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Author: Alfred Yen

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Choosing a law school, part 7

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.

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Choosing a law school, part 6

Every prospective student notices the physical facilities of a school when he or she visits. Wood paneling, marble floors, and grand foyers create impressions about whether a law school is well-funded and a “nice” place to study. I’d like to suggest a few other ways in which prospective students should evaluate a school’s facilities.

The most important space for students is the classroom. When you visit a school, look at some large and small classrooms and evaluate the sight lines and acoustics, preferably by sitting in on a live class. Do students sit in a pattern where they can see and hear each other? Can they hear the professor? You might be surprised at the number of classrooms where heating or air conditioning interferes with voices. This might not seem bad in the traditional lecture class you had in college, because professors can always wear a mike. But in law school, the Socratic method makes it important to hear what your classmates say. It’s impossible to follow along if you can’t. In addition to sight lines and acoustics, you might also look at the front of the room. Is there full audio-visual capability with a computer for the professor? Is there enough white or blackboard? Is the screen large enough for easy viewing by students?

Next, I would suggest looking at the individual and group work space available for students. Individual work space exists primarily in the library. There needs to be ample seating to support students during high demand periods like exams or major writing projects. Is there seating of the kind you prefer to work in? Long tables? Individual carrels? Big, padded chairs to sit in while reading? Is there ample Internet access, wired or wireless? You are going to spend a lot of time studying in law school. Unless you are sure that your apartment or house provides you with the space you need, you will likely spend a lot of time in these facilities.

Group work space exists in libraries and sometimes elsewhere throughout the school. How many small conference rooms are there that students can reserve? I personally wouldn’t be too happy with only a few. At certain times of the year such as moot court competitions, there is a lot of student collaboration going on, and demand for these spaces can get pretty heavy.

One other type of important student work space involves the facilities of any clinical programs. If the school has clinics where students actually represent clients, are there proper rooms where client meetings and interviews can be held, separate areas where students can do work and maintain case files? Clinics are expensive to run, and it is not uncommon for schools to trim those costs by providing clinic facilities that don’t fully support the clinics’ work. If you think a clinic will be a big part of your legal education, this could matter.

Finally, I suggest looking at the spaces where students can gather informally. Is there a good student lounge or other gathering place like a cafeteria? Are there seats in hallways where you can sit for conversations? Granted, these amenities may not seem terribly important, but their absence impairs the creation of a community where students get to know and support each other.

All of the things mentioned here seem pretty obvious, perhaps so obvious that one would think every law school would take care of them. It may well be the case that the schools you’re comparing will all have good physical facilities. But you might also be surprised at how often schools, even some of the top schools, have facilities that don’t fully support their educational ambitions.

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Choosing a law school, part 5

I thought I would say a bit about faculty – the people who teach all those classes in the curriculum. Every law school will tell you that its faculty is excellent, and with justification. Law teaching jobs are sufficiently desirable that law schools generally have many, many qualified applicants for openings. Law schools today hire very well qualified people. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest one way in which prospective students can evaluate whether a particular faculty will provide a good educational experience.

Professors come in many types. For purposes of this post, however, we can get along with a distinction between permanent faculty and part-time (frequently called adjuncts) faculty. For permanent faculty, law teaching is their full-time job. Part-time faculty, as their name implies, generally have another job and devote a relatively small amount of their time to law teaching. They generally teach one class at a school, often in the early morning or evening, and they frequently do so from year to year.

A good school should have the vast majority of its courses, particularly first year courses and basic doctrinal upper year courses, taught by permanent faculty. This is not to say that part-time faculty can’t do a good job. Many are good, dedicated teachers. Nevertheless, full-time faculty are at the school, present for students in ways that would be impossible for part-time faculty. Those professors have more time to focus on teaching, and they bring cutting edge expertise based on their research to the classroom. There are, of course, areas in which part-time faculty can do a better job than permanent faculty. For example, skills courses or courses focused on specialized topics related to practice (e.g. business planning) benefit from the day to day practical experience of adjuncts.

