Monday, August 8, 2011

Law School Teaching, Part II

In my previous post, I discussed some of the reasons why so much legal education is both a practical and intellectual waste of time.  I didn't touch on some related issues, such as the fact that most law faculty have had literally no classroom teaching experience before they become "law professors," that they get no training or real guidance in regard to what they're doing in the classroom at any point in their careers, and that many of the traditional methods of law school teaching, in particular cold-calling students in order to require them to participate in a pseudo-Socratic dialogue, are simply idiotic (if research into education methods has established anything, it has proven that fear is a powerful impediment to learning).

All these things combine to make the typical law school classroom experience a fantastically inefficient misuse of social resources.  Beyond this, many outside observers would be shocked to discover how little time and effort law professors, and most especially the traditional tenure-track faculty, devote to teaching.  Given that, in theory, the whole reason law schools exist is to teach people how to be lawyers, this is a fairly remarkable fact.  How much do law professors teach, and how much effort do they put into their teaching?  The answer to the first question varies quite a bit across schools, with lower teaching loads correlating with higher institutional status.  But the situation at my school is not at all unusual at dozens and dozens of schools (at a few top schools teaching loads are significantly lower).  Tenure-track faculty at my school typically teach three classes each academic year. This results in a median teaching load of nine credit hours over two semesters.  The mean load, however, is less than eight, because of sabbaticals, research leaves, parental leaves, and administrative relief.  Over a several-year period, then, the tenure track faculty will teach an average of approximately 2.5 classes per year.

This number has dropped quite a bit over the course of the last couple of decades. 20 years ago the average load at my school was four classes, not three, and research leaves and parental leaves didn't exist. Thus the teaching load was about 30% higher.  This is a typical pattern for law schools all across the hierarchical spectrum: salaries have shot up, and teaching loads have declined, while all sorts of perks that didn't exist a generation ago are now considered standard parts of the tenure track faculty's privileges.

Now, how much work does teaching a long-term average of less than three classes per year actually represent?  Compared to other forms of teaching, law school teaching is not exactly time-intensive.  For one thing, the traditional law school class features very little in the way of evaluative responsibilities for the professor.  Students are given one test at the end of the semester, and the professor need not bother with any other formal evaluation of their performance.  For another, with the exception of grading (and law school is structured to produce the minimum amount of grading possible), large classes are much easier to teach than small ones.  Teaching a 12-person seminar in which all the students are expected to participate with the professor in a genuine dialogue about the material is difficult. Teaching a 100-person class, in which the professor can either drone on while students check their email and Facebook accounts, or can harass individual students while everyone else checks out even more completely, is relatively easy.

Indeed almost everything about traditional law teaching is easy: legal doctrine is easy to reduce to "outline" form, and since most law students are given the mis-impression that "learning the law" means learning legal doctrine, they are happy enough to be fed a slightly glorified version of a commercial study guide, with occasional bits of intellectually farcical "policy analysis" thrown in.  In fact it's so easy that, once a professor has taught a class once or twice, preparing for class requires no more time than teaching the class itself.  This may well be a generous estimate: on the basis of many years of observation at four different law schools, I would say that most law professors dedicate at most an hour of preparation for an hour of classroom teaching.  Many spend much less (I have had more than one colleague admit to me that, in courses he has taught many times before, he will sometimes teach a class "cold," that is, with no preparation at all).

But let us be liberal, and assign an hour of preparation for each hour spent in the classroom.  Now let's do a little math.  Most law schools have 15-week semesters, but it's common to count the exam period as part of the semester, thus resulting in 14 weeks of classroom teaching.  Thus, at schools with nine-hour annual teaching loads, the average professor will spend about nine hours a week (half in the classroom and half preparing) on teaching, for 28 weeks out of the year.  This produces a grand total of 252 hours of time dedicated to teaching per year, or about one hour per each putative working day.  This ignores sabbaticals, research leaves, and paternal leaves, which push the real average even lower. (It does omit grading as part of teaching time. More about that shortly).

