Category: Law School (Teaching)

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Welcome to Wills Lab

I held another “Wills Lab” (voluntary out-of-class practice-focused exercises) a few weeks ago. This time around, I was Andy Nicole Smith, and I needed someone to write my will for me. I did my best to blunder into the exact issues that caused so much confusion with the real Anna Nicole Smith will. My students set me straight. Nicely done.

How did we get to this point? It’s a long story. Read More

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Continuous Assessment

Thanks so much to the Concurring Opinions gang for having me back for another guest blogging stint. My semester has ended, so let the blogging begin!

Except … even though I have not received my students’ exams from the registrar yet, I am grading. Why?  Because I assigned group projects during the semester and have not completed marking the last one. This raises an uncomfortable question for me: have I done the students any good by giving them a graded assignment during the semester if they don’t receive feedback on it until they are on the cusp of taking the final exam?

That really depends on the reasons for requiring “grading events” such as group projects, short papers, quizzes, midterms, or oral presentations during the semester. Like many of my colleagues, I have increasingly moved away from the traditional law school model that based the entire course grade on a high-stakes final examination, perhaps with some small adjustment for class participation. It seems clear to me that this is a good decision — even though it has meant a lot more grading (every professor’s least favorite task) and even though the institutional incentives for law faculty don’t really encourage or assist us to do depart from the tradition of the all-or-nothing final exam.

But I have to confess that my views of the reasons for continuing assessment are unsettled and even a little muddled. Here are the main candidates in my mind:

  • Earlier graded events give students feedback about their understanding of the material and performance in the course while there is still time to correct it.
  • Basing the course grade on more than one event reduces the “fluke factor” of a student who is ill or overtired or just not in top form the day of the final exam.
  • The events themselves — say, a group project — serve valuable pedagogical goals and making them part of the grade ensures that students will take them seriously.
  • Educational research shows that students learn more effectively if they synthesize knowledge as they go along rather than just doing a big outline at the end of the course, and graded events spur them to synthesize earlier.
  • Basing the grade on different types of exercises rewards varied abilities beyond the particular (and slightly bizarre) skill set that excels at law school issue spotter exams.

 

Only the first of these requires me to return students’ grades sooner than I’ve managed to do for this group project. Of course, I am saying this partly to assuage my guilt over my own tardiness. But I also wonder how well we articulate the reasons for continuous assessment to our students — or even, frankly, to ourselves. I have now more carefully engaged in the sort of reflection about these goals that I should have gone through before the semester started. Now I know for next time that my answer is: all of the above.

Uh oh. I better get back to grading those group projects right now.

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Is it better for one student to get a job than n students to fail the bar?

A student’s final law school GPA predicts bar passage better than other independent variables. But the relationship isn’t causal: raising the mean GPA of all students does not promote bar passage.  Indeed, some investigators have suggested that the inverse is more likely to be true. When GPA rises for all students, individuals at the bottom of the class aren’t sufficiently signaled that their grades are really and truly bad, and consequently such badly-warned students don’t approach bar study with the requisite degree of seriousness. That is, if a school has a mean of a 3.3 at graduation, the bottom 20% of the class probably has GPA of around a B-.  B- students may well say to themselves “sure, I’m at the bottom of the class, but I’m not a C student!  I’m not in danger of failing the bar!”  But they are.  In this perverse way, raising the mean increases the rate at which weaker students fail the bar, even as overall, grades are positively correlated with passing!

The puzzle deepens. Students often argue that employers focus on mean GPA to the exclusion of class rank.  Given that students are competing with other schools (nationally and regionally), there are race-to-the-bottom pressures on each law school’s curve generated by employment markets.  A school that produces students at the 50th percentile with a 3.5 mean will obtain better employment outcomes than one that produces students at the 50th percentile with a 3.0 mean. All else equal, schools should reduce barriers to employment.  (Of course this result depends on employers indeed acting in the irrational manner described – ignoring or downplaying class rank and focusing on absolute GPA.  This would be very, very difficult to test empirically, though I imagine someone could give it a shot using nifty studies.)

You see the tension, right?  A higher mean simultaneously could boost employment in the middle and higher end of the class while also depressing bar passage at the lower end of the class. These contrasting outcome effects turn on psychological biases resulting from overemphasizing raw grades over percentile rank, but simply providing class rank instead of grades would cause employers to balk. The tension may lead administrators and faculty to an uncomfortable question: when the two conflict, should we privilege bar passage over employment? What is the appropriate calculus? Could we live with one additional student failing the bar if two got a job?

