Why educate law students?

Scales, from Glesner's page on Law School and StressThis post title is the potential cue for every bad lawyer joke you’ve ever told, or for every bad lawyer cartoon you’ve ever seen; don’t worry, I’ve heard or seen them all – it’s an occupational hazard. But following on from my last post about the current state of education inspired by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), I couldn’t let pass without comment a story on the website of Chronicle of Higher Education (the US equivalent of the THES). The piece is here (sub req’d) and here (= hat tip: Mirror of Justice). From the Chronicle piece:

The Corrosive Effects of Law School

Chronicle of Higher Education Online
June 8, 2007

A glance at the current issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: The maddening effects of law school

Research suggests that law school has a corrosive effect on the well-being, values, and motivation of students, say Kennon M. Sheldon, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and Lawrence S. Krieger, a law professor at Florida State University. “Indeed, the emotional distress of law students appears to significantly exceed that of medical students and at times approach that of psychiatric populations,” they write. Law schools can mitigate this phenomenon, they have found, by “enhancing their students’ feelings of autonomy.”

In a three-year study of two similar, unidentified law schools, the authors used questionnaires to measure the “subjective well-being” of students, their “need satisfaction,” how motivated they were for a career in law, and their “perceived autonomy support.” The authors also compared the grades of students at each institution.

“Students at both schools declined in psychological need satisfaction and well-being over the three years,” write the authors. But, they note, students with a greater sense of autonomy support from faculty members experienced “less radical declines in need satisfaction,” and that in turn was linked to “better well-being in the third year and also a higher grade-point average, better bar-exam results, and more self-determined motivation for the first job after graduation.”

The problem with most law schools, the authors write, is that they place little emphasis on hiring faculty members with proven records of teaching excellence. Instead, they tend to “emphasize theoretical scholarship and the teaching of legal theory, and many hire and reward faculty primarily based on scholarly potential and production,” say the authors. Observers suggest, they add, “that such priorities and processes train students to ignore their own values and moral sense, undermine students’ sense of identity and self-confidence, and create cynicism.”

A sense of autonomy is therefore critical for law students, they say, because “when authorities provide autonomy support and acknowledge their subordinates’ initiative and self-directedness, those subordinates discover, retain, and enhance their intrinsic motivations and at least internalize nonenjoyable but important extrinsic motivations.”

The article, “Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory,” is temporarily available free through Sage Publications.

There has been a mixed reaction to the piece: (eg Suffolk U | TaxProf Blog | Wall Street Journal Online). Quizlaw is unsympathetic (“Seriously? I mean, did you really need to study two law schools for three years to figure this out?”); while Prelaw Advisor has some advice as to how to counter these corrosive effects (“Don’t hand over your happiness to a law school”; “‘Fire’ a bad school”).

In one sense, this is not new news; Barbara Glesner Fines of the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law has, for at least 10 years before 1999, had a four point plan for suriving the stresses of Law School:

  • First, have faith that law school will help you meet (or even find) your goals.
  • Second, live outside the law. You will have less time and energy for your family and friends — but be sure not to neglect these important people in your life.
  • Third, take care of yourself.
  • Fourth, if you do have problems, get some help.
  • For more detail, see Glesner “Fear and Loathing in the Law School” 23 Conn L Rev 627 (1991) (Hein (sub req’d))

    So, Law School can seriously damage your health, at least in the US. Is it the same in Ireland, I wonder? Answers on a postcard … I promise to read them when my therapist lets me.

    Update (18 June 2007): Thomas Healy has a much better post about the report on Dorf on Law: Shiny Happy Students. An extract:

    Law schools that emphasize teaching over scholarship are more likely to produce happy, well-adjusted students who get higher grades and do better on the bar exam. Or at least that’s the upshot of [the study discussed above] … The study’s conclusions strike me as relatively unsurprising. Although the authors use jargon such as “autonomy supportâ€? and “self-agency,â€? they are basically talking about the extent to which law professors are supportive, nurturing, and understanding as opposed to detached, unsympathetic, and insensitive. Of course, being a productive scholar and an engaged teacher are not mutually exclusive. … But I do think it stands to reason that if a school cares primarily about scholarship, most faculty members will devote more of their energy to research and writing than to all the little things that make students feel appreciated and respected: office hours, review sessions, career counseling, letters of recommendation, social events, etc. And if students feel appreciated and respected, it makes sense that they will be happier, feel better about law school, and hence be more interested in studying and learning.