A student at the University of Miami wants its Student Bar Association to adopt a Bill of Rights that essentially relieves law students from any and all obligations. Thank you to Above the Law for bringing this to my attention. The site did a great job of mocking the student, but without seriously explaining why the demands seemed ridiculous. We have some ideas about that.
Now, admittedly, not all the “rights” demanded in the student’s Bill of Rights are outrageous. For instance, I understand students wanting to receive their grades in a reasonable period of time after taking an exam (“Students shall not have to wait an unreasonable amount of time to receive a grade on any graded assignment.”), and the desire to receive a real explanation about how tests are graded (“The right of a student to receive a clear explanation from the professor as to how the student received their grade on any graded assignment…shall not be infringed upon.”) I’m not sure about a Bill of Rights for these desires, but still, at least I understand where the student is coming from.
Regarding some of the other student demands: Not so much. Apparently, this student is not familiar with The Paper Chase (the book or the film) and even Legally Blonde. Law school is rigorous. Get over it. To demand a Bill of Rights to protect students from the rigors of law school? Even Elle Woods would have seen the folly in that.
But, if I had to pick one provision that really drove me crazy, one would win, hands down. Here it is: “Students shall not be expected to know material that was not covered in the assigned reading for that day’s class, nor covered in any of the lectures and/or assigned readings to that day’s class.” Seriously? How would that work?
As a graduate of and current administrator at a law school, I am often baffled by the demands and sense of entitlement in today’s law students. But this one kind of takes the cake.
Hel-lo, lawyers must draw inferences from knowledge they have from the real world every day. Without such knowledge, they couldn’t communicate effectively with clients and juries. Without such information, they couldn’t make practical business decisions. To wholly understand the application of the rule of law to the facts in case, a student has to have some “other” knowledge or historical point of reference.
I still remember a lesson I learned as a 1L in Torts that today’s students seem to be in need of. My classmate was having a difficult time understanding why the court in United States v. Carroll Towing Company had used a cost-benefit analysis of tort law, meaning that negligence could be found when the cost of preventing an accident was less than the probability of injury and loss.
The professor was trying to get the student to think for herself and was using the good ol’ Socratic method. He asked a series of questions that demanded the student draw an inference based on material that was not assigned, but presumably learned at some point during the student’s formal education. When the student still couldn’t figure out why the court decided as it did, my professor explained her error: she was analyzing a case without drawing on common-sense outside knowledge. The very kind of knowledge that the drafter of University of Miami Law School’s absurd Bill of Rights seeks to protect students from.
A quick recap of Carroll Towing: A barge loaded with government-owned flour, broke free from the pier, drifted, and sank. During the time of the incident, the fellow in charge of the barge was absent, and the question before the court was whether despite his having a reasonable excuse not to be there, the mariner’s absence amounted to negligence and was a legal cause for the loss of U.S. property. The court balanced the cost of having taken more precaution with the likelihood that a barge could break free, and found that the defendant was liable.
As the professor unsuccessfully attempted to interrogate the student on call about the cost benefit analysis, he realized he had lost the student, and he began to rephrase his line of inquiry, asking the student to call upon other knowledge. After a few futile exchanges, the professor exclaimed, “is there anything about the date of this case and the fact that court tells us the pier is busy, that can help you?”
You see, as our textbook told us, the accident had taken place in New York Harbor in January 1944. No answer. Besides alerting the student to the fact that the date in the case should have “told” her the United States was at war, my seemingly defeated professor explained that NY Harbor would have been a very busy harbor in the full tide of war. Boats would have been entering and exiting the harbor, the pier would have been used for serious marine purposes, not to mention there was a large U.S. Navy concentration of ships, because after all, there was a war going on.
Learned Hand’s articulation of the cost-benefit analysis of damages, it turned out, made far more sense in light of the historical context of the case; without a mariner on duty at this busy pier at this hellish time, a barge breaking free and then sinking was easily foreseeable. Our professor, correctly, I’d say, expected a student to rely on her knowledge of U.S. history – which was not covered in class (and would not be covered in any material assigned for class.)
Indeed, relying on material not covered in the day’s assigned reading or prior readings is something good law students do every day. To better understand a case in Constitutional or Criminal Law, for example, a law student may have to draw on knowledge of the law learned in Civil Procedure or Property. Students who don’t do this routinely will never fully understand how our laws weave together into the tapestry we call our judicial system, how one set of facts can give rise to issues governed by different areas of law.
What I learned that day was to pay more attention to what I was reading, what I was learning, and how I could make learning a more holistic experience. Throughout the remainder of my law school education, I looked for nuances, procedural issues, and other legal issues that may be present or simultaneously exist but remain unexplained, in the assigned reading. I also challenged myself to think more acutely when a professor engaged in the Socratic method, with either a classmate or with me. It was grueling, but it made me a better student; it also helped me understand everything that I was learning and make connections that I may not have otherwise made.
After this walk down memory lane, I came back to the present and the Miami student’s demands. I marveled, for what felt like the thousandth time, at the prevailing student attitude today, and tried to put my finger on why students seem so different than they were when I graduated just four years ago.
Can it be the helicoptering phenomenon that has been written about so often? If, somehow, you’ve been spared the results of this fad, it refers to today’s parents hovering over and applauding every move the child makes, with competition a dirty word and age appropriate autonomy deferred.
Law schools teach students how to think critically, use deductive and inductive reasoning, and learn the law as theory and as it is applied. And a funny thing happens when the helicoptered children enter a learning institution that employs the same method of education as it did one hundred years ago. The students are indignant. The method they are reacting to is the Socratic method.
The Socratic method is not only one of the oldest styles of teaching; it is one of the most arduous styles of learning. Although this method is anxiety-provoking, intense, and rigid, it does prepare future attorneys to be able to meet the demands of the profession. It trains us to discern relevant facts from a sea of facts, to find laws on point that will guide an issue or claim, and most importantly, to help our clients. Law school is not about endless discussions on how students feel about the law, and writing heartfelt essays on exams. Law school is hard. It has to be; anything less than that would be a disservice to future clients.
So, what’s going on at the University of Miami that’s so special that the students need a Bill of Rights? From what I can discern, nothing. The professors there are requiring that students know black letter law, case law, how stare decisis works…and to think. And last I checked, that’s part of the process. As a law student, you are required to teach yourself as much about the law as you can, and your professor is required to help you teach yourself how to do it.
Instead of spending time being outraged about how they are treated and drafting a Bill of Rights, students today would often do better to do a better job drafting their assignments. Or studying. Or thinking.