My own view is that the price for bar failure is so high that the number of jobs won in this calculus would have to be unrealistically high.  Consequently lower means are to be preferred to higher ones at some schools.  What do you think?

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Last Call for Contracts Survey

 

 

 

 

 

Contracts teachers are asked to complete a brief online survey to help the planning and execution of a symposium Washington Law Review is preparing to host on the exciting new book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter, by Lawrence A. Cunningham of George Washington University (published by Cambridge University Press in 2012).

This innovative text embraces a modern, narrative approach to contract law, exploring how cases ripped from the headlines of recent years often hinge on fundamental principles extracted from the classic cases that appear in contracts casebooks. Such an approach suggests new ways to imagine modern casebooks.  In addition to an article by Prof. Cunningham, the WLR will publish in its December 2013 issue  a half dozen pieces by many luminaries and notables, including:

Charles Knapp (NYU/Hastings)

Brian Bix (Minnesota)

Erik Gerding (Colorado)

Jake Linford (Florida State)

Jennifer Taub (Vermont)

To help these scholars and WLR editors with this effort, please fill out the online survey today!

 

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Faculty and staff

The proximate cause of Danielle’s inviting me to guest-blog at Concurring Opinions was a celebration we had at Fordham of my colleague Robert Kaczorowski‘s publication of “Fordham University School of Law: A History,” the publication of which she had blogged here. The  first half the book analyzes decanal administrations prior to those of Dean John Feerick, who remains an illustrious and beloved member of the Fordham faculty. This section of the book is remarkable for being the very opposite of “law porn“: it tells the story of several decades of a law school’s decline. This decline, Kaczorowski convincingly argues, was driven largely by the insatiable voraciousness with which the central university plundered the law school’s revenues (read student tuition) for its own, non-law purposes. Today, we call that plundering the “central services charge.” At many universities, not just my own, central charges are a major driver of law school costs.

The central services charge is related to the explosive growth of the administrative sector within universities. Read More

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MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

Read More

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The Ghost of Louis Brandeis on How to Teach Law School

Hello again Co-Op! I’m happy to be back for a short guest-blogging stint that was, er, supposed to start in January but Danielle graciously allowed me to postpone into February. I’m hoping to make up for the radio silence in the last couple of weeks of the month. Anyway, without further adieu, today’s topic: Over at Prawfsblawg, a vibrant debate is going on about the perennial subject of how to best teach law school. There’s a lot of good things to be said on both sides of the that debate. I’d like to call attention in particular to the comment by Ray Campbell, which is devoid of the absolutes that tend to abound in this area. I’ve expressed my own thoughts on this topic during previous go-rounds here and here and here.

But by “perennial,” I meant that this debate is really ancient. It far pre-dates the recent financial crisis and downturn in the legal market. It pre-dates the Carnegie Report in 2007. It pre-dates the MacCrate Report in 1992. It pre-dates the 1921 Carnegie Report. Indeed, it pre-dates most law schools altogether. Benjamin Spencer’s recent article on the skills vs. doctrine debate — which includes the question of who would be the best teachers for whatever it is the students should be learning — shows that it goes back to the 1870s, and an ABA Report that concluded that the existing method of study — one taught mainly by professors with substantial practice experience — was “too brief for useful purposes,” and that the schools were inviting “unfit” and unprepared students to fill their seats, were giving “examinations, which are such only in name,” and were allowing “degrees [to be] thrown away on the undeserving and the ignorant.”

I was reminded of the length of time these sorts of discussions have been going on when I recently stumbled across a letter from the man pictured above, Louis Brandeis, to Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell of Harvard Law School. Langdell, of course, is possibly the single person most responsible for the form of legal education we have today. It was his idea at Harvard to replace classes taught by practicing lawyers with classes taught by academic law professors, hired soon after graduation after perhaps only a short judicial clerkship, and to extend the length of the program from eighteen months to three years. In particular, it was Langdell’s idea to teach law as a science, devoted to learning the general principles that pervade the law as revealed in cases, but not necessarily constituting the law of any particular jurisdiction. That is, Harvard would focus on a generalized notion of tort law, contracts law, etc., one that had the advantage, as Charles Whitebread used to say about the Model Penal Code, of being equally the law nowhere.

Brandeis was a product of that model. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1878, eight years after Langdell had started reforming Harvard and the first year the program was extended to three years. But a little more than ten years later he thought substantial alterations should be made to the curriculum. Brandeis worried, in effect, that Harvard Law students were not learning enough actual law:

To Christopher Columbus Langdell

December 30, 1889 Boston, Mass.

