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Author: Brian Sheppard


Do Canadian Law Schools Care More About Teaching? The Case of the Teaching Dossier

Blame CanadaOne of the first things that people interested in applying to law faculty positions in both the United States and Canada will notice is that the Canadian application requirements are the more onerous of the two.  In this post, I will focus on one way in which the Canadian approach is superior to the American approach, even if it is a bit more burdensome on applicants.

American law schools are generally content to let the capacities of the AALS’s Faculty Appointments Register website dictate their application requirements.  Consequently, they have two requirements for those seeking to obtain an initial interview: a one-page “FAR form” and a C.V.   Even listing these as separate requirements is somewhat misleading; other than the section for Teaching Preferences —  in which applicants list up to five “preferred” subjects and five “other” subjects — everything on the FAR form is also present in the typical C.V.

Compare this to the Canadian application process.  First, there is no Canadian analogue to the Faculty Appointments Register, so applicants send separate applications directly to each school that interests them.  Moreover, the application requirements for each school are considerably more extensive than those for American schools, at least with respect to getting an initial interview.  In addition to a C.V., a Canadian school typically requires the following: a detailed cover letter (or, in Canadian, a “covering letter”) which identifies the applicant’s areas of interest in research and teaching, a detailed research agenda, copies of all law and graduate transcripts, two sample publications, and a teaching dossier.   While applicants might grumble about having to find their old transcripts, they still have the comfort of knowing that they  will eventually have to provide almost all of those items to the American law schools that decide to interview them anyway.   But not that last item — the teaching dossier. What is a teaching dossier?  What are they all aboot?

It is a mistake is to assume that the teaching dossier is the Canadian equivalent of the FAR form’s Teaching Preferences section.  One does not simply list ten courses and consider it a teaching dossier.  Just a little online digging reveals a host of Canadian websites and workshops designed to walk people through the process of writing one (e.g., Toronto, Victoria, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada).   It does not take long to realize that a dossier is not something that can be dashed off; the Queen’s University manual is nearly 50 pages long, and that might be even shorter than the instructions on the University of Toronto’s website.

Though I did not do a comprehensive survey, there is considerable uniformity among these guides.   Generally, they recommend that dossiers have four main components: (1) Approach to Teaching (your teaching philosophy); (2) Summary of Teaching Responsibilities and Contributions (courses you have taught, methods you have used); (3) Evidence of Teaching Successes (course evaluations, analysis of the results of your teaching innovations); and (4) Professional Development (continuing education, mentorship).

The consistency in format might be a byproduct of the fact that a pedigreed source, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), was the first to call for them, and its call became a focus of academic attention for several years before widespread action was taken.  In the 1970s, a CAUT committee  headed by Bruce Shore rallied around shared dissatisfaction with the practice of using student course evaluations as the primary metric for evaluating teaching quality.  The committee wanted professors to be evaluated by “a summary of a professor’s major teaching accomplishments and strengths” as evidenced by multiple sources of information.  Thus, the initial appeal of the dossier was that it accorded to professors the opportunity to put their best feet forward even in the face of less-than-stellar student evaluations.  It gave them a chance to supplement those evaluations with justifications of teaching methods and goals, as well as personalized accounts of teaching successes.

Canadian schools did not warm up to dossiers until the early 1990s, after some American academics (e.g., Peter Seldin) and organizations such as the American Association of Higher Education picked up on CAUT’s idea.  To quote a legendary Canadian troubadour, “Isn’t it ironic?”   Since taking the idea back from the Americans, Canadian schools have run with it, outpacing  CAUT’s original ambitions.  For example, the original CAUT Guide recommended that dossiers be three pages long, but now the typical size is between six and twelve pages.  Appendices can bump that total into the sixteen-page range.  Although it is an outlier, one school saw fit to set a maximum of thirty-five pages, with a maximum total of twenty pages in appendices.

Today, the teaching dossier is not simply a way for professors to insulate themselves from the consequences of unfair student evaluations, it is also a way for faculties to get aspiring academics thinking about how to develop coherent and effective teaching strategies.  When an applicant is forced to put as much effort into a teaching dossier as she put into a research agenda, it can lead her to believe that the employer values those two dimensions more or less equally.