Accreditors give significant importance to the principle that law students should be taught primarily by full-time faculty, and accreditors will give law schools trouble if the principle is violated. Surprisingly, however, law schools sometimes overuse part-time faculty. This happens because, at some schools, permanent faculty do not want to teach first year or other basic courses. Student enrollments in those classes are high, so teaching those classes takes more time than teaching smaller seminars that may be more closely related to a faculty member’s research. It’s obviously hard for schools to force tenured professors to teach classes they don’t want to teach. Indeed, faculty who don’t want to teach a class may not do a good job.

For prospective students, a law school that does not put its full-time faculty in basic classes raises a question that needs to be answered. Do the school and its faculty really give sufficient priority to teaching students? Every school will of course answer yes, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

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Thoughts about choosing law school, part 4

Law schools compete for students by touting the strength of their curriculum, and with every school claiming that it is strong in a particular area, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on whether a particular school really would be better than another for a student interested in, for example, corporate law or environmental law. One possible way to assess this might be the raw number of courses in a particular area, and in a sense more can be preferred to less. That having been said, I’d encourage prospective students to look beyond raw numbers when evaluating claims of curricular excellence.

A school that offers, for example, 24 intellectual property courses surely offers far more courses than an individual student could ever take. That doesn’t mean that the large number of offerings is valueless. Rather, a student should think carefully about how many courses one can profitably devote to concentration in a particular area versus the general education that forms the foundation for the successful practice of law. For example, a student may want to specialize in intellectual property, but she should also make room in her curriculum for corporations, commercial law, antitrust, employment law, and other areas that arise when considering IP issues. Additionally, I think it’s important for students to take a class or two devoted to perspectives on law like jurisprudence, law and economics, or legal history. They greatly enrich a legal education. When one adds these classes to requirements such as professional responsibility and courses people take because the subjects appear on the bar, there aren’t that many open slots for specialization. At some point, adding classes is nice, but perhaps overkill.

A student should also evaluate whether the courses offered by a school permit effective progression from basic study to advanced possibilities. Each field has basic courses that serve as entry points of study. In the corporate law area, that would probably be a course like corporations or business associations. More advanced doctrinally oriented courses might include corporate finance, securities regulation, and mergers and acquisitions. Beyond that, students might branch out in a couple of different directions. One would be toward increasingly advanced theoretical or policy study, perhaps in a seminar with a large research project. For example, a school might offer a seminar on theories of corporate governance or applications of the efficient capital markets hypothesis. The other would be towards practical application of knowledge and skills training. These classes would include classroom skills courses like drafting or trial practice, live client clinics where students actually practice under the supervision of faculty, and externship placements in law firms, companies, or government offices.

Obviously, the course content of a particular curriculum is not the only thing that determines its quality. A lot depends on who does the teaching, a subject I will address in another post. But for now, students can probably identify schools that will serve their needs by considering not only the number of offerings in an area of interest, but also the structuring of the curriculum to provide opportunities for intellectual depth and development of skill.

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Thoughts about choosing a law school, pt. 3

Legal writing programs get staffed in 3 meaningfully different ways.  One model relies primarily on part-time instructors (generally adjunct teachers or graduate student fellows) supervised by a director of the program who is sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist in legal writing.  A second model uses a director (sometimes, but not always, a full-time specialist) who works with faculty teaching doctrinal courses like torts or contracts to integrate writing exercises into those doctrinal courses.  A third model uses full-time faculty who specialize in teaching legal writing.  Each has its pros and cons.

Model 1 is inexpensive for a school to operate.  Adjunct faculty don’t get paid very much, so this saves faculty positions for people who will teach other subjects.  Devoting slots this way arguably benefits students in a couple of different ways.  It might mean lower student-faculty ratios in upper level classes or a wider variety of courses from which to choose.  And, it could mean more faculty publishing and advancing the school’s scholarly reputation.  (Note:  This second point may be hotly contested depending on one’s perspective.  Conventional wisdom holds that tenure-track faculty who teach outside of legal writing publish more than legal writing faculty.  This is partly because many legal writing faculty hold non-tenure track positions for which publication is not a requirement.  This may be changing as legal writing faculty have begun to hold tenure-track positions and publishing more.) All of this comes at a cost, however.  Full-time faculty who specialize in legal writing develop considerable teaching expertise.  Perhaps more than any other type of law school faculty, full-time legal writing teachers think and write about how to train lawyers.  With all due respect to those who teach legal writing as adjuncts or fellows, I think that full-time legal writing faculty will, on the whole, teach better classes than part-time faculty.  An adjunct has another job that is his primary income.  He understandably pays more attention to that than his students.  And, adjuncts frequently teach for only a few years.  Just when they’re starting to figure things out, they move on.

