Dispelling the myths of lawyer education

There’s an old story about a supposed experiment in which five apes are placed in a cage containing a stepladder. A banana is hanging from the roof of the cage, and a sprinkler with ice-cold water is positioned above it. Whenever an ape tries to climb the ladder to get the banana, the sprinkler comes on and drenches all the apes until the ambitious ape abandons the effort. Eventually, after numerous attempts and soakings, the apes learn to avoid the ladder altogether. Then the sprinkler is turned off completely.

Now one of the apes is replaced with a new ape, who, not surprisingly, heads straight for the stepladder to get the banana. The other apes set upon him immediately, beating and shoving him until he gives up — even though the water never comes on. Then another replacement ape arrives, and when he tries to get the banana, the other apes attack him — including the previous new ape who has never been soaked! Eventually, five new apes who’ve never been showered with ice water will nonetheless avoid the stepladder and the banana. And that, the story goes, is where policy comes from — that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.

The legal profession resembles that cage in a lot of ways, but how we educate and recruit new lawyers might be the best example. Our beliefs and practices about the legal training process owe far more to our professional myths and oral traditions than they do to the cold light of evidence. Here are two recent examples.

Leah Christensen of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law has just published a paper titled “Predicting Law School Success: A Study of Goal Orientations, Academic Achievement, and the Declining Self-Efficacy of Our Law Students.” (HT to Douglas Berman at the Law School Innovation blog.) The paper focuses largely on goal orientation and student self-efficacy, two concepts I’m not sure I can fully grasp on just one cup of coffee, but the key finding for me was this:

[T]he LSAT score was the weakest predictor of law school success. … The strongest predictor of success was between Lawyering Skills grade and class rank (0.57). There was a moderate positive correlation between UGPA and class rank (0.46). And, there was a weak correlation between LSAT score and class rank (0.23). According to the results of this study, Lawyering Skills Grade is a better predictor of class rank than the LSAT. Further, undergraduate performance, rather than a student’s performance on the LSAT, is a stronger predictor of law school performance.

As Christensen points out, this is just the latest data point to support the increasingly obvious fact that the LSAT’s importance in the law school admission process is wildly disproportionate to its usefulness. Yet law schools continue to over-rely on it, and the infamous US News & World Report US law school rankings continue to over-emphasize it. Incoming students’ shoe size is probably about as reliable a predictor of law school success as the LSAT — yet when a school considers even tweaking its approach to the LSAT, all hell breaks loose.

On the heels of Christensen’s paper comes another from Benjamin Barton of the University of Tennessee College of Law at Knoxville, whose published work asks: “Is There a Correlation Between Law Professor Publication Counts, Law Review Citation Counts, and Teaching Evaluations?” (HT this time to the TaxProf Blog, via Best Practices for Legal Education.) Barton’s comprehensive study calls into serious question law schools’ penchant for hiring professors whose skills lie in publishing rather than teaching:

[It] covers every tenured or tenure-track faculty member at 19 U.S. law schools, a total of 623 professors. The study gathers four years of teaching evaluation data (calendar years 2000–2003) and tests for associations between the teaching data and five different measures of research productivity/scholarly influence.

The results are counterintuitive: there is either no correlation or a slight positive correlation between teaching effectiveness and any of the five measures of research productivity. Given the breadth of the study, this finding is quite robust. These findings should help inform debates about teaching and scholarship among law school and other faculties and likely require some soul-searching about the interaction between the two most important functions of U.S. law schools.

Soul-searching might be called for, but are we likely to see it happen? Law school culture has long valued profs’ academic reputation and publication credentials well beyond their worth to law students. With a few honourable exceptions, schools have shown little interest in changing that.

But let’s not imagine that legal academia has cornerned the market on new lawyer myths. Law firms continue to over-value new graduates’ law school transcripts when selecting and hiring new recruits. As I noted earlier this year, when one law firm sat down to determine the correlation between its new lawyers’ academic achievement and their success as working lawyers, it found there wasn’t one:

The firm compared each of its associates’ grades, class rank, and school rank to their evaluations and accomplishments at the firm. Blackwell found that neither law school rank nor class rank could determine who would become a standout lawyer.

That firm, now Husch Blackwell Sanders, went on to place what it learned from this and similar studies into a handbook titled From Classes to Competencies, Lockstep To Levels, which documents the transformation of its entire associate culture in light of reasoned empirical research.

So here’s what we have: evidence, often compelling, that:

  1. LSAT scores don’t tell you much about whether someone will be a good law student,
  2. Publishing credentials don’t tell you anything about whether someone will be a good law professor, and
  3. Law school marks don’t tell you anything about whether someone will be a good lawyer.

And yet LSAT scores, law professor credentials and law school marks remain the three most significant criteria employed within the lawyer training system. Apes in a cage.

Your law school and your law firm don’t need to hunker down by the fire and retell the same old legends about how to train and recruit lawyers. It hardly bears asserting that the weight of longstanding and widespread practice shouldn’t be enough to keep you from revisiting your assumptions and getting it right —  to your competitive advantage. Or, as one of my favourite Despair.com posters puts it: “Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”


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