Law in Contemporary Society

Teaching Lawyers


Columbia is blessed with committed faculty, yet cursed by dreadful instruction. As a former teacher and trainer of teachers, I am confident our professors posses the ability and desire to be successful instructors. They need only the appropriate framework through which to approach the task.

The Ideal

Vision, Assessment, and Planning (VAP)

Teach For America, after investigating successful instruction, found student achievement to be predicated upon (1) vision (2) aligned plans and (3) meaningful assessments. This remains true regardless of grade level or subject matter. In fact, Teach For America uses the same framework to develop their staff as successful teachers use in their classrooms.

VAP in the Classroom

Goals are essential. Teachers must know exactly where they are going and what their students will know and be able to do when they get there. Otherwise, the classroom is aimless - often based on content coverage rather than student mastery. By itself, however, even an ambitious goal is insufficient. It must be broken down into units, classes, and activities – each aligned to the one before – so that every moment is purposeful. Finally, assessments must be used to both track student learning and reveal teacher effectiveness (good teachers use assessments to improve their teaching). Regardless of the particular approach to curricular delivery, teachers must be accountable to using precious class time to efficiently progress towards class goals. This framework makes that possible.

Teaching as Leadership (TAL)

TAL is not unique; rather it is an application of strong leadership to the classroom setting. When Eben says "all it takes to achieve a goal is to know exactly what you want to accomplish and exactly how to get there," he is articulating the same concept. When Barry Goldstein prepares a class action lawsuit, he first identifies the desired settlement and then traces back the steps required to get there. That is what leaders do. While thinking this way is unnatural to some, it can be taught, developed, and mastered. One can learn to be a leader.

Current Practice

Lacking Teacher Leadership

I have spoken with most of my professors about their (teaching) practice. Only one mentioned specific objectives for student learning. Others articulated broad goals around critical thinking or speaking, but nothing concrete. They are focused on content coverage, not depth of understanding. This has been true regardless of class size, never mind the fact that constant individual attention is unnecessary and only the strong sense of purpose that comes with working towards a meaningful goal is required.

Assessment, too, is almost uniformly disastrous. Despite daily opportunities for informal assessment, syllabi are adjusted only due to time constraints. Teachers are not determining student mastery and adjusting course, so participation becomes an exercise in holding student attention rather than information gathering.

As for planning, syllabi are not roadmaps from ignorance to content mastery, but checklists covering various topics within a doctrine. Forcing conformity to generic plans, rather than adapting instruction to student needs, retards student achievement. Activities must be designed to fill gaps in student understanding. This doesn’t require excising the case method. However, it does mean that each assignment must be purposefully selected based on its ability to move students towards class goals.

It is possible that the poor teaching during 1L year is due to instructor apathy. However, almost without exception, each of my professors has been committed to my learning. In fact, the great majority of them are teaching 1Ls particularly because they sought out the opportunity. Professors want us to do well and they want to help, they just don't always know how.


We must provide an opportunity for Columbia's committed instructors to align their practice to TAL. This requires both creating space for faculty to apply to their classrooms the leadership skills they already use in other aspects of their lives and specifically developing those skills as they apply to education.

Quick Wins

First, I reject the idea that our professors do not take teaching seriously. Our faculty members would excel practically anywhere in the legal profession. They don’t need to teach; they teach because they enjoy it. Faculty members are accessible, if not eager to assist, and already spend time preparing for class. Just as colleges and grade schools provide professional development, the law school should create space for faculty to learn about current developments in education. Armed with the tools necessary to improve student learning, many would take the initiative to adapt their practice, ensuring that their ability can equal their ambition.

Second, the curve masks teacher effectiveness. When every class has the same grade distribution, outcomes are not tied to teacher input. Grades should reflect how close students came to meeting ambitious classroom goals, therefore reflecting both student ability and teacher performance. A holistic approach to assessment is warranted. Professors should aggregate information about individual student achievement (class participation, written assignments, etc.) and compare it both to the class goal and the individual student’s baseline ability. If anonymity in formal assessment is insisted upon, designing assessments prior to instruction, aligning them to an objective rubric, and having a third party distribute grades should suffice.

