"What about Law Students?"- one prof thinks out loud...
I have recently reached my one year anniversary at Robson Hall Law School, and like any academic in the throes of summer research patterns and procrastination, I thought it was an opportune time to query, what do law students want? Instead, I provide in this blog, some prose on what law students offer.
Now the more inquisitorial and inquisitive amongst you may be asking, isn't this a question I should have asked myself before accepting this job, and prior to deciding to leave ten years of teaching and research at another related program (in my case, criminal justice)? And the answer would be: you're damn right I should have! Despite having spent a decade teaching all manner of students from the best and brightest through to the weakest and most weary, my first year of teaching law students since 2005 was full of surprises.
In my past explorations of pedagogy in teaching law to undergraduate students I have waxed philosophically about the virtues of not being weighed down by doctrine and the freedom that comes from letting law be law, in law schools. I concluded near the end of my past teaching career that:
"... teaching law to criminal justice and criminology students suffers from structural limitations inherent to the non-law school environment, but also provides tremendous opportunity in fostering critical thinking about justice. Non law school teaching has the advantage of disrupting the survey course routine of many undergraduate students and may breed familiarity with the basics of law by developing some legal literacy in the student. The development of a “law as” approach encourages analytical thinking beyond the law’s disciplinary boundaries and also provides some sober inoculation against the positivism and, perhaps, the elitism, of the law. Studying law as socially dynamic complicates the old adage that ‘law is’ the mere software of the justice system. Law should be reconsidered as organic, connected, mobile, reactive, resilient, social and coercive. Our advantage as non-law school instructors is that we can be charged with educating students on law’s dynamism, and thus its power, coercive and ethereal. We can provide students with the abilities to read and place law, but rather than practicing it (as professional training, and its instruction of minutae requires), we can encourage our students to spend their intellectual lives critiquing it."
This obtuse prose indicates a certain privilege I was feeling at teaching non law students, and the freedom to think critically about law. Unhindered and unencumbered by the demands of doctrinal analysis, I was free to allow this infusion of law and society to infect the nihilistic, the social justice warriors, and the conservatives alike. Law did not have to constrain us! It felt good to be so critical and enlightened.
And then I began teaching at Robson Hall and lo' and behold a new reality overcame me. Law students like critique as much as the "law as" disciplines. Law students are excited about the potential of law to foster dynamic social changes. Law students are excited about the possibilities of using law to build the society they envision. They just also want careers...mainly as a result of their life stage and maturity. In an exciting development, I came to realize that law students want to learn about "law as" as well as what "law is". They just also want to earn with law as well.
I won't lie. The proclivity of law students for the strictures of doctrine is staggering. It is also inspiring. The desire of law students to master the law, and to demonstrate their mastery, was a feature of law school I had forgotten in my decade of time served in the justice disciplines. With this mastery, comes a type of orthodox canon that makes law students particularly suited to deep critique of legal cases, and legislative instruments. It also creates, in some cases, oppositional students who challenge and question every point and nuance. As an educator, it is truly exhilarating. As someone that is involved in transitioning these students into the practice of law, it is especially enthralling!
Contrary to the caricature of the current crop of students as delicate snowflakes, the law students I have encountered this year may have occasionally possessed the demeanour of Anne Coulter on a Delta flight, yet they also displayed unparalleled integrity, focus and resolve. The students I have taught this year demonstrated a willingness to work in groups, to participate as leaders in the classroom and to absorb information; they could direct learning in ways I have not experienced at other institutions.
When we surveyed the students, we found that they believed that group work was an important clinical skill, that they would happily integrate learning in flipped classrooms and that they also valued the use of Socratic teaching styles. They indicated a willingness to accept "guide on the side" teaching models as well as "sage on the stage" models.
In short, law students were eager to learn; they were collaborative; they were leaders; they were discussants; they were adaptable; they were resilient; and they remain as sharp as any generation of law students before. This bodes well for the production of legal practitioners, who will require more technological resolve and flexibility than past generations of lawyers. This news also bodes very well for those law students that see themselves excited to continue their studies and to engage in graduate level legal study.
It is a great time to be a law student. It is an even better time to be a legal educator. Law students today, more than my own recollection from time spent as a law student in the late 90s, are eager to work together to learn law and to critique legal systems. In a previous article, I pontificated: Let Law be Law, and Let us Critique.
I stand by this clarion call. I am now more chastened and inspired by the belief that our law students, our future leaders, practitioners and teachers of law, will be more than capable of doing both.