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What the Best Law Teachers Do

reviewed by Marjorie Heins - November 22, 2013

coverTitle: What the Best Law Teachers Do
Author(s): Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess, & Sophie M. Sparrow
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674049144, Pages: 368, Year: 2013
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In popular imagination, the typical law teacher is the notorious Professor Charles Kingsfield, immortalized in the novel, The Paper Chase. Imperious, tyrannical, and a master practitioner of the Socratic method in its most rigorous form, Kingsfield aims to intimidate if not terrorize. But in one famous scene, the old codger turns out to be human: he shows approval, if not respect, to a student who has the temerity to talk back to him.

Well, we can say goodbye to the era of Kingsfield and to the joys of combat in the law school classroom. As the stories told and teachers celebrated in What the Best Law Teachers Do make plain, today’s model law professor is a nurturer, not a tyrant: loved, lovable, and passionately devoted to helping every student not only to understand the material but to enjoy it, to become a better person, and to embark on a future as a dedicated servant of the law.

The 26 law teachers highlighted in this book are indeed paragons. If I am sounding just a bit cynical, it is not because I don’t respect the amazing talents and commitment that these 26 evidently possess, or the impressive results they achieve: students uniformly rising to the challenge, inspired by affection and respect to work hard so as not to disappoint their charismatic teachers’ expectations. Instead, I remain skeptical because I suspect that there might still be room in the academy, if not exactly for pedagogues of the Kingsfield variety, then at least for professors who are not particularly student-friendly, are not interested in inviting them to lunch or hearing about their personal troubles, but are simply brilliant lecturers, inspiring scholars, or, indeed, skilled practitioners of the dread Socratic method.

That said, however, there is much to be learned from What the Best Law Teachers Do about great teaching. The book aims to serve as a guide for any teacher, law or otherwise, to improving both methods and results. So, what do the 26 teachers chosen here do that might be emulated? They spend long hours preparing each class. Some of them memorize the name of each student by the end of the first session. One e-mails each student personally at the start of the semester. They love their subjects and convey this enthusiasm. They are counselors, friends, and role models. They give copious feedback. They use trips, games, songs, and storytelling to make classes fun. They temper criticism with praise. One is given to complimenting students with such adjectives as “great” and “super duper” (p. 190).

Through their passion, their careful preparation, and their obvious desire that each student succeed, they inspire their charges to work hard. As one student put it: “I wanted him to be proud of me” (p. 135). If they have encountered any failing or troubled students that even their great efforts and personal charms did not help to succeed, we do not hear about them in this book.

The book is organized into six core chapters: “What Personal Qualities Do the Best Law Teachers Possess?”; “How Do the Best Law Teachers Relate to Their Students?”; “What Do the Best Law Teachers Expect From Their Students?”; “How Do the Best Law Teachers Prepare to Teach?”; “How Do the Best Law Teachers Engage Students in and out of the Classroom?”; and “How Do the Best Law Teachers Provide Feedback and Assess Students?” Each pointer is illustrated with a number of quotations from surveys and interviews of students, alumni, the chosen teachers, and their peers.

Although there are occasional gems among the myriad quotations, the overall effect is repetitious. One can understand how difficult it must have been for the authors to cull many hundreds of pages of survey and interview answers into a manageable book, but the result, even with all that culling, still made this reader impatient. The key characteristics and practices of these talented teachers could have been amply summarized with fewer illustrative quotations.

The best chapter, in many ways, is the last, titled “What Lasting Lessons Do Students Take Away?” Much more concisely than its predecessors, this chapter makes its point by describing the personal transformations that some students experienced through exposure to their faculty role models. They learned humility, civility, respect for every client, and ability to listen. They learned to embrace the law not just as a meal ticket and a source of status, but as a system always in need of improvement and reform.

One of the 26 teachers celebrated here puts her mission into near-religious terms. “In that sacred space in and around the law school classroom,” she says, “I am privileged to participate in what I hope is the transformative process of helping students to reach new understandings of subject, self, and society that, in turn, will fuel their distinctive contributions to the world at large. Learning as a prelude to doing—and doing with greater depth as a result of learning—is an obvious, but profound, connection that gives our sometimes lonely labors broader significance and practical consequences of the highest order as we help our students to self-actualize in the law and to become the best professionals and people they can be—for their clients, for their community, and for themselves” (p. 301).

It is such occasional inspiring observations that make this book worthwhile, and that remind us of the “special task” of teachers that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described many years ago: they are (or should be) the “priests of our democracy” because it is their job to instill “those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens” (Wieman v. Updegraff, 1952).  It is as true of law teachers as of those in other fields.



Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183, 195 (1952).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17328, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:35:32 AM

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About the Author
  • Marjorie Heins
    Free Expression Policy Project
    E-mail Author
    MARJORIE HEINS is a former ACLU lawyer, the founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project, and the author, most recently, of Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge (NYU Press, 2013). She has been a visiting professor at both the law school and undergraduate levels. She currently teaches “Censorship in American Culture and Law” at New York University.
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