Don’t Bring Your Laptop to Class

I don’t know when it happened, but law lectures have lost their terrifying charm.  In my experience, students’ unwillingness to speak up—and most teachers’ merciful unwillingness to demand answers—has replaced the Socratic method with more passive classroom learning.

Without that pressure, the need to thoroughly prepare  for the next day’s lecture has faded away.  Safely nuzzled into laptops, my 60+ fellow students can follow along with our lecture using a PowerPoint slide presentation, waiting for each legal issue to be pointed out.

The proud and the few who do prepare may be disappointed to find there is no class discussion they can use to flex their arguments.  Their interpretations are never challenged or questioned.

Law school doesn’t have to be like that.  Laptop learning can be done at home.  The classroom should be for vigorous advocacy and engagement with the material.

The Socratic Method

Do we have to go back to “Paper Chase”-style call and answer in class?  No, I don’t think so, even though it has its merits.  Being put on the spot, thinking on your feet, and applying the law to unpredictable questions are a great foundation for future skills as an advocate.

What’s missing is a greater emphasis on legal problem solving, instead of the more narrowly focused case method.  Is it possible to have it both ways?

I’d like to ask legal teachers to consider taking a new approach.  Here are some elements I’d like to see in my next lecture:

  1. Demand preparedness: ask students who aren’t prepared to leave
  2. Provide—or work with students to develop—materials to learn doctrinal fundamentals at home, so people don’t come to class to type a transcript of your lecture
  3. Focus on practical problems in class.  Start the lecture with an interesting exam-style fact pattern.  Use that as a lead-in to the area of law the students are about to spend four to eight months investigating.  Talk strategy.  Talk about what the case means for future litigants.  Refer back to the case as a concrete example for core concepts.
  4. Draw out quiet participants.  Reward participation.
  5. Make the back row of students sit in the front row.
  6. Ask that laptops be shut, bowed down, or left at home.  If students are dependent on typing what you are saying in class, they didn’t read the material.

Do you have a Professor or instructor who teaches like this?  Let me know in the comments below. I’ve met a few, but it isn’t the norm.

We shouldn’t leave law school without speaking up, advocating for a position, or making eye contact.  For our future clients, let’s try leaving our laptop at home.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Bring Your Laptop to Class

  1. This article is ridiculous. Attitudes like this are what makes law school terrible for some people.

    Some people have busy lives or are adult learners (demand participants who are unprepared to leave). Not everyone is rich enough to afford law school without working. Some people have kids or elderly parents. Are they supposed to leave when they are not done the readings.

    Some people don’t learn well by being vocal. This article also ignores established principles regarding adult learning. Of course, you will think “but you’re supposed to be a lawyer – you need to be able to speak!” Yes, that is what law school profs have probably told you, but the truth is that no one is going to sit you in a random classroom, bring in a murderer, give you the facts and expect you to defend him in a split second. There is no rational connection between randomly calling on students in class or making introverted people sit in the front with their later success as lawyers.

    In my law school experience, there were professors who behaved like idiots, calling directly on certain students for random pieces of factual information – the purpose was to check who did the readings. This is not the Socratic method. Socrates didn’t sit there and ask people who read the parchment the night before. The idea of Socratic teaching is to ask students to engage deeply with the values and subsurface meanings about what is being taught.

    The people in law school are spending a significant amount of money on tuition and are adults who have completed degrees already in most cases. They are the clients of law schools, and if law schools claim to be teaching professionalism, treating adults like they are in the sixth grade does not really achieve that.

    In conclusion, this article is really not too well thought out. Attitudes like this do not help students, and make the classroom an unnecessarily stressful place.

  2. Dear Ivan,

    I recently completed my LL.M in the UK, whereupon I was called by the faculty to teach the LL.B module on International Law. (This was my specialty focus during the Masters) Eager to take on the challenge, I was responsible for 48 students looking to me (significantly younger than what they had come to expect from the faculty) to provide them guidance and ensure they were prepared for their finals.

