Center for Engaged Learning in the Law

Teaching Opinion Papers

The Center for Engaged Learning in the Law will begin posting a series of opinion papers about legal education and approaches to improve teaching in law schools. The following paper, published below on March 22, 2011, was also posted on the Best Practices for Legal Education blog.

Why Not an Engaged Legal Education?
By Steven I. Friedland

Is it time to transform the Langdellian core of legal education?  Despite notable calls for change from respected sources, from the Carnegie Report, Educating Lawyers, to Roy Stuckey et al.’s Best Practices for Legal Education, the traditional vision of law as an academic science, taught by iconic experts out of casebooks carved up by subject matter, continues to dominate.  Teaching students to “think like a lawyer” sufficed for many decades, even if students were not fully prepared for the practice of law.  That partial preparation is less satisfactory, given the recession and the apparent scarcity of jobs.

An alternative successful educational narrative exists that aligns more closely with training students to improve various skill sets – engaged education.  This term has differing meanings, but for law school, it connotes substantial change in both the form and execution of the education and often includes an active or experiential component, from a field trip, to meetings with the professor, to course-related independent projects.  Some changes include: teaching less around the coverage of substantive material and more for achieving student competencies; focusing class and outside time on a series of student deliverables with a high degree of complexity and frequency, so students are challenged and involved, doing and experiencing outside the classroom as well as in it, all on a regular basis; enlisting students in sharing the responsibility to learn as an on-going process, and not as a sprint just before final exams; and evaluating students by at least several benchmarks, and not just a single, summative final examination.

While what is being proposed here could be called engaged learning, the learning is directed, with specific outcomes sought, so the active and experiential tasks are better described as engaged education. The methodology is designed to enhance specifically framed educational outcomes, facilitate the development of competencies and result in an education that bridges theory and practice, better equipping students for the real-world on the day after their graduation.

So what would this look like? First, it would start right away in the first year of school, especially if it is to affect and reach the core of the educational process.  Without primacy, the message sent will be that experiential, engaged education is secondary to case analysis. Second, the level of engagement would be adjusted to fit the particular context, including the nature of the school, its location, and its students.  Some schools might want engaged components or modules built within courses; other schools might want a single course focusing on engaged learning each semester.  Third, engagement would vary from course to course and year to year.  For example, in a first year Criminal Law course, there could be several engaged or active learning modules.  Students could be required to observe a criminal court case, take a guided tour of the local jail, interview a criminal defense lawyer or prosecutor, or participate in forensic evidence demonstrations.  Property law, on the other hand, could have a single engaged component, such as finding an easement in the community or creating a land sale contract.

The concept of engaged education is accepted and promoted in business and other graduate schools and undergraduate domains, among other educational venues. Should legal education at least check it out, especially as market forces and globalization keep pushing adaptation?