It is fair to wonder whether the fact that American law schools do not require applicants (or even junior faculty in most cases) to draft teaching dossiers is a sign that they do not care as much about teaching as do their Canadian counterparts.  It is possible, of course, that American law schools value teaching just as highly but fear that making teaching dossiers a necessary part of their applications would be too burdensome.  Along similar lines, they might believe that applicants do not yet know enough about teaching to make the completion of a dossier worthwhile for either the applicant or the hiring committee.  And to be fair, some Canadian schools require dossiers from applicants only “where appropriate,” meaning perhaps that those without teaching experience need not provide one.  Whatever the merit of these arguments, there is a growing sense that American law schools must do a better job responding to the demand for excellent teaching.  This sense is potentially at odds with reality; as there are law schools, such as my own, where teaching is of paramount importance in promotion and tenure decisions and where tremendous effort is put into classroom observation and evaluation. Still, making the teaching dossier a part of the application process is a low-cost  measure that could send the signal that law schools are taking teaching seriously.  And it might make better teachers too.

For those interested in learning more about the history of teaching dossiers, consider reading Christopher Knapper’s, The Origins of Teaching Portfolios, 6 Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 45–56 (1995).


Gatekeeping and the Economic Value of a Law Degree (Part 2)

LincolnIn my last post, I discussed how the commentary on Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre’s “The Economic Value of a Law Degree” has illuminated a separate and worthwhile avenue for further research—namely, whether the presence of powerful gatekeepers who oversee the practice of law should make us confident that the value of the law degree will be relatively stable.

Most helpful in this regard has been Deborah Merritt’s post regarding the impact of the typewriter on lawyer education requirements.  At the risk of putting words into her mouth, Merritt observed that the typewriter may have contributed to the decision of the New York bar to make attendance at a three-year law school a prerequisite to bar admission and, therefore, that S&M were too hasty in concluding that people misconceived the typewriter to be a threat to the value of the law degree.

My earlier post explained that we must be careful not to conflate structural changes in the law degree’s value with structural changes in the credentials that one will need to become a lawyer.  By keeping the two separate, we can better understand how the gatekeepers to the industry might be able to insulate the value of the degree from exogenous forces.

In this second post, I’d like to offer some final observations on gatekeeping.  I begin with the acknowledgement that the effects of gatekeeping extend well beyond the population of degree holders, though S&M had perfectly valid reasons for focusing on that population.  Thereafter, I return to the relationship between gatekeeping and nostalgia, highlighting the strange role that the late Abe Lincoln played in the adoption of education requirements.  To finish up, I briefly explain how gatekeeping measures have long been—and will continue to be—a tempting tool for those with the power to wield them. Read More


Gatekeeping and the Economic Value of a Law Degree (Part 1)

gatekeepers image

When I first read the commentary concerning Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre’s “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” I was most surprised by the attention that the commenters paid to the paper’s passing reference to the typewriter. S&M are aware that their work arrives at a time when it is popular to believe that technology has wrought a structural change to lawyers’ earnings. For their part, S&M cite Frank Miles Finch’s obloquy against typewriters in the first volume of the Columbia Law Review to show that worries of technological ruin are nothing new in our line of work. After listing several other examples (such as word processing and Westlaw), S&M maintain that “lawyers have prospered while adapting to once threatening new technologies and modes of work.”

Taken out of context, this last statement might sound as if S&M are engaging in bold fortunetelling based on a scant historical record, but a few paragraphs later, S&M concede that “past performance does not guarantee future returns” and “[t]he return to a law degree in 2020 can only be known for certain in 2020.” When read in conjunction with the rest of the paper, the typewriter reference serves as a brief and lighthearted reminder that we, like others before us, can fall victim to nostalgic gloom and doom.

Despite its minor role in the article, commenters have been eager to mention the typewriter observation, with references ranging from the favorable (here), to the neutral (here and here), to the mildly dismissive (here and here), to the critical (here). Having given some thought to the last entry on this list, Deborah Merritt’s wonderful blog entry on Law School Cafe, I now realize that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the attention paid to the typewriter; it turns out to be an important point for S&M to make.