    This task in teaching the law was complicated by the distinct nature of international law, where certain assumptions about law in general do not apply. Undaunted by this, and in a rookie position, my style of teaching became dialectic, requiring my students to actively engage the material and showcase the necessary reading had been done ahead of my two hour lectures. I commit my time and effort to make sure I deliver solid information accessible to students, and all I ask is that they read and prepare notes for group discussion problems in advance. I still use online resources to disseminate PPTs and supporting materials, but these are to enrich the assigned texts. If you could just read the text assigned, surely there would not be lectures or seminars. But you can’t, and nowhere is it written that professors are required to “dumb down” the reading into bite-sized morsels as the thrust of lecturing.

    I made sure my students knew I was aware that they had many other classes and obligations – not to mention active social lives – but of all their priorities, their commitment to legal education must come first. While Amanda suggests that students are ‘clients’ of the school, this just isn’t the case. Even in the case of adult learners (a ridiculous term given that all law students are adults) in the event she means older than the average, that was my position when I started law school, and it should not be the concern of your professors to accommodate your extracurricular affairs.

    Law school requires a commitment of your time and attention, and these standards are known beforehand. If you cannot learn to manage your time in order to meet your obligations, then consider a more acceptable degree that allows you that time. But, should you wish to be a lawyer, capable and educated as such, there is no getting around the dedication and effort necessary to achieve your goals. The fees you command upon qualification more than suffice as compensation for the sacrifices we all make as students of law. But nobody ‘owes’ you a degree.

    As for Amanda’s claim that you never have the instant-client situation: go to a courthouse someday and take notice of duty counsel/public defenders. That is often the nature of thier working relationships with clients, particularly on first appearances. I also have my students volunteer for brief moots on the subject matter in hypothetical scenarios weekly. By putting people into roles where they are responsible for advocating on behalf of clients, they will better understand how the real world actually works.

    As for student reviews of my teaching, I received extremely positive feedback from them. They enjoyed the engagement, albeit grueling, and some have approached the administration asking why I no longer teach the course. (I stayed for my convocation, leaving the University after the completion of the first semester. I moved on with my career, preparing to begin my PhD.) However, my commitment continues to them, as technically I’m still on staff and give occasional Masters lectures, and I encourage my students to communicate via email should they have any questions. Many have written to state how they feel more confident in their abilities as legal scholars and future advocates as a result of my teaching them. They got out what they put into it, and in the final summation, I strive to be a better teacher when I have students who take seriously the path they themselves have chosen by deciding to study law. After all, you paid for it…

    • Thanks for your comment G.D. I agree with you that law has a unique position as a profession, and because of that, should demand more from its students.

      I’m glad there are some teachers out there that still put a premium on classroom engagement. Good luck with your continuing studies.

  3. Dear GD LL.B LL.M(PIL),

    I am a lawyer. It’s good that you had the opportunity to teach and hone your skills by practicing in front of a classroom.

    I have also worked for several years in adult education. Many of the techniques traditionally associated with ‘legal education’ are outdated relics of a time gone by. Although many attribute this to a ‘watering down of standards,’ I am less convinced. I’m not saying that you will never need to ‘think on your feet,’ I am just saying that the way law schools try to justify the way some of them teach is inappropriate. It doesn’t respect the fact that there are mothers and fathers, cultural minorities and other differently advantaged people attending law school.

    • I think we’re aligned more than you think Amanda.

      1. I agree that the Socratic method isn’t “the best” way to learn for all people in all situations. My take is that law isn’t about learning content. It’s about learning legal analysis. The memory retention of concepts (through visual learning, passive lectures, repetition) isn’t as important as the application of analysis and advocacy techniques in class.

      Maybe that means there should be classes for both styles of learners. I would prefer the ones that focus on advocacy, because I want to be a trial lawyer.

      2. I also agree that “reading the parchment” shouldn’t be the end-goal. Law students are often overburdened, have family obligations, carry pro bono case-loads at clinics, or work to afford their education. Reading random details for a pop quiz the next day isn’t a value-add. Learning how to advocate a position with policy or precedent is more important.

      That’s why I’d prefer there were online learning methods to cover the basics for people who would like to contribute in class, but don’t have the time to pick apart every case the night before. These resources might be hosted somewhere like the Khan Academy. If nothing like that is available, not everyone can bring their best to class without 2-4 hours of lecture prep. For those who want to learn the minutia of legal reasoning, the primary text remains available.

      How do you think classroom engagement should be increased in law school, while also building the skills law students need before we graduate?

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