

By: David

I received the following pushback from one Georgetown Law professor. My response to their response is below. To be fair, the professor said they read the article (“Law School Grades are Bogus” and “How to Fix Law Schools” quickly and these are initial thoughts. And I replied first thing in the morning between like 7am and 7:30 before going to the eye doctor. So they aren’t the most nuanced arguments. But still, I think they show the gulf between my intent and what professors perceive.

The Professor’s Repsonse

I agree with you that "gotcha" exam questions or "gotcha" questions in class are counterproductive, and not a fair or useful measures of success. Law school, and education more generally shouldn't be viewed as a game of poker. Like everyone else, law students are busy and it's my job to help you learn, not make you guess what is important or develop anxiety over being grilled in class. Thus, I make an effort to very clearly identify the most important concepts that every student should understand to have a solid foundation is a given subject or topic. I am not making it easier, I am making the important material more accessible and helping students get the most out of their limited time in my class. I also don't think that basing a student's entire grade on one final exam at the end of the semester is a fair or useful way to evaluate students. It's important to evaluate students throughout the semester, and use different methods to test knowledge and skills - exams, class participation, presentations, writing assignments, group projects, etc. 

I am not sure I follow the rest of your arguments. More to the point, I am not sure your proposed approach to teaching and grading is necessarily superior to the admittedly flawed approach today. It's different, but I am not persuaded that it is actually better as you suggest. In fact, I would suggest that your conclusion is entirely subjective - what may appear "better" to some students will not be "better" for other students, or professors, or potential future employers, or even the legal profession. Some of the most interesting and inspiring courses I took in law school were completely "off the wall," and would not fit neatly into your proposed model, either because the professor deviated from the curriculum, totally ignored the curriculum, or taught based on her very unique and extensive experience that other professors simply didn't have. Nothing will change the fact that some professors are amazing while other professors are as inspiring as a corpse and as humble as Donald Trump. It doesn't matter if the curriculum is the same - a bad teacher will leave students floundering and unprepared. 

Law school is not, and should not, be viewed as a three year bar exam prep course. You should experience many different types of classes and teaching styles. Hopefully what you are learning in law school is how to think, analyze problems, develop creative solutions, and make persuasive arguments. Part of that is understanding your audience and tailoring your approach accordingly -- whether it's the specific judge, law professor, boss, client, or Senator. How do we test that in a way that isn't at least somewhat subjective? As for the curve, I don't have a compelling answer except to say that everyone can't get an A - because then it's totally meaningless. You are in fact being measured against your peers. I actually don't see how your proposal changes that. You were measured against your peers when you applied to law school, right? Thousands of applicants were rejected from Georgetown Law, but you are here. There isn't space for everyone. How should Georgetown Law make an objective decision about applicants? Why even bother going to Georgetown? You can still pass the same bar exam and practice law even if you attend law school at UDC, right? 

In sum, I agree with you that law school professors shouldn't play gotcha, and they should make an effort to evaluate students in multiple different ways. But beyond that, I'm not sure I would support your other proposals for law schools. But hell, I could be wrong. 

My Reply

It sounds like you're mostly referring to the second essay regarding competency-based education (CBE). In such a structure, classes like yours wouldn't be included because it's a specialized seminar-style course. CBE would be for courses that deliberately build on one another (e.g. Con Law I and Con Law II, Torts I and Torts II). The entire point of having a second version of the first course, presumably, is to build onto the first course. If there is no agreement on what should be in the first course, then there can be no agreement on what should be in the second. 

This is partly why, for example, the Obama administration supported the Core Curriculum. It provides distinct guidelines for each grade. This way if a student goes to school in DC, then transfers to Nebraska, they won't be forced to either re-learn a large chunk of what they already were taught or find out they're years behind. When effectively implemented, like in many nations around the globe, educators know what students should know and have clear benchmarks on what to cover and when. 