Merritt argues contra S&M that (1) Finch was not engaging in sky-is-falling melodrama and (2) that the typewriter “may have contributed” to a structural change in lawyers’ earnings—specifically, the creation of three-year law schools and formal schooling requirements for bar admission.  As to the first point, Merritt explains that Finch mentioned the typewriter to bolster his argument that apprenticeships had ceased to be a viable training environment for lawyers. He was not predicting that the typewriter would lead to the demise of his profession; rather, he was talking about the need for an adequate training substitute. As to the second point, Merritt points out that the New York bar adopted Finch’s recommendations, in part, because it was persuaded by his Columbia article. I add that the ABA would eventually adopt similar requirements as well, also referencing Finch’s article in the process. Merritt highlights that Finch’s main point was that the typewriter limited apprentices’ exposure to the study of important legal texts and created a difficult learning environment. As a result, Finch argued, law school was the far better educational option.

Merritt’s post is thoughtful, well-researched, and concise. Moreover, she is largely right. Finch was not engaging in nostalgic sky-is-falling reasoning. In S&M’s defense, however, the notion of a Typewriter Doomsday was not altogether uncommon in the early Twentieth Century. To take but one example, Arkansas law titan George B. Rose mentioned the following in a 1920 speech to the Tennessee Bar Association:

A great menace to the wellbeing of the bar is the disproportionate increase of its numbers. With the invention of the typewriter, the simplification of pleadings and the improved methods of travel, one lawyer can now do the work of two in the olden time; yet the proportion of lawyers to the remainder of the community has enormously increased.

Rose’s remarks were received with great applause and an honorary membership into the Tennessee bar.

More importantly, Merritt stands on solid ground when she argues that technological change contributed to a shift in the business practices of legal professionals and, in turn, the shape of American legal education. There can be little doubt that this shift can be described as “structural.”

But I disagree with Merritt insofar as she believes that a structural shift in schooling requirements weakens S&M’s paper. To the contrary, it helps the paper by providing a prima facie explanation for relative stability in the law degree’s value.

We must be mindful of the distinction between structural shifts in lawyers’ earnings and structural shifts in other aspects of the legal profession, such as educational requirements. Clearly, Merritt’s focus is the latter, and S&M’s focus is the former. And just because S&M have chosen to focus on one kind of structural shift does not mean that they have “dismissed” other structural shifts, as Merritt says. S&M readily acknowledge that the structural shifts can occur with law school enrollment:

These distinctions and widespread publicity may enable critics to influence college graduates’ career plans, the judiciary, and perhaps the future of legal education. They may have already contributed to a steep three-year decline in law school applications and enrollments.

The more critical point is that breaking up structural shifts into various types can be a useful analytic tool. Distinguishing between structural shifts in the value of a law degree and structural shifts in access to the practice of law permits us to make an important observation—namely, that it is possible for the latter to prevent the former. Critics of S&M doubt that the past performance of law degree holders is a reliable predictor of future performance. We can hypothesize that, to the extent law degree holders can insulate themselves from exogenous forces that threaten the value of their services, they will increase the stability of the degree’s value and, therefore, the reliability of predictions based on their past performance.  The underlying reasoning for the hypothesis is as follows.  All other things being held constant, those who are within service industries that have the power and willingness to manipulate the supply of available service providers will likely be better at braving exogenous shocks than those who are not. Under those circumstances, when such measures are taken to protect those already possessing the credentials necessary to perform that service, the value of those credentials will tend to be relatively stable.  Whether these measures have been or will be effective enough to stabilize the value of the law degree is a question worth considering.

There are several important gatekeepers to the practice of law: law schools, the American Bar Association, state bar associations, state supreme courts, etc. These gatekeepers possess, and sometimes use, tools that have the potential to protect the economic value of the law degree. They can change the qualifications for entry, expand or contract the domain of permissible services, raise or lower rate maximums, or regulate advertising practices, among other things.  And while a considerable minority of law degree holders do not practice law (about 40% according to the SIPP data that S&M consider), there are enough practicing lawyers to give protectionist measures a fighting chance to stabilize the overall value of the degree.

Merritt deserves much credit for bringing this observation to the fore in connection with the S&M paper, although she did not expand upon it (an excusable omission in light of the fact that we are talking about a single blog post).

Having the luxury of multiple posts, I will use Part 2 to discuss a few of the protectionist measures that gatekeepers have taken over the last century.  I will focus in particular on the measure that Merritt discusses–the advent of a law school prerequisite for admission to the bar.