View From the Classroom: Our talented 1Ls

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Every year, it seems, our incoming class is more and more impressive.  Our first-year students, here and around the country, come to us with prior work experiences in a wide range of fields, advanced degrees, diverse skills and talents, and mature thinking capabilities.  More importantly, they come to us with life experiences, significant responsibilities, street-smarts, and know-how.  More and more, our incoming students have been around the block, both in the academy and in life.

But we don’t always treat them this way.  Our first-semester curriculum too often treats incoming students more like high-schoolers, or even middle-schoolers.  We organize them in packs; we tell them what to do and when to do it; and we question, intimidate, and scold them, often in front of their new friends, in the openness of our large classes.  Worse: Our first-semester curriculum too often and too early teaches them that law is determinate, syllogistic, rote, and even amoral—that if we simply plug the right facts into the right formula, the law will give us the right answer.

Later in the semester, our curriculum leads them just the opposite way and teaches that law is relative—that attorneys can always make an argument both ways.  This roller-coaster ride can too often leave our first-semester students with the mistaken impression that attorneys are just mechanical hired guns for whatever cause or client happens to pay them.  In short, our first-semester curriculum can too often take our thoughtful, reflective, experienced, and mature incoming students and turn them into automatons.

Our curriculum does all this in the name of teaching law.  I suppose the theory is that we should treat our incoming students like they don’t know anything about the law, because, after all, they don’t know much about the law.  And moreover, we can safely ignore any mature intellectual or moral capabilities that they bring to law school, because learning the law requires learning a new way of thinking.  Finally, we can help them develop as mature legal thinkers later—after we have imparted the basics.  I suppose the theory is something like what they do in the military: break them down before we build them back up.

But this a waste.  In the name of teaching law, we sacrifice all the capabilities that our talented 1Ls bring to us.  We too often ask them to check their experiences, their advanced degrees, their life skills, their street-smarts, and their know-how at the door so that they can learn how to think like a lawyer.  They may indeed learn how to think like a lawyer, but in the process they can too often forget to think like a human being.

We need not treat our talented 1Ls like this.  We can teach so as to build upon, not break down, their sophisticated and mature skills and capabilities.  We can teach so as to retain and apply, not check, their prior moral commitments.  And we can teach to capitalize on, not forget, their life experiences.  In short, even within the institutional constraints of the first semester, we can treat our 1Ls with the dignity and respect that we all deserve.

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