Model 2 has intriguing possibilities for excellence that may not always be realized.  When full-time faculty teach writing as part of a doctrinally focused course, the integration could lead to a deeper understanding of legal problems and how to write about them.  Class discussion can explicitly tie big substantive questions to challenges in writing memos or briefs.  If this works, it probably creates an excellent legal writing class.  Unfortunately, the faculty I know who have taught in these programs report that the promise is not always realized because faculty who teach doctrinal classes do not, as a whole, make legal writing a priority.  They prefer to concentrate on their substantive law specialties and their scholarship.  Only an unusually dedicated non-legal writing specialist professor will spend the time necessary to become a top-flight legal writing teacher.  Some undoubtedly do it, but others I’ve spoken to find the obligation to teach writing a burdensome distraction from teaching and writing about subjects they prefer.

Model 3 uses only full-time faculty who dedicate themselves to teaching legal writing.  The obvious benefit is the development of expertise I mentioned earlier.  Not every law professor will agree with this, but I think that top-flight legal writing teachers bring great value to their students.  Those who don’t agree may say that any of us (meaning non-legal writing law professors) could step right in and do just as good of a job, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.  A good legal writing course combines the reading and analysis of cases with instruction on how to write about the law.  It isn’t obvious that “just any” professor would immediately do a good job of it.  If experience matters in teaching torts, it probably matters in teaching legal writing too.  So why don’t all law schools employ a full-time staff of legal writing teachers?  Well, it’s expensive.  Full-time legal writing teachers occupy faculty slots that could be used for teachers in other areas.  A school may not think that legal writing is sufficiently important to warrant the expenditure.

From the standpoint of a prospective law student, it’s worth deciding how important legal writing will be to you.  You will have to candidly assess your writing ability, how easily you will adapt to legal conventions, and your willingness to experience stress if you’re behind fellow summer associates/new lawyers who have had more training.  To be clear, I’m not saying that legal writing should be your primary method for choosing a law school.  But, if schools are fairly close in other ways, the legal writing program is one important and frequently overlooked way to identify the right school for you.

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Thoughts about choosing a law school, part 2

Let me use this post to suggest one way in which prospective students can begin comparing academic programs.  All law schools require their first year students to take a heavily prescribed curriculum.  Few, if any electives exist, and indeed the required courses are practically the same at most schools.  By contrast, second and third year students usually have great freedom to choose their courses.

The similarity between law school curriculums may give students the impression that there is little to distinguish the program of a particular school.  However, there is one area – legal writing – where schools differ a great deal.

When I went to law school, I mistakenly thought that legal writing was the least important course I would take.  And indeed, that is exactly how my alma mater, Harvard, treated it.  The course was taught by second and third year students, giving it the feel of an afterthought to the “real” courses taught by full-time faculty.  We didn’t pay much attention to it, and my education suffered for it.  After my first year of law school, I arrived as a summer associate thinking I’d be well-prepared, only to find that I knew very little about how to conduct effective legal research or write memos.  If not for the advice of a kind fellow summer associate educated at a supposedly “lesser” school, I might have failed in my first legal job.

Legal writing is important well beyond the summer associate experience.  People may think of lawyers as oralists, but cases are really won and lost on briefs.  When I practiced in California, judges issued tentative rulings based on briefs, and wouldn’t even hear argument from the “winning” side unless the “losing” side could convince the judge otherwise in a very few minutes.  And of course, transactional lawyers must document deals clearly.

Despite the importance of legal writing, most law schools do not promote the details of their legal writing programs as heavily as other things.  I can think of a few reasons.  First, legal writing was not traditionally important to elite law schools, and one could argue that it still isn’t.  Second, legal writing is not generally considered an academic discipline like torts or civil procedure.  Third, legal writing comes across as un-sexy.  Accomplished students of the sort who get into law school don’t feel good being told that their writing skills need improvement.  It’s far more exciting to tell them that a school will make them experts in international human rights.

