If You Teach Them, They Will Be Happy

Law students whose professors focus on teaching outperform those at a school where scholarship is valued, study finds.
June 19, 2007

Law students -- and the lawyers they become -- are notoriously unhappy, but the interests of their professors could make all the difference in helping them through law school and in preparing them to be good lawyers.

A study published this month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletincompared recent classes at two law schools with almost identical average undergraduate grade-point averages and LSAT scores and found that students at the school that encouraged its professors to be good teachers rather than good scholars reported higher levels of well-being and competence, and scored higher on bar exams.

The study, “Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory," was conducted by Kennon M. Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and Lawrence S. Krieger, a law professor at Florida State University.

Students at both law schools entered with similar statistics: average undergraduate GPAs around 3.4 and LSAT averages near 156. The schools differed significantly, however, in overall ranking. Law School 1 (LS1), with a good reputation and an emphasis on faculty scholarship, ranked in the second tier (as defined by the study) while Law School 2 (LS2), with an emphasis on hiring and training faculty to be good teachers, ranked in the fourth tier.

Twenty-four percent of the Law School 2 graduates who took the bar exam in the summer of 2005 had “high” scores above 150, compared to 14 percent of Law School 1 graduates. Nearly half of Law School 1’s graduates, meanwhile, had “low” scores – below 130 – on the bar exam, compared with 22 percent of Law School 2’s graduates. Though the scoring statistics are representative of each law school overall, rather than just those students who participated in the study, they are “strongly suggestive that the teaching and learning at LS2 may be more effective,” the authors wrote.

Krieger, one of the authors, said in an interview that it was “almost shocking” to see “how significantly the fourth tier students outperformed the second tier law students on the bar.” But, he added, “it makes sense psychologically – the students at the fourth tier school were happier – and it makes sense that they would have learned more from better teachers.”

By the third year of law school, students at Law School 2 reported significantly higher levels of “subjective well-being,” autonomy and competence than students at Law School 1.

But Ann Althouse, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison said that though it is “intuitively right that the school that emphasizes teaching is the one with students who are happier and score better,” those students may not be better off in the long run.

She said that if all a law school expects of its faculty is to teach, then they can “put more time into teaching students to be lawyers, but not necessarily how to think like lawyers.”

In February, Althouse, a blogger on law and current events, was a month-long guest columnist for The New York Times. In one column, she wrote that while “law should connect to the real world … that doesn’t mean we ought to devote our classes to the personal expression of law students.” Rather, she said, law professors should “deny ourselves the comfort of trying to make [law students] happy and teach them what they came to learn: how to think like lawyers.”

But law schools, especially the top-ranked ones, expect for their faculty to be great scholars, rather than skilled practitioners, something that may be a problem, Krieger said, when “law students want to learn how to be lawyers – people need to be trained for what they’re going to do.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that law professors should call on students whose hands aren’t raised or otherwise be rigorously demanding, he added. “A lot of legal educators have said, ‘It’s a hard business, so let’s be hard on our students to prepare them.’ I don’t think that’s right.”

Though the study compares just two law schools, Krieger said he thinks the results can be applied more broadly. “When faculty are selected, trained and rewarded for being good teachers, as at the fourth tier school, students will learn better,” he said. “When faculty members are hired for their scholarly potential, they’re not necessarily going to be good teachers and their students may not care about their teachers’ scholarly work.”

Students at several law schools thought that faculty support was important for them and their peers.

Bill Schmedlin, who just finished his first year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said that “most students are at least a little nervous” during their first year of law school, but that getting support from faculty helps them “tak[e] risks they might otherwise not take” and feel comfortable throughout their three years in law school.

Daniel Satterfield, a student who has completed one year at the Hofstra University School of Law, said an "ideal" professor is "someone who is a great scholar and who can teach." But, he added, "I do weigh scholarship over how they teach because I can always read the textbook and learn."

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