Sunday, October 7, 2007

Building for the Future

"The quality and creative power of student intellectual life to this day remains a vital measure of a school's influence and attainment." Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995) - Justice Kennedy's majority opinion

I've been thinking lately about what makes a good law school great. For starters, all great law schools have at least one essential element: first class faculty. Great thinkers beget great thinkers. They model critical thinking, they train us to think critically, and they draw critical thoughts out of us through the give and take of classroom discussion. Bottom line, faculty matters. However, while students may grouse about rankings and expect the administration to do something about it, I can't help but wonder whether students too can impact the "measure of [our] school's influence and attainment."

Can law school students influence the shift from good to great? How? Well, it has a lot to do with the mentality with which we approach our legal education. I can start by making a few suggestions, but I whole-heartedly welcome additional suggestions in the comments following this post.

(1) Create a culture of excellence by making the most of opportunities to learn and seriously considering our individual contributions to the whole.
(2) Think generationally. We will benefit in the decades to come from the influence and attainment of the law school over time. Future students will only achieve greater heights by standing on our shoulders.
(3) Help one another adhere to a code of professional behavior that will make us proud to stand in a courtroom one day and be sworn into the bar.
(4) Be curious. With the internet we have unprecedented access to the latest coming out of One First Street Northeast and opportunities to dialogue with our colleagues via blogs.
(5) Think solutions. We are members of an elite legal community that will be called upon to solve the world's problems (well, some of them at least). While in law school we can learn not only to identify areas of weakness, but also to contribute positively so that they become areas of strength.

We students at PSU DSL in both locations have a unique opportunity. We are on the ground floor of what the law school is going to be. We are taking the first steps on the journey towards where the law school is headed. We are experiencing the growing pains and challenges of transition space and we have one more major transition coming down the road: the transition into our new buildings. It's a clean slate of sorts. We can reflect back on the tone of the past couple years and ask ourselves, what attitudes do we want to carry with us into the new space? Which ones do we want to leave behind? What lessons have we learned from this season of transition? What worked? What didn't work? What built up and what tore down? We have an opportunity to set the tone for the current student body and to lay the foundation for years to come.


Kelly J. Bozanic said...

I agree with your "mentalities" on the whole, but I find a problem with (1). Specifically, can the class collective ever be maximized in light of the prevalence of competition in American Law Schools, particularly law schools lower in rankings (in other words, students with something to prove)? Competition seems inextricably linked with lack of contribution to the collective. Perhaps this is cynicism rearing its ugly head, but it seems as though the tighter the job market, the worse this may become.

In the interest of being "solutions-oriented," I would suggest increased attention to extra-curriculars which provide a natural venue for legal discourse and excellence (e.g. law review, moot court, academic societies, etc.) without the pressure of grades.

Marie T. Reilly said...

You say "competition seems inextricably liked with lack of contribution to the collective." I respectfully, but vigorously disagree. Competition among law students is not bad. Competition is good. It is very good -- and not only for the students who win. "A rising tide lifts all ships." Or if you prefer a more technical observation of the same point:

"Every individual. . . generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest nor knows he is promoting it. . . . [H]e intends only his own security, and by directing [his] industry in such manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention." Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II.

Either you believe this or you don't -- and that makes all the difference.

Kelly J. Bozanic said...

Prof. Reilly, I hear you, but doesn't the invisible hand break down with imperfect market conditions? Can you say that Law School is a market free of externalities? I guess the scenario I am imagining is when a student asks a question of a professor in office hours. The student is maximizing his interest in discovering an answer, and will ultimately benefit the public at large by his understanding, but perhaps due to embarrassment, or something more sinister, the student chooses not to share this understanding with the class.

While I do believe that much could come from full collaboration in class, I just struggle to see how it can happen when students are competing for the same thing.

Marie T. Reilly said...

No market is free of externalities. But the market for student achievement in law schools is far from a failure. The failure, I see is that students are failing to compete with each other. I'd love to have the problem of a line of "gunners" outside my office with questions. Sure, as competition in a market increases, we can expect to see collusive and anticompetitive behavior. I'll take that problem over the failure to compete any day.

Alison M. Kilmartin said...

This brings to mind what I have been mulling the past few weeks: communism of the mind. In a less competitive environment, students may be satisfied to sit back and benefit from the efforts of their peers who understand and/or wrestle with the material. If we all share the collective, we are less motivated to push forward on our own. Instead we sit back and take what others have worked for. Over time, the collective intellectual wealth declines and the receding tide lowers all boats. Capitalist principles apply to any type of currency, and here we are trading in the currency of the mind.

Kelly J. Bozanic said...

I don't believe there is market failure in law school, but I do believe that the level of competition impedes thoughtful contributions in class collective discussions. I never meant to imply that competition was bad, simply that competition will preclude full contribution in class.

Marie T. Reilly said...

Again, I have to disagree. Why do 30,000 people show up to run the Chicago Marathon in 90 degree heat? Competition brings out the best in those who care to compete.

Are you worried that overt competition among students will chill classroom discussion? I concede that competition will change classroom dynamics. But I don't predict chill. Quite the contrary. I predict heat.

Kelly J. Bozanic said...

My whole point is that by promoting non-classroom activities, like law review, we will create the culture of excellence we seek. Within the classroom, the dynamic is different.