Law in Contemporary Society
Some data points:

+ A graduate recently told me that Columbia switched from an Excellent/Very Good/Good grading system to a letter system sometime in the 90's, in response to concerns that students weren't as competitive with out of town firms.

+ Professor Rapaczynski has also talked in Torts class last fall about his struggles in trying to avoid having to use the curve.

- Without grades, there would probably be a lot less chatter on the wiki. -mz

I thought I would post/update a list of articles on school reform. (cites to Westlaw) Since the topic seems to be verboten for students to talk about right now, maybe it would be better to learn something about what more experienced people are saying.

97 CLMLR 178 - An article by Judge Kozinski on what he sees as the problems with law school moot courts

30 W. St. U. L. Rev. 177 - Another article on a proposed non-curved feedback system

60 Vand. L. Rev. 515- Professor Sturm of CLS and Lani Gunier writing on law school culture, conformity, competition, and reform.

-- JonathanWaisnor - 17 Feb 2010

I'm not sure if this issue has been addressed anywhere, but since this topic is titled "CLS Education Reform," I thought it would be the most appropriate place to discuss something that I really struggled with last semester. I'm talking about the amount of reading we have and the "Socratic" method of teaching. There seems to me to be something very strange about a system of teaching where students are required to read 60+ dense pages each night, and then be able to answer extremely specific questions about that reading if a professor decides to call on them.

I think this method really inhibited my learning last semester. Perhaps it was adjusting to law talk and it will not be a problem this semester, but I think it is a deeper problem with the way the Socratic system is set up. Instead of thinking about the big picture/blackletter law from each case we read, I spent my nights focusing on highlighting my casebooks in a way that would give me the best chance of answering questions in class. But does anyone really care what the procedural posture was in some case that was decided a century ago?

Hopefully this semester I'll be smarter about the way I read/study, but I'm wondering what everyone thinks about the Socratic method. Does it force you to read more closely? Are you more prepared for class when you could be called on at any time? Does it inhibit you're ability to concentrate on the reason for reading the case? Is it just a system that exists so professors can embarrass students?

I agree with your concerns about the Socratic Method. Although I haven't heard any of my professors speak at length on the reasons for using the SM, I would think the main justification is to make sure students are doing the nightly reading assignments. There may be other justifications, such as providing a bridge for further discussion, gauging how well a random sample of students is understanding the material, or the always nebulous "teaching them how to think like lawyers." However, I think I am not alone when I say that the SM's practical effect is that it pushes me to read by inducing fear and anxiety. This is obviously easier (as it strikes us at a time when we are particularly vulnerable and elicits an instinctual response) than trying to design a lesson plan that incentivizes students to read because that will allow them to fully participate in an engaging class. While I question the effectiveness of the casebook method of teaching altogether, I'll focus right now on the SM and alternatives.

First of all, I do not think any of these methods work in a class of over 30 people, if we assume the casebook method is used and our goal is to encourage reasoned, thoughtful, on topic discussion by a diverse range of participants. The only classes in which I have consistently observed vibrant discussion with a high percentage of student involvement, regardless of the method used, are Eben's class, my LPW, and my 30 person Civil Procedure section. I think that we would need to have a limit on class size before we would begin to see improvement in the quality of class discussion.

I define the SM as prolonged questioning of every aspect of a case and assorted hypotheticals. The three alternatives I have seen are voluntary participation, panel-style questioning, and random cold-calling. Cold-calling is different from SM because a professor will spend no more than three or four questions on one person and those questions will be about the major facts, holding, notable points of reasoning, etc. I think the best method would be random cold-calling, then opening up the floor for voluntary participation. I would like to get other people's input on this topic. What do you think would be the best method?

My other question is a broader one: is it possible within the casebook curriculum to develop a system where we would have discussion that not only flows between the professor and a student, but among the students themselves? The SM completely closes off input for everybody but the particular student and the professor. I don't know if first year law students are emotionally able cope with the fear and anxiety of challenging your classmates (most of whom you don't know very well) and having your ideas challenged. In fact, most students would probably prefer being made a fool by professors rather than students, and this begs the even broader question- is it even possible under the current system to divorce our sense of self-worth from what we do in class?

-- JonathanWaisnor - 07 Feb 2010

About grading: CLS is the second law school that I go to. In my first one (a law school in Taiwan, where law is provided as a college degree), there was no curve so professors could give whatever grades they liked. Professors wanted to be “nice” so it was common that more than 80% of the class got an A. Therefore, virtually no one studied hard. As a freshman (sophomore, or junior) all you had to do was party and drink every day, just like an American undergrad. The time I spent on studying last semester was at least twice the first three years in my Taiwanese law school combined. Sounds attractive, right? But in the senior year everyone started freaking out because what was waiting us was the bar exam, with an 8% passage rate.