All of these things conspire to hide the importance of legal writing to students.  Nevertheless, I’d suggest that it’s very much worthwhile for prospective students to compare legal writing programs at various schools and think about what kind of program best suits them.  In my next post, I will describe 3 general types of legal writing programs, their pros and cons, and some of the reasons that schools adopt them.

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Thoughts about choosing a law school, part 1

So let me start with just a few thoughts about U.S. News and how much weight it should be given.  In my opinion, U.S. News gives a rough indication about how prestigious a school is.  Every prospective law student wants to know what a school will do for his resume, and U.S. News helps answer that question.  The top of the list – perhaps 5 to 8 schools – are sufficiently prestigious that simply going there will do a lot for the student in question in terms of career opportunities.  Beyond that, however, things get more dicey.  The schools that follow surely carry prestige, but employers will no longer pay attention “just because” a particular applicant went to the school.  The individual’s ability matters more.  That’s not to say that a school’s reputation becomes irrelevant.  It remains relevant, but in my opinion a prospective lawyer needs to think about what school will make him a capable lawyer.

To make this clear, look at the numerical scores assigned by U.S. News to various schools.  In last year’s ranking, Yale was #1 with a score of 100.  Harvard was #2 with 95.  Duke, Northwestern, and Virginia shared #10 with 80.  Now let’s take a look further down the line.  Three more schools shared #20 with scores of 66.  Five schools shared #30 with a 62.  In short, the difference between numbers 20 and 30 was one point LESS than the difference between numbers 1 and 2,  and 16 points less than the difference between numbers 1 and 10.  That means, according to U.S. News, there’s not much difference between a school ranked 20 and one ranked 30.

Despite this, I suspect that many aspiring lawyers place unwarranted weight on the relative rankings of schools outside the top few.  U.S. News (and maybe others) need to have a “top 20” or “top 50” to make rankings interesting.  A law student, however, needs to find the school that will best educate her, and I am hoping that the posts I intend to write will help students identify schools that will help them flourish.

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Hello (again)

I want to thank Larry Cunningham for his generous and kind introduction.  I greatly enjoyed my guest appearance here a couple of years ago, and I look forward to contributing my thoughts again.

The opportunity to blog here fortuitously coincides with a topic that has been in the back of my mind lately.  It’s spring, and thousands of applicants are now getting the news that they’ve been admitted to a range of schools.  How should they choose?  Over the last decade or so, rankings like U.S. News and World Report’s have become increasingly important in making those decisions.  How heavily should a would-be lawyer rely on these rankings in making her choice of where to attend?  And are there other things she should examine if rankings don’t tell the whole story?

Over the next few weeks, I intend to post some thoughts about these questions.  Like most law professors, I’m curious to see how my schools (I teach at Boston College and went to Harvard) get ranked.  But beyond that idle curiosity, I’ve thought a bit (and just a bit) about evaluating the quality of a school because I’ve had the privilege of serving on American Bar Association teams that visit schools and prepare reports for purposes of accreditation.  These visits typically last 3 days and offer team members a real “look under the hood” of what is happening at a particular school.  I’ve also had the opportunity to get to know a couple of other schools through visiting or other methods that offered more than a casual glance at their programs.  In some cases, I’ve come away convinced that schools deserve their rankings (whether high or low).  But in others, I’ve come away with the impression that a school is actually a lot better or worse than its U.S. News ranking suggests.  I am not going to discuss the specifics of those impressions, but I will try to share the general things I’ve learned in hopes that it will help those choosing law schools.

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Greetings!

I wanted to say a quick hello and thank Dan and everyone here for the invitation to blog for a few weeks. I hope to write something about my main research interests, which are privacy and free speech, but also some other legal topics that I don’t write about as much. And I will probably say a little about two (largely) non-legal things I think about way more than I should — proper football and food. I’m in the crunch of getting an article out to the law reviews this week, so it may be a few days before I start blogging in earnest, but I’m really looking forward to experimenting with blogging over the next month.

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Thanks to All

Folks, my visit here is up, so I am taking a moment to thank Dan and the others for giving me the opportunity to enjoy this forum. Thanks also to the blog’s readers for their thoughtful comments on my posts.