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Studying Law: Different Approaches and Methodology


Personal Recount as an On-Campus Student

When I attended law school in the late 1980s to pursue my JD from the University of the Balearic Islands, the characteristics and legal profession of the time informed the university’s teaching methods.  Every day I drove to my campus to attend the lectures from various instructors, which despite differing on the subject explained shared the same character, basically theoretical, of the knowledge provided.  At that time, lawyers basically relied on codes and richly crafted legal treatises and so did law students to gain the necessary legal background.

Needless to say at that time there were no smartphones, tablets, or in general software databases of jurisprudence that were readily accessible to Spanish universities and most of the lawyers. During the five years I spent at the law school I learned a bunch of Latin aphorisms, studied codes and laws in detail, and analyzed the language used by different legislators — though unfortunately not the way in which those laws were applied in the daily routine of the courts.

Me at the University of the Balearic Islands

As our society is increasingly becoming more and more technological and legal firms and universities have not remained indifferent to this trend. Powerful legal databases like Lexis Nexis are replacing many books that have not search engines while occupy a lot of precious space. Subscription to those databases and analogue online services is not precisely inexpensive.

It happens the same with the hardware needed to run those applications and handle the huge volume of information obtained which also makes necessary to implement mechanisms for archiving that information in powerful hard drives with multiple backup copies. Moreover lawyers nowadays interact with each other almost anytime by email, video call or chatting. A few decades ago that was pure science fiction.

I always missed group assignments that in fact were like a stage setting of real-life trials. A consequence or perhaps a reason for this lack of practical knowledge was little interaction with the instructor and other students in the class.

The Classical Model of Learning Law

The most accepted method of instruction in American law schools is the Socratic method, also called classical model. This aims to allow the student to discern the legal principles and analysis of the facts of a case based on an active interaction between the teacher and the student. The teacher questions the students extensively about a case so the student can understand the applicable rules of law.

The Socratic method is also aimed to help the prospective lawyer think like a lawyer, fostering logical reasoning and the correct application of legal syllogisms (the special logic judges use to decide the cases).

The problem with the Socratic method and the theoretical model used at my law school twenty years ago is that they teach how to think as a lawyer but not how to work as a lawyer. It is necessary that law school implements learning techniques that allow the student to understand with full realism what is for instance a courtroom network and how the different individuals involved (e.g. judges, prosecutors, defendants, victims) interact with each other, if we want to provide future lawyers with the practical skills necessary to offer a proper and accurate counsel.

The American and the Spanish criminal legal systems are very diverse in their natures and procedures. In Spain we have mainly an inquisitorial system in which the judge takes an active role in investigating the case and asking questions to witnesses in court. Conversely, in the United States the criminal system is an adversarial system, in which a passive judge and jury seek to find the truth by listening to opposing attorneys who vigorously advocate on behalf of their respective sides. That being said in both systems there is for instance a very interesting interaction between the criminal justice actors that very often is neglected at the law schools.

The Legal Profession: A Perpetual Evolution

The profession of lawyer is very dynamic and evolves rapidly. As a result of the important technological advances experienced counsel has a new variety of what Ethnography-the study of people in cultures- calls “cultural artifacts” objects like legal databases, big treatises or codes, that represent a subculture whose proper use and application can have a dramatic impact on the performance of the legal professional.

Times Are Changing Academically, Too

Moreover some universities are beginning to offer joint degrees (e.g. law and criminal psychiatry) being conscious of the evolving nature of law and its close relation with other knowledge areas. Penn State is one of those universities.

I have pursued a Bachelor of Arts (B.A. in Law and Society) whose curriculum pays great attention to the relation between the legal system and the society that has created it as a pivotal tool for social control and, eventually, for social change. Despite it being an undergraduate degree many of the following conclusions concerning teaching techniques might be extrapolated to other graduate counterparts.

During these semesters I have had an enriching experience, which, making an extensive use of technology, has encouraged the permanent interaction with classmates and faculty members.

A Law School survey of student engagement conducted in 2007, determined that the students who found their instructors to be friendly and readily accessible were more lenient judging their years at law school than those who suffered a more distant instruction. Another led in 2011 determined that 51% of the students rated their relationships with faculty very highly (6 or 7 on a 7-point scale) in terms of availability and helpfulness.

I think there are objective reasons to conclude that this is the way to go.  Instructors that make themselves easily available to help students and who foster the collaborative efforts between classmates (e.g. by using group assignments) can actively contribute to make the law student think and most importantly act as a legal professional.

The online environment, despite seeming challenging at first sight, has also qualitative advantages when compared to the traditional on-campus education.

An enhanced interaction and a reinforced level of communication due to the flexibility of this academic model are two of their most archetypal features. That flexibility ultimately allows the student to communicate almost continuously with her instructor and fellow students.

The traditional on-campus education needs to adapt to the new times and evolve adopting some of the methodologies previously described. On-campus education is still the most common form of instruction and has certain benefits that, unfortunately, can ultimately turn out into drawbacks. Apparently on campus education provides a high level of social interaction but very often the group of students in the classroom is too big which ultimately can lead to student alienation.

On-campus education also requires serious time and financial commitment on behalf of the student who will have to visit personally the classroom on a regular basis to get the prescribed course materials.