In other words, in Taiwan we don’t need first year grades to distinguish students, but we still need something to make the distinction between the “good” and the “not-so-good.” (But it’s probably not as cruel as the first year curve, since you can always take the bar again if you fail this time.) So it brings me to another question: why is such a distinction based on exam-performance necessary everywhere? Can’t we distinguish ourselves in a more meaningful way? In an ideal world, every prospective employer would try to hire the applicants who are most competent for the job not simply based on grades, but on “a totality of circumstances.” And then we would train ourselves in a way that makes us cut out for the job we want.

Unfortunately, we are not living in an ideal world. Last week I went to a lunch session about career in teaching, and a panelist put it clearly: if you want a teaching career, the first thing is to get killer grades. It may not be true, but to some degree it does explain why people feel anxiety about grades: people are made to believe that grades affect our future.

Assuming CLS is not going to abolish letter grade this semester, I think there are two possible ways we can ease the anxiety. Firstly, we can choose not to believe the panelist that I mentioned. What he said is simply wrong; even though we have mediocre grades in the first year, we are still capable of doing everything as long as we train ourselves in the right way and acquire good lawyering skills in the law school.

On the other hand, we can also just recognize the fact that poor grades do keep us away from some specific jobs, the so-called highly selective ones. (That’s the reason why I mentioned Taiwan at the beginning as an example: without a license, you just can’t be an attorney.) However, there are still countless jobs out there that don’t require good grades. And some of these jobs may be even more meaningful and lucrative than the “highly selective” ones. For example, Taiwan’s 8% bar passage rate creates lots of law school grads without a lawyer’s license. Those people have to find some living other than being an attorney. To my knowledge, lots of them are living meaningful lives, the current Taiwanese President included.

Also, there is no Socratic in a Taiwanese law school. I'm still forming my perspective about the pros and cons of SM, and hopefully I'll have something to say about it as soon as possible. My primary idea leans toward positive side, but I do agree with Jonathan's doubt about the "extremely specific questions." (I remember once I was asked what was the primary issue of a case, and I answered "a component of the airplane is defective." But I forgot the name "altimeter" so the prof excruciated me for ten minutes.)

-- WenweiLai - 08 Feb 2010


Yesterday, I attended a lunch program hosted by Professor Sanger and Student Services entitled “Lessons Learned from the First Semester.” What was meant to be a discussion of study and stress tips quickly transformed into a forum for 1L’s to discuss their frustration with the law school process. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard a lot of the same comments and I felt that this thread would be a good place to address them.

With regard to Columbia’s strict curve, Professor Sanger pointed to the fact that without grading guidelines, one professor might on average give her students higher grades than another professor who teaches another section of that particular class. The curve ensures that no student is unfairly advantaged by a professor who is typically a higher grader. Though I agree that a system in which we are given critiques of our work rather than a letter might be more helpful to our learning process, the curve makes our current grading system somewhat fair, albeit stressful and competitive.

A complaint that showed up on this thread concerned the Socratic Method. I personally appreciate this teaching device but not because it encourages me to read my cases more thoroughly. I don’t mind speaking in public when I have something prepared but speaking off the cuff scared me when I started law school. The Socratic Method brought me out of my shell. I am not the student who says something insightful every class but I would not have participated without it.

My personal frustration with the 1L experience is the minimal opportunity to get feedback from professors. I would greatly appreciate a midterm exam or assignments throughout the semester so that I could gauge what professors want me to focus on. Office hours are a wonderful way for us to meet with professors to address specific questions but it’s hard to discern expectations about exams from these encounters.

I’m glad that I chose to attend law school and I look forward to the career that will follow it but I think that some of the concerns voiced in Eben’s class should be formally addressed. Student Senate recently assigned us all a personal representative who we are supposed to contact with such concerns. I sent a quick note to my representative yesterday and below you can find a sample note to send to yours.

Dear [Representative],

Thank you for your work so far this year and for your reaching out to me to hear my thoughts and concerns.

Currently, I would like more of an opportunity to get feedback from my professors. Is it possible to require professors to provide us with midterm exams or occasional written assignments with personalized responses so that we know if we understand the material? I understand that professors don't want the burden of grading another exam during the semester but any similar guidance would be a great way to help 1L’s adjust to the law school process.

Thanks again for all of your hard work,

Sincerely, [your name]

Please use my letter as a template for your own letter to your student senator. Post your “Dear Representative” Letter here.

Dear Class,

PLEASE CONTACT YOUR REPRESENTATIVES. As a member of student senate I would love to hear your ideas about how we can improve our community. We have so much potential and talent surrounding us, and we know that some parts of the system are broken. This wiki is one of the few solutions I have encountered...We are lucky that so much of our class is conducted in this collaborative community. Let's leverage it to create some pressure where it is needed!