Of course CBE, like the Core Curriculum, wouldn't prescribe how to teach, which seems to be a concern of yours. And as laid out in my proposal, it also doesn't require all professors to ask the same questions or cover the exact same material. It only establishes clear criteria for what constitutes adequate knowledge of a topic. This is not a subjective standard. When the objective is developed beforehand by experts (professors) and students are made aware of those standards, then it's objective in the same way a person qualifies for a race at the Olympics: They know the distance they have to cover, they know the rules they must follow, and there is a clear definition of what's required to qualify. It doesn't matter how they trained, or what their form looks like (just look at Michael Johnson doing 400m or Paula Radcliff running a marathon). They achieved objective results that allows anyone to compare that person to anyone else and make informed decisions.  

To draw the analogy more clearly: a CBE approach wouldn't limit how you teach your students (assuming you taught a course where the CBE model applied). But it would measure their success based on agreed upon, pre-determined standards. Tort Law is not a field in major flux. Every professor will cover duty, breach, cause, etc. To say that some professor might be so radically different for 1L students that a CBE model simply couldn't apply just doesn't ring true. If a student finishes their first year of law school and doesn't understand what a reasonable person is, or how to think about a "but for" cause, then the professor, however engaging, has failed to properly educate those students in law. 

I don't think you'll find a stronger supporter than me regarding law school not being a long prep course for the bar. And if you saw my transcript, you'd see I'm definitely doing the variety tour of school (no evidence, no tax law, no secured transactions, etc.). I like to take courses with adjunct faculty so I get experts like you and not professors with PhDs but no life experience in the field. 

It seems you have a traditional perspective to grading by believing As should be rare and we must be compared to peers. But consider how other law schools, like Stanford, grade.  They largely rely on a pass/fail standard. You either know the material adequately enough, or you don't. If everyone passes, that's a good thing because it means everyone understands the material and the professor did a great job. This is a desirable outcome and it has nothing to do with how your peers performed. Every person's actions are independent of everyone else's in this regard. But then how do we make sure there isn't grade inflation? That's where CBE comes in. When there are objective standards that can be verified by others (again, under the current regime it's highly unlikely two or more professors would rank every student exactly the same, which goes to indicate how squirrely our current approach is), then you can prevent grade inflation. If every student passed based on the objective standards developed by experts, then that's a good thing. That should be the goal of every professor. 

And as discussed in my essay, not every professor would have to use the same CBE standards. They could choose which ones they believe are most useful/meaningful out of a pool of approved standards. As mentioned in the essay, if a standard isn't in the pool, then all you'd have to do is convince the other faculty members it should be. If you can't convince fellow experts, then presumably it's not actually that great. It's a safety mechanism to protect the integrity of the standards. So professors wouldn't be boxed in if they have a reasonable proposal. And I think I even mention that one question on each exam could be entirely subjective if the faculty believed such an approach was useful. Once the curve is removed and you are no longer comparing peers to one another, but instead focusing on objective quality, then you can make more reasonable judgments. This is what happens every day in almost every other classroom at universities because they don't have curves. 

When I was admitted to Georgetown, I was admitted based on criteria meant to be as objective as possible (GPA, LSAT, how challenging my undergrad course load was, etc.), though admissions must be somewhat subjective (why do I want to study law?). Unlike with grades, there is a firm limit on how many people can be admitted to law school. But that cutoff is, again, objective. It's a matter of space and other resources. With a grading curve, that comparison with peers is entirely artificially imposed. Professors compare people for the sake of comparing. Does a student who earns a B+ really understand the topic less than a student who earned an A-? Would every professor believe that if their salary depended on their ability to re-rank all their students a second time and all those grades some out in exactly the same order (without knowing the first results)? My guess is no. Why wouldn't they want to take such a gamble? Because when you are comparing 100+ students in a 1L course, the lines between an A-, B+, and B are blurred and essentially meaningless. Professors can only have x-number of A-'s int he course, so some people who otherwise would earn an A- now have a B+. Not because their work was inferior, but because of a curve. 

Your last sentence made me laugh :-)

Anyway, I hope this answered all your concerns. I have a couple master's degrees in education, so I love thinking about this stuff. Happy to keep debating if you'd like. I don't expect it to change the way your class is taught (assuming we're using the seminar curve, everything about your curriculum seems cool and useful). I just like to highlight these concerns so there is some awareness of how broke the current regime is.

Hope you have a great day!