My Dear Prof. Langdell: My experience as one of the examiners for admission to the Suffolk bar has impressed upon me the importance of adding to the instruction at the School a thorough course on the peculiarities of Massachusetts law. I am aware that the introduction of such a course involves apparently a departure from the present policy of the School, but my experience and observation have convinced me that such a course would increase the usefullness as well as the membership of the School, and I therefore venture to submit to you with some detail my views of the proposed course, and the reasons which induce me to advocate it. Read More

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What’s Next for Contracts in the Real World?

Thanks to all participants for their wonderful contributions to the on-line symposium about Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter.   (To see all posts together, click the subject matter link below this or other posts for Symposium (Contracts Real World) or select that topic from the Categories menu on the sidebar at left.)

As the reviews suggest about readers finding the stories fun and the lessons enjoyable, you may be able to guess that I found researching and writing them fun and enjoyable too.  Many of the stories were originally written, in a slightly different form, for this blog. Many of those stories generated productive comments.

I therefore must thank not only my fellow perma-bloggers here at Concurring Opinions for the opportunity to develop these ideas on this site, but also to many readers of the site for their thoughtful contributions. Double that gratitude for having allowed so much space to be devoted to the book these past several days.

Beyond contracts, several publishers and I believe that there is a series in this approach to the content and presentation of many law school subjects. That would certainly seem apt for other traditional 1L courses such as Torts, Property, Criminal Law and Civil Procedure.   Read More

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Using Contracts in the Real World in the Classroom

Aside from the deeper theoretical questions that Prof. Cunningham raises about contract theory in Contracts in the Real World,  the heart of the book is in its fun, rollicking, and thoroughly modern examples.

Every contracts professor should take a look at this book to glean ideas for real-world examples and hypotheticals.  Even if your textbook is stuck in the world of itinerant homesteaders, ships using astrolabes for navigation, and delayed industrial components (shout out to Kirksey, Raffles, and Hadley v. Baxendale!), your students will appreciate the use of some fun celebrity stories to liven up the classroom discussion.

The last time that I taught Contracts, for example, I did a series of hypotheticals based on Charlie Sheen’s contractual troubles.  Based on Prof. Cunningham’s materials, I was able to structure some hypotheticals based on Sheen for my unit on conditions.    The students seemed to appreciate it, and in fact, I have asked a student from my class last year to share her impressions with our blog readers. It appears here

 

Miriam Cherry is Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law.  Some of her scholarship can be found at this link on SSRN.

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Modern Technology: A Disruptive Influence on Contract Doctrine?

In my view, modern technology has exacerbated the doctrinal tensions within contract law.  Currently, clickwraps and browsewraps stretch the notion of mutual assent to its extreme, perhaps warping it in the process.

The recent literature on form contracting online has been substantial.  While some of this literature sees online contracting as a natural inheritance to traditional contract law doctrine, other commentators have argued that contracting online has distorted the doctrine.

In Contracts in the Real World, Prof. Cunningham attempts to reconcile two recent cases, Specht v. Netscape and Pro-CD v. Zeidenberg, as part of his treatment of the theme of contract formation and mutual assent.  As much as he tries, to me the cases still seem to be in conflict.

And if that weren’t enough, two well-known additional cases that dealt with late-arriving terms inside a computer box, Hill v. Gateway and Klocek v. Gateway, blatantly contradict each other, with contrary holdings on virtually identical facts.

In my mind, these contradictions reveal a mismatch in the doctrine and the reality on the ground.  If there is no way for consumers to read or understand, or perhaps even see these clickwrap agreements, it hardly seems fair to bind consumers to them.  As seen above, however, this leads to contradictory rulings.

Inconsistent holdings create the appearance of an arbitrary justice system, and these disputes, which are governed by the Uniform Commercial Code, should turn out in a uniform manner.  When they do not, it only intensifies the debate about how to deal with online contracting and adhesion contracts online.

As we all continue to click our way through countless EULAs and are told that we are subject to “terms and conditions” that no reasonable consumer has had the time to read,  I do not believe that it is enough to hope that antiquated laws will handle new situations.

Instead, I would suggest that we need to continue to build on the wisdom of contract law.  While there is much to celebrate in the received wisdom of ancient doctrines, we must also recognize that it is the common law’s dynamism and adaptability that have led to its genius.

 

Miriam Cherry is Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law.  Some of her scholarship can be found at this link on SSRN.