Of course some law professors will swear they dedicate far more time to teaching than this. Some of them are even telling the truth (How much this benefits their students is another question, given that ever-more exquisite elaborations of doctrinal niceties soon reach a pedagogical point of sharply diminishing returns).  But others are "dedicating" a good deal less.  Some professors who have taught exactly the same classes for a decade or two do essentially no preparation any more.  They are like the most burnt out teachers at your high school, if you went, as I did, to a middling-quality public school. But with this difference: the most burnt-out teachers at your high school still had to stick around at work for seven or eight hours a day. Also, they didn't get paid $200,000 (or even quite a bit more) per year. And needless to say you didn't have pay $50,000 a year for the privilege of being exposed to their talents.


  1. Great post. This confirms to me why I wish I could figure out a way to become a law professor. Lots of pay for relatively little work. While I was in law school I would often go down to the university's athletic facility after class to swim some laps in the pool. I ran into my constitutional law professor (an excellent man) on many occasions, and I marveled at how tan he was. He obviously spent a lot of time at the pool. I dreamed of having a job like his where I could swim laps every afternoon at 2:30pm.

  2. "many of the traditional methods of law school teaching, in particular cold-calling students in order to require them to participate in a pseudo-Socratic dialogue, are simply idiotic (if research into education methods has established anything, it has proven that fear is a powerful impediment to learning)."

    I always felt that the Socratic method was intended to be an impediment to learning, the equivalent to engineering exams in which the average class score is 30% -- the purpose being to weed out those who have no business being in law school.

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  4. I love your comments. I have always wanted to be a tenured law professor, but despite what most would consider to be impeccable, exceptional credentials and a track record of teaching excellence, no one will hire me. I've had a few interviews, and my deficiencies are now clearly apparent to me, as relayed by various deans and associate deans:

    1. "You're a burned out trial lawyer--and a prosecutor at that." Translation: How dare you come in here after years of practice and with knowledge of the real world, something that I don't have and couldn't hack! And besides, prosecutors are generally conservative. Go away.

    2. "You've written how many treatises published by West and law review articles? You have written for practicing lawyers. It's not academic writing." Translation: Damn, you have more publications than I do. You'll make me look bad.

    3. "Being well-reviewed as an adjunct or visitor is no guarantee of success here at BIG SHOT LAW SCHOOL." Translation: Damn, if we hired you, you'd easily be the best, most popular professor here and would soon have my job.

    And if nothing else,
    4. "We only hire folks from top 10 law schools." Translation: Get out of here. You are making me sick.

  5. Re: class prep. My Con Law II prof takes the cake. He'd just returned from sabbatical, committing evil in D.C., and recycled a several years' old syllabus for our class. Presumably having his secretary change the dates on the assignments. This became apparent when page assignments would frequently start and end in the middle of cases. His syllabus was based on an older edition of the text book. This was never openly acknowledged in class. Not even on the day he started questioning us about a case that was no longer in the book. He was just sort of - huh, weird. Then 50% of the points on his final were based on things we'd never studied in class. Good times.

  6. Yes I agree with you that cold calling students who are learning the material is a waste of time. It's more about showing off (as a Professor/as a student), and as you said, fear.

    Similar to the cold-calling thing, I believe that laptops should be forbidden in law schools.

    Yes law schools are very, very inefficient and terrible at actually teaching law. They are about status, superiority complexes, money-grubbing, put-downs, meaningless accolades and awards (that somehow become excessively important in "hiring"-when there is any hiring, anyway, like 10 years ago or whatever).

    As the prosecutor-you are spot on. I could count on one hand the number of profs who had any kind of real world experience.

    Who are we kidding though - none of this crap would matter if law schools charged what they charged 30 years ago.

  7. In undergrad I often wondered why we as a society make teachers of every level except college undergo all sorts of certification and education in pedagogy when we just let professors teach more or less without training.

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