Sep 02 2010

The Ivory Tower Attacks Itself!

A professor at Georgetown University Law Center has written a report that  concluded that law schools need to stop focusing on esoteric scholarship and instead hire more professors with real-world experience. Adjunct professor Brent Evan Newton advances his theory in “Preaching What They Don’t Practice: Why Law Faculties’ Preoccupation with Impractical Scholarship and Devaluation of Practical Competencies Obstruct Reform in the Legal Academy.” The article is awaiting publication by the South Carolina Law Review.  While I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Newton, he should rename his article.  It sounds too ivory towerish.  He should have just called it “The Need for Experience in the Legal Academy.” But I’m just nitpicking, really.

The article stresses an important point. Like Professor Newton, I am an adjunct professor of law; he teaches at G-Town, I’m at New York Law School. But both of us have been confronted by complaints  from our law students and recent law grads that they did not learn enough about the actual practice of law to make them qualified attorneys upon graduation.  The top tier law schools like to collect “legal theorists” and “professional thinkers” in their faculty. They must publish in law reviews regularly or they will not get tenure or will not be given appropriate salary. But most law review articles do not offer any practical application and are largely grounded in esoteric legal analysis and theory.

In 2007,  The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching concluded that law schools were not doing a good enough job of preparing students for the real-world practice of law. Prof. Newton  links this failure to hiring professors who have barely practiced.  Newton cites an alarming statistic: Top tier schools like Harvard and Yale have faculty with an average of TWO YEARS of actual law practice.

“Could such a professor who writes law review articles about the First Amendment effectively represent a client in a civil rights litigation? Could such a professor whose expertise is securities regulation effectively represent a client or the government in an SEC enforcement action?” he wrote.

The answer is “No” because while it is important to have a grasp of the fundamental issues and the big policy questions, it is more important to know how those issues will play out in a courtroom or even in a corporate boardroom.  How to relate and explain issues to a client or a juror cannot be taught by someone who has never done it.

Newton stresses that there is a place for the traditional law professor with his/her head in the clouds of academia but advises that only one-third of a law school faculty should be comprised of such professors, whom he labels “research professors”  and that the other two-thirds should be called “teaching professors” and be made up of attorneys with significant practical experiences who will teach the bulk of the classes and run clinics.

Part of the problem is the way law schools are accredited. The accreditation process looks for the number of articles published by scholar-professors. For five years, I taught the Legal Writing course at NYLS for first year law students. While I used the curriculum as a guide, I infused nearly every class with stories and documents from cases I was handling.  Every semester, almost every student over the five years commented on how that practice made my class the one the enjoyed the most and learned from. Yes we had to cover policy and analysis on a “big picture” basis and we did, just as much as every other section of class. But my students got to see how that policy was applied by lawyers on a daily basis.  But most law schools want full time professors almost exclusively and rarely use adjuncts for “core classes.”

Maybe Professor Newton’s article will generate discussion about the value of adjunct professors and real life experience.  Maybe the ABA or the Association of American Law Schools, both of which accredit law schools, will consider the value that hands-on experience and not knock a school down a peg or two because they use adjuncts to teach certain classes.  Maybe they will look to see work history and experience of those teachers who are imparting useful and applicable information to the students.  Maybe then law schools will start graduating students who actually know how to be lawyers.

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