In terms of grade reform, form letters to Student Senate would be a great start. It will force the body to address this serious issue and decide how it would like to respond. As a class, we could also come up with comprehensive ideas and questions and meet with administrators. Perhaps even draft a letter to Dean Katz and others. I find it interesting that we are even talking about mid-semester feedback when some professors do not even give end of the semester feedback! I still can't really wrap my head around that one.

In my capacity as a student senator I have met with Dean MGK and other administrators to discuss some possible improvements to the law school's culture. I have come away with some observations: 1. Student Services is receptive to good ideas, but they need to some demand to actually take it to Dean Schizer/ the faculty. 2. The economic problem could be really advantageous for us. We pay a ton of money to be here and I think the administration wants/needs to be responsive. Now they are in a position where they have to make structural cost-neutral changes instead of buying some flat screens. 3. We won't get anywhere or do anything without planning well and speaking up.

-- NonaFarahnik - 11 Feb 2010


Actually, I might be able to chime in with some information on this issue. Last semester, a number of issues were raised on the Senate floor with regard to exam feedback. A lot of suggestions were made about how to increase the effectiveness of post-exam reviews, and what steps could be taken by professors to better convey to students how they can improve for the future. The minutes of the meeting can be read here.

One of the problems which repeatedly came up is the fact that, at Columbia, the Faculty enjoy great freedom and discretion. If professor conduct is to be reformed, either with regard to post-exam feedback or altering the grade structure to allow for writing assignments/midterms, the reform will need to be self-initiated by the Faculty. As I understand it, the Senate doesn't have direct authority on academic matters or professor conduct--the best we can do is express the student position to the Faculty and attempt to persuade them to change their behavior.

On the basis of past discussions, I can point to two hurdles that will need to be overcome:

  • A proposal for establishing midterms or written assignments will require Faculty to voluntarily increase their workload. Given human nature, and Eben's previous observations on the character of law school professors, this is not an easy proposition.

  • Often, the arguments that are most persuasive before the Faculty are those which demonstrate that Columbia is falling behind its peers. However, Columbia's current policy on law school exams is pretty standard. To make matters more difficult, we would be attempting to convince the people who are most responsible for perpetuating the current system, and who are most likely to have loyalty to the system, that the system is broken.

Nevertheless, I think your idea of a mass-mailing to representatives could be a good way to get some movement on this issue. If this is a widespread student concern, then it is something that the Senate should address. If you're able to demonstrate student demand utilizing this new system, the Senate will have a high interest in responding favorably.

So, in short, while creating midterms or written assignments faces a significant uphill battle, it is a good idea, and it is worth an attempt. At the very least, I'll vote for it :).

-- RonMazor - 08 Feb 2010

Additionally, the Senate had a long discussion in November with Dean Greenberg-Kobrin regarding reforming Legal Practice and Legal Research.


Some felt that the course was not challenging enough, and that not enough reinforcement of research skills was done. Others felt that they put sufficient work in to receive a grade, and were disappointed that the class boiled down to pass/fail. One proposal which stood out was to have LPW run concurrently with Legal Methods, so that we would be given familiarity with Lexis and Westlaw early on in law school.

Does anyone have thoughts on what might be done to improve the experience of Legal Practice/Research?

-- RonMazor - 08 Feb 2010

Some ideas:

I would advocate using Legal Practice Workshop as a test run for the type of course that would involve consistent feedback from instructor to student. What might be a good idea is combining Legal Methods, LPW, and Legal Research into one course, but keeping the intensive 3 weeks and the final for LM. Would there be any way to have Legal Methods sections of maybe 40 students, taught by more professors (including 1L core class professors), and have the full professor who teaches LM continue to be involved in the LPW class until the very end? Obviously this would require more work by the professors.

I would agree with switching to a letter grade to encourage students to take the work more seriously.

One part of LM should be exam taking skills. The first couple weeks of LPW- same thing. This might eliminate a lot of anxiety around exams if people know what to do to study, how to outline, take practice exams, etc.

We could spend one credit hour a week on learning how to write, research, construct arguments, and another on having speakers or learning about the legal profession. The school could have a "speaker database" the Associates-in-Law could use to find speakers. We could have public interest lawyers, private practitioners, judges, politicians, professors.

The course should be increased to 2 credit hours per week, Legal Research should probably be merged with LPW. Attendance at my LR section was rather low, as was student participation (although that might have had something to do with the early morning hours). I think directly tying it in to LPW would be successful. That would bring total credit hours per week to a manageable 14 during the semester (not counting LM).

We should increase the amount of feedback dealing with actual research, including smaller research assignments exploring both Westlaw and Lexis, before we have to write the memo.

The problem is that any expansion of the LPW class might be opposed by students and professors because it increases their workload.

-- JonathanWaisnor - 11 Feb 2010

Jon, thanks for the feedback.

-- RonMazor - 16 Feb 2010


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r15 - 17 Apr 2010 - 14:41:33 - NonaFarahnik
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