Third, collaboration must increase. Not only will this transform stale classroom environments into ones where student progress is easily identified and professor intervention can be targeted and effective, but, perhaps more importantly, it greatly increases opportunities for learning, builds skills necessary for success as a lawyer, and helps to cement the necessary common purpose. These partnerships will form the foundation of a dynamic law school dedicated to learning.

Finally, the law school community must reward successful teachers. Professors who mentor students into careers that suit their interests and desires should be celebrated.


By aligning instruction to the basic principles of leadership, classes will be more focused, learning will increase, and, therefore, Columbia will graduate more proficient lawyers. Since the vast majority of the faculty members possess the requisite desire to see students succeed, equipping them with the tools necessary to ensure success will greatly improve 1L learning.

  • I think a faculty discussion of this essay, if it were made still more diplomatic at one or two spots for sensitive dispositions, could be arranged, and would be fascinating. I think you have done a very fine job in presenting a simple and compelling case. It would prove a useful jumping off point, if people would let themselves listen.
    • I am hoping to get this to a place where that is possible. Feedback much appreciated. -- AdamCarlis

This is in response to a point Eben made more than something you said Adam. I'm not convinced that teaching law is the same as teaching math. I don't think you can teach philosophy the same way as you can teach math. The Premise of all the legal realism stuff we read at the beginning of the semester implies that understanding the law is a little like understanding the soft sciences, and people do develop different conceptions and different understandings of different things in the law. I agree that there are a lot of teachers at Columbia who could do a lot of things better. But, maybe the reason that the teachers can't clearly articulate their goals is because they're just trying to teach us how to think and analyze things on our own, under the assumption, that afterwards, we'll be able to teach ourselves anything. How do you assess the answers to questions that have no right answers? Should the Supreme Court apply strict scrutiny to gender inequalities the way it does to race inequalities? No one can "teach" you the answer to that question.

So, while i agree that there's much room for improvement, ie, there's a lot about the actually practicing law that we all realize we learn virtually nothing about here, i still disagree with the premise that teaching law like second grade math is the solution. I for one, would like to discover the law more than have it taught to me, and i feel like some aspects of the current method are good, because they leave room for me to pave my own way to some degree, in my law school experience.

-- OluwafemiMorohunfola - 08 Apr 2008

"They're just trying to teach us how to think and analyze things on our own."

Maybe we should cut the faculty and give some of their salary back as tuition grants since we're paying to teach ourselves?

-- KateVershov - 08 Apr 2008

Kate, in the classroom, teaching the theory of law is doable; teaching the practice of law is an impossible task. This probably seems obvious, but my instinctual suggestion is that the best you can do for now is to sign up for as many 2L clinical credits as you can -- at least that will get you partly out of the classroom and into real cases. I do think the school sees a problem here and is trying to address it; it's a shame that the whole 3L year couldn't be built around clinical-type experiences, though.

-- BarbPitman - 09 Apr 2008

Barb, why don't clinic's take place "in the classroom"?

-- AdamCarlis - 22 Apr 2008

This is a great essay. I think legal education needs to critically examine itself. I hope you can get it to do that.

Femi--you said,

    I'm not convinced that teaching law is the same as teaching math. I don't think you can teach philosophy the same way as you can teach math. The Premise of all the legal realism stuff we read at the beginning of the semester implies that understanding the law is a little like understanding the soft sciences, and people do develop different conceptions and different understandings of different things in the law.
There's a science to teaching everything, we just need to learn what it is. You can teach philosophy the same way you teach math, as long as you know how philosophy is different from math. Your comment sounds frighteningly like "legal magic."

