Teaching Law: an Essay

Publication year2021
CitationVol. 77

77 Nebraska L. Rev. 719. Teaching Law: An Essay


Barbara Taylor Mattis*

Teaching Law: An Essay


I. Introduction .......................................... 719
II. Classroom ............................................. 720
III. Curriculum ............................................ 723
IV. Informal Arenas ....................................... 725
V. Learning Without a Teacher's Physical Presence ........ 727
A. Study Groups ....................................... 727
B. Students Alone ..................................... 728
VI. Conclusion ............................................ 729


[Myres McDougal] was a great teacher because he was passionately

engaged in a life-long process of learning and creating. So his

teaching was not simply a matter of imparting knowledge to his

students. That was, he felt, beneath them. He taught by incorporating

his students in his projects, by assigning them parts, working with

them, teaching them as he learned from them. . . . For all of his

students, it was a thrill to be part of this large


Law professors' duties comprise teaching, research and writing, public and community service, and law school committee work. The greatest of these is teaching. Not all academes agree with this assertion. Some regard the weekly six or so hours spent in the classroom as an interruption of their life of the mind-a life that all too often seeks expression in work in progress for publications to be read only by other academes within the specific interest of the writer.(fn2) Other law


professors want and need to devote most of their energies to teaching, especially during the early years of their careers. For them, publication is more of a necessity for tenure than a pleasure, but the research and writing does fuel their classroom expertise. Of course, there are a few superstars, who from the outset are inspired writers and inspiring teachers.

Law teaching and learning occur in various arenas: in the classroom during the class hour; at the podium as students gather for a quick question or remark after class; in the hallways after leaving the classroom; in professors' offices; and often where no law professor is present-where students gather to study, where students study alone, or where students study with their computers.


The classroom is the most efficient arena in terms of exposure of the largest number of students to a single professor's leadership. However, the classroom arena should be limited in terms of time and size. The class hour should be just that: the fifty-minute hour to which most law professors and students are accustomed. The three-hour class, even if it lasts only two and one-half clock hours, is too compressed to allow for mental ventilation. Thoughtful absorption of the amount of ideas and concepts that can be dealt with in three intense hours requires reflection time not possible in the class session. Students need smaller bites with digestion time between classes. However, some professors have found that hour and one-half (seventy-five minute) or two-hour (one hundred minute) class sessions work well. John Hart Ely points out that fewer but extended sessions accomplish a reduction in start-up time (putting the subject matter of the day into context) over the semester. The attention span of most students is adequate for a two-hour class. Students should not be required to go from one extra-long class to another, although part time or night students often are. The decision for one-hour or two-hour sessions might be influenced by the number of credit-hours assigned to the course. In any case, the decision should be made in light of factors other than a professor's desire to dispose of the class in one dose a


Limitations on classroom size, in terms of numbers of students, is tremendously important. It is not just a matter of overcrowding; some


classrooms, unfortunately, were built to accommodate three hundred students comfortably. If the law school classroom is viewed as a lecture hall, the three hundred or even one thousand student audience might be appropriate. However, the learning most law professors seek for their students does not happen through passive listening to lectures. The goal is preparation for professional, ethical competence. Thinking like a lawyer begins with the power of consecutive thought. Insofar as that power is developed in the classroom, it results from interchange, discussion, and pushing the limits of responsive and creative thinking. We have long thought that the Socratic method is best suited to these ends. The only law professor I have ever known to master the Socratic method (although I am sure there are others, myself not included) is Richard A. Hausler of the University of Miami Law School. Even he summarizes at the end of each class. For most of us, the methodology varies, suited to the subject matter at hand and to our individual styles and strengths. Whatever the professor's classroom techniques are, they should foster active student participation, built on thorough preparation for each class.

All students in the classroom need to feel involved, not just the student who is the immediate focus of the professor's attention. This involvement is lost when the number of students is too large. Opinions of experienced professors differ as to where the size limitation should be drawn. My smallest class was four, not because of any limitation I set, but probably because I was teaching future interests. I taught it in my office, where reference books were readily available and total participation was achieved. Nonetheless, a class of four students is too small and usually unjustifiable in terms of resource utilization. In my opinion, somewhere between forty and sixty students is the ideal class size.

We do not live in an ideal world. My largest classes exceeded one hundred and fifty students, which does not astound my colleagues to whom much larger classes are assigned. However, I found that the classroom intimacy and intensity necessary to my style of teaching were at risk. Given that one must play the hand she is dealt, I tried an experiment that worked relatively well with the too-large class. The device became labeled the "law firm."

All students selected seats on the first day of class. However, four spaces were marked reserved. These were in the middle of the next-to-the-last row, far enough away from me that the students who would occupy them must speak up for me, and consequently for the rest of the class, to hear them. Hearing other students and considering their responses is almost as important as hearing the professor. I had a small index card for...

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