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What the Best Law Teachers Do: Book Review

Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess, and Sophie M. Sparrow. What the Best Law Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2013. (OhioLINK, CWRU Law on order)

The authors profile 26 law professors, 24 of whom still teach at law schools of various tiers. The authors selected the 26 from the numerous nominations they solicited from law schools. The book is a “legal” follow-up to Ken Bain’s 2004 book, What the Best College Professors Do. In addition to reviewing the nominations, the authors seemingly spent months, if not years, interviewing the selected law professors, attending their classes, reviewing feedback from past or present students, and analyzing the compiled data.

Law professors might this find this work reaffirming, as their profession encounters a period of relative upheaval. The profiled professors, in addition to their students, get a lot out of their classes. Several professors compared class to conducting an orchestra or being part of a jazz ensemble. One professor called teaching “a sacred trust.” Complex subjects can be taught effectively when engaging (and effective) methods are used to teach engaged students. A willingness to change course mid-semester, if necessary, goes a long way, too. Additionally, the book provides concrete suggestions for improving the classroom experience and the faculty-student dynamic. (With the caveat that most of the 26 have taught for (well) over twenty years, and a couple of the professors commented that twenty years of experience might be needed to “get into the groove” of excellent teaching.)

While it is hard to recall all the superlatives lavished on the 26, consistent themes include: mastery of (and passion for) the subject matter and whatever pedagogy they employ; a strong work ethic; genuine concern for students, both as individuals and as learners of complex, unfamiliar legal subjects; the ability to make needed changes during the semester and/or after a class which they admit went poorly; and effective use of technology and/or various teaching approaches.

Interestingly, law students reported that the courses offered by the 26 were not easy, but they were fair. The professors formed such a bond with their students that, somewhat counter-intuitively, the students took additional “hard” classes from the same professors. Also, if the students did not perform as well as they expected on the final exam for one of their favorite professors, they often scheduled appointments to review the exam, not to try to get a higher grade, but to assure the professor that they had put in the effort for the class and “hadn’t blown off the course.”

As mentioned, the 26 take a personal interest in their students. Examples include: learning all their names (in advance) and referencing students’ earlier input as the semester proceeded; inquiring about a student’s cat for months after the student missed class due to an emergency vet appointment; making their offices pleasant places to visit, with GOOD candy in the candy dish; and letting students “come in for a cry” (as long as the professor could keep eating his lunch).

Given the bond that these teachers forge with their students, and the many anecdotes of their effective pedagogy, their students likely are engrossed in each class session, much to the distress of their cast-aside “electronic devices.” It seems reasonable that even experienced law professors might learn some tips about engaging and bonding with students from reading this in-depth overview of “what the best law teachers do.”