-- AndrewGradman - 23 Apr 2008

Adam, good question. I gather that the multistate performance test portion of the bar requires a functional process that is somewhat similar to the actual practice of law. If that process could be broken down and taught in units, I think it could be similar to a clinical experience, but without the added dynamics of direct client contact. However, I think that there are some longstanding and well-ingrained views that will continue to work against (both actively and through inertia) an integration of clinical-type experience and subject matter coursework, at least in the near future. For one, it’s less threatening to the structure of the regular curriculum and the teachers who teach it to keep the clinics and externships as separate entities apart from the subject-matter classes. Plus, the image of a law school as being a professional graduate experience would be threatened by the integration of classes that would likely be viewed as more vocational and technical in nature. I also think that the legal industry has always assumed, if not accepted, that people come out of law school with not much practical experience, so firms understand that the practicum learning curve continues alongside the learning curve associated with the subject matter that makes up your eventual area of expertise.

Although I’ve obviously never taken a clinic, I gather that the additional dimension of direct client contact in clinics is very helpful and eye-opening. But if you are going into private practice at a firm, and you end up doing little if any pro bono work, then client interactions are largely a moot point in the beginning (you will probably at most sit in on conference calls). And once client contact becomes a part of your day, you will probably find that, at least in private practice, the nature of your interaction with clients and the needs of those clients are very different from the needs of and interactions with clinical and externship clients. Keep in mind that my perspective is heavily influenced by large (400-attorney), non-national Midwest firm culture (basically what Makalika refers to in the “Questions that Need Answers” thread), so you should take all the above with that backdrop in mind, although I still think my points are basic enough that they are applicable to national markets as well.

-- BarbPitman - 23 Apr 2008

In response to Barb, I also haven't taken a clinic yet, but i've talked to a number of 3Ls who say that it is an invaluable experience and NO ONE should leave here without taking as many clinics as they can. Having not taken a clinic, i can't but wonder why the classroom isn't more like the clinics. As interesting as these threads are, there are some questions we shouldn't assume we can answer until we've been through the whole process. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that. But, if i'm to guess, i'll assume that it's like public speaking classes i took in undergrad. Maybe we have to learn it on paper and in theory before we start practicing it. It might be useful to not let 1Ls take clinics. But, like i said, i don't know.

In response to andrew, Nuff said

Math and Philosophy have nothing in common. They're two extremes on the spectrum from the closest we can get to universal truths to the closest we can get to total subjectivity. Ask yourself why the Socratic Method was designed by a Philosopher?

I'm not saying that there's nothing wrong with the teaching here. I think the teachers need to seriously reexamine what they want to do and how they want to do it. However, i don't want the law shoved down my throat like math. Go too far in that direction and you get the opposite of what Eben aims for: Free thinking attorneys with their own conception of what legal problems need solution and the creativity to find those solutions. Figuring out a way to make law school teaching effective is not so simple as applying what we know in other areas. Here we have different objectives and we'll need complex and different solutions. That's all i was trying to say. Law is harder to teach than math, and it's in our interest that they not be taught exactly the same.

-- OluwafemiMorohunfola - 24 Apr 2008

"They're two extremes on the spectrum from the closest we can get to universal truths to the closest we can get to total subjectivity."

I think Jerome Frank and Felix Cohen would disagree.

-- JuliaS - 24 Apr 2008

No one thinks that one would do identical tasks to teach someone math, reading, lawyering, the law, etc. The point is that the best way to approach any task (be it teaching, building a house, or doing heart surgery) is to have a clear goal, a plan to get to that goal, and the ability to assess progress along the way.

Methods will change depending on your goal (if I want to get to Baltimore - as opposed to the Law School - I will take a train instead of my feet) but the way the task is approached remains constant. Yes, I taught 5 year olds to read the same way I taught high schoolers math and managers management. Yes, I approach law school the say way I taught school. The framework is successful for any task. The details change according to what you want to accomplish.

-- AdamCarlis - 24 Apr 2008

Adam - this is a great essay and clearly you have put a lot of time into making it tight and clear. I wonder if, at any level, law professors have been taught how to teach. I think overall, they were taught how to teach by their own teachers. This really made me think about teaching process. Thank you.

-- AndrewWolstan - 22 May 2008



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r24 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:53:04 - IanSullivan
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