What the Best Law Teachers Do

what the best law teachersIf you set out to generate the most boring possible concept for a book, from scratch, you probably couldn’t do much better than What the Best Law Teachers DoCo-written by law professors Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess, and Sophie M. Sparrow, it is essentially a book about law professors, by law professors, describing the role law teachers play in the most boring experience you could ever possibly encounter: going to law school.

In their defense, I’m sure they don’t know they are boring.  If there is one universal to the law school experience, it is this: no one graduates with their sense of humor intact.  And by the time you become a full-fledged attorney, the ability to be anything but eye-gougingly dull has been completely beaten out of you.  And it is the function of law professors, just like Schwartz, Hess, and Sparrow, to get you there.  So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the drudgery that was this 368-page behemoth (which, truth be told, I only skimmed; as I wish I would have done with the literal hundreds of pages, per night, I was assigned to read while in law school by professors just like these three).

In preparation for drafting this book, Schwartz, Hess, and Sparrow spent several years sending out questionnaires and conducting interviews, and poring over feedback from deans, law professors, and law students.  Probably close to 80% of the book’s content is just block quotes from these materials.  The book is organized by categories: “How do these professors engage students?”; “How do these professors prepare for class?”; “What do these professors expect from their students?”  There are then quotes on those topics, first from the professors themselves, then from students.  After a while, the quotes all start to take on the same whimsical, gushy “have passion/follow your heart” tone, no matter what the supposed chapter topic.

None of my law professors were included in the book; maybe I have never encountered a “best law teacher.”

A much more interesting book (and I am working on drafting my own book, which would include these concepts) would have been: “What EVEN the Best Law Teachers CAN’T DO, DON’T DO, AND SURE AS HELL WON’T TELL YOU.”  The subsections in this book could be something like the following:

  1. No matter how good your law professor is, there’s not a damn thing they can do about the fact that, by enrolling in law school, you have just gone into six figures worth of debt which, even if you can get a decent job out of law school (which is an increasingly big “if”), you will be paying off until you are 75.
  2. There are far more law students than there are good law jobs seeking to hire brand new law graduates.
  3. No matter how hard you work, or how good your professor is, they still have to grade on a curve, and not landing somewhere in the top 10% of your class will have a devastating impact on at least the beginning of, and perhaps your entire, career.
  4. Law school is a business.  If you’re in law school, they already have your tuition.  It’s not their job to get you a job.  It’s their job to keep the next wave of suckers paying more tuition.
  5. The law schools themselves are far more concerned with their professors’ ability to research, write, publish, and get money for the school.  Teaching is usually the lowest priority.
  6. 90% of your nightly reading will not be discussed in class. 95% of what you discuss in class will not be on the final exam.  99% of what is on the final exam will not be on the bar exam.  There is a good chance that less than 1% of any of the above will ever actually help you in your practice (I made up 100% of these statistics, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong).
  7. Even the best law professors end up teaching you almost nothing about how to actually be a lawyer.
  8. Most real law jobs are soul-sucking hell.  That’s why your law professor is a law professor, and not a practicing lawyer.
I don’t sound bitter, do I?
I actually had a best law professor.  He wasn’t included in this book, but he was the best law professor I encountered, and probably one of the best teachers I ever had.  His name was Professor Gregory S. Crespi.  His teaching style was very straightforward.  He did not “hide the ball” (a term I hate, but there is no better way to describe the sadistic Socratic torture the vast majority of law teachers still inflict on their students).  He genuinely wanted all of us to learn.  His classes focused on what the law actually is, and how it is actually used in practice (this wouldn’t seem like a rare or distinguishing characteristic, but believe me, it is).  As a result, I still both remember and use concepts he taught.  Sadly, I can’t say that about any other course I took.  He was funny, with a dry sense of humor.  He didn’t take himself or the process too seriously.  You could tell he had a life outside the law.  Thanks, Professor Crespi.
There is a related book, which came out first: What the Best College Teachers Do.  Despite my experience with the Law Teachers book, I am still intrigued by this other one.  Because in college, it still felt like it was about the teaching.  Law school felt like it was very much about something else.  But for now, I probably need something lighter and more entertaining.  I might give War and Peace another try.

3 thoughts on “What the Best Law Teachers Do

  1. Interesting read and take on the book. I have to disagree with a few points: there is a changing atmosphere in the legal world of higher education concerning instruction. And there is a move to emphasize teaching. Additionally, one of my teachers is featured in the book, and deservedly so, and instead of pursuing an agenda focusing on publishing turned her head to teaching. As well, there was no curve at my school, the professors by and large (there are always exceptions) had an open door policy, which they strictly enforced, and deeply cared about the learning experience. Alas, I would say your perspective dominates the world of practice, and regrettably so. We can be better practitioners. What the Best Lawyers Do should be written, and should emphasize the heart.

    • Thanks Michael. Obviously my review was not written from the happiest of places. I am pleased to hear that you had a better experience than I did. I have no doubt that many of the professors analyzed, I’m sure including your professor, are exceptional teachers and people. I guess my frustration was mostly just at the patting-themselves-on-the-back tone I perceived from the authors themselves. How easy to be a law professor, and write a book about how great law professors are, when they are the lucky few who have the luxury of writing books and teaching with their degrees, while the rest of us slave away working countless hours at thankless jobs we find meaningless. I used to have heart, and probably still do somewhere. I didn’t go to law school to become a mindless, billing drone. But I find myself on the other end of my law school experience with nothing but crushing debt, unfulfilling work, and no other options. I am trying to find some zen. I need to have a better attitude, I will be the first to concede. Thanks for your insights.

  2. Spencer,
    Your comments sadden me. Clearly you have a talented mind and heart, and yet somehow have managed along a path that isn’t fulfilling either. You’re not alone. I also want to say that my counter to your review isn’t meant to say that I endorse the legal academy. To the contrary, it is filled with the kind of back patting that you refer to, and in some ways has lost some of its ethical core, especially with regards to public service. As a humanities major I think we have failed society, and if anyone wants to talk about the reasons for why the humanities are “less relevant” today, we need only look to ourselves, and our attempts to make esoteric everything we encounter. I’m sure you have other options, you just need to find the heart to pursue them. And I think it begins with reading War and Peace, really remarkable work, and avoiding Chuck Klosterman.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *