Choosing a law school, part 7
posted by Alfred Yen
In this post, I’m going to argue that prospective students should care whether a law school’s faculty publishes. Not everyone agrees, and we’ve all had professors who were great scholars but indifferent classroom teachers. I also freely concede that teaching ability does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with scholarly ability, so that a school’s best teachers need not be its best publishers. Nevertheless, I still think that faculty who publish have a better chance of offering outstanding classes than those who do not.
To illustrate, I’ll reveal a bit about two classes I have taught: copyright and evidence. I’ve published a reasonable amount about copyright, including a casebook published by West. By contrast, I’ve published nothing about evidence, with my background in that area coming from my work as a litigator.
Students have rated both of these classes well. In fact, I don’t think there’s any significant variation in the numbers. Yet, I firmly believe that I teach better a copyright than evidence class because the things I learn from research and publishing enable me to give copyright a deeper and more nuanced treatment. I know more about the overall structure of the area, respond better to student questions, and challenge students in more ways in copyright than in evidence.
Now granted, I don’t think this is something that students always pick up. My evidence class is pretty “black letter,” sticking to how lawyers need to work through evidentiary problems in courtrooms. This makes sense given how students will use evidence, and I think students feel that the course serves them well. Nevertheless, I am aware that I don’t blend in the “big theory” issues as well as I could because I don’t know them that well.
By contrast, I pack a lot into my copyright course. This sometimes frustrates students. Some only want “black letter” law (something that is very elusive in copyright at best). Some dislike what they consider theoretical digressions from what they need to know for practice. I could teach copyright to that lower common denominator, but I choose not to. And I like to think that my students come to appreciate that the complexity they encounter ultimately serves them well when they deal with that subject’s frustrating ambiguity in practice. In short, although I teach what I think is a good, competent evidence course, the academic “ceiling” in my copyright class is much higher.
To be clear, I am not saying that publishing is the only thing that prospective students should care about in evaluating a law school’s faculty. As I suggested in an earlier post, some law schools clearly value teaching and their professors are accessible to students in ways that can matter a great deal. Students should visit schools, talk to existing students, and see if classes are well-received. Such inquiry will probably identify a number of schools that appear to have good teaching. At this point, I think it makes sense for a prospective student to then compare publication records of the faculties to see how often they will learn from professors who are at the forefront of their fields.