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What if law schools had a fiduciary relationship with their students?

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

This LPS post is by Neil Ginsburg, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

Sitting in my Corporations course, I learned about the fiduciary duties corporate officers have in serving the best interests of their corporation and the legal redresses shareholders can pursue should those with decision-making powers deviate from their legal and ethical obligations. I couldn’t help but wonder, “wouldn’t it be great if law schools had a fiduciary relationship with their students?” After all, the ultimate mission of a law school, or any other school for that matter, should be serving the best interests of its students.

This reminded me of a central theme of Legal Problem Solving that systems should be designed to have a client-centered approach in solving problems and providing services. I came to the realization that many of the shortcomings I see in my law school experience are a result of law schools losing sight of the fundamental premise of who their client truly is. Throughout this blog post, I examine a handful of issues at a superficial level. There is no doubt that any of these topics can be explored in depth in hundreds of pages. Nonetheless, I include such examples only to provoke the fundamental question of, if students aren’t at the forefront, who really are law schools’ intended clients.

Almost every law student and prospective law student has heard about the countless studies of depression, substance abuse, suicide, and overall lack of wellbeing prevalent in the legal profession and in law schools across the country. Law schools, including my own Vanderbilt Law School, continue to haphazardly address such issues with rather lazy and reactionary responses that simply serve as a band-aid solution to a much deeper rooted self-inflicted wound. Instead of examining these root causes of poor student wellbeing, Vanderbilt Law School is seemingly content to simply allocate some relatively small amount of funding to student counselors. (For what it’s worth, I don’t even know where these offices are located, who these counselors are, what credentials these counselors hold, and what services are even offered … Not a single one of my peers or a random sampling of Vanderbilt Law School students were able to provide any answers either …) And circulate the occasional email with the phone number of an anonymous help hotline or some yoga meditation group. While I don’t mean to underplay the importance that some of these resources provide students, there’s clearly a divide that’s not being met by Vanderbilt Law or most other law schools for that matter.

For starters, law schools need to take responsibility for sowing the seeds of the litany of mental health and substance abuse issues that so deeply afflict the legal profession. From day one, law students are baptized by fire by unnecessarily being thrown into a toxic, high-pressure environment that is characterized by zero-sum competition and isolation.

For example, simply looking at the basic structure of how our law school classes are taught leaves me bewildered. Why are students still being taught in the Socratic method? Is it such a genius and unrivaled teaching method that its ​continuous use in law schools for centuries is warranted? Is it because my professors had to go through it as students and now feel obligated to impose it on current law students? Or is it a collective action problem where law schools, traditionally resistant to change, lack adequate incentives to serve as a guinea pig?

On paper, the Socratic method sounded like a reasonable pedagogical method where students would collectively engage in hypothesis elimination with a professor, distill their reasoning, and ultimately reach the correct answer. However, the chasm between my expectation of how the Socratic method should be used and how I have been exposed to it in reality couldn’t have been further. I now believe that the proffered pedagogical utility of the Socratic method by law schools is utter nonsense in practice. Instead, the Socratic method is simply a veiled attempt at hazing where students are often publically humiliated and motivated by fear. I’ve even had professors who visually seem to relish seeing a student squirm in their seat, struggling to arrive at the answer the professor wants to hear. I wonder if this has anything to do student mental health?

How about law students’ assessment? Our beloved bell-curve, for example, means that the better grades I earn, the worse grade my peers earn and vice-versa. Law schools need a way to separate the pack, after all, and they simply cannot present an entire class of “winners” to employers. It seems to me like law schools needed a way to make otherwise correct legal reasoning less correct. Further, students are indoctrinated by faculty and career advisors to see their GPAs as an indicator of self-worth by buying into the fallacy that grades are the end-all-be-all in determining the trajectory of their legal careers.

As students, we are all constantly being told we must get a high GPA, be on law review, and take part in moot court because this is what the coveted Big Law employers want to see. Yet the law school designs each of the components such that there are clear winners and losers. Who does that really serve by doing so? Students? Employers? Finally, a single timed writing examination is our only form of assessment for an entire semester’s work. The exam is timed for reasons beyond me. Sure, we’ll have time-sensitive assignments in our legal career, but we aren’t facing such artificial time constraints imposed by our exams in the real-world (when else are we going to be required to write everything we learned about criminal law in a semester in the span of two hours?). More importantly, most students will never receive any feedback on their single exam from their professor. Why would you care anyway, after your grade has been finalized and you’ve already moved on to the next slate of courses to repeat the process? To me, the methods of assessment that law schools have designed are nothing but a rat race that spits students out with artificial notions of success and failure.

If law schools actually want to serve their students as they publicly profess to doing, they need to stop subordinating the interests of their own students to the interests of other stakeholders. Law schools are in desperate need of some introspection and need to ask themselves the fundamental questions of who are their clients and how are they best serving them?