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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Deborah Jones Merritt: Are Law Schools Like A&P and NASA?

LogosDeborah Jones Merritt (Ohio State), Tried and True:

Why do smart people stick to outmoded ideas? Why do creative scientists or business people lose their ingenuity when it comes to their own business models? Pondering these questions, a reader pointed me to this classic essay in the National Geographic Adventure Blog.

In the essay, best-selling author Laurence Gonzales discusses epic failures [like] The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) [and NASA]. ... The final report on Columbia's crash noted that "[e]xternal criticism and doubt" only "reinforced the will to ‘impose the party line vision on the environment, not to reconsider it.'" NASA's executives, in other words, responded with perfect groupness: Bonded by their past success, they rejected any criticisms with hostility.

Legal education, unfortunately, shows all of the signs of groupness. How many times have you heard a law professor say: "We've been using the case method for more than a century. You can't argue with a hundred years of success!" How often have you heard administrators and faculty revel in the excellence of their schools and programs? How often does your law school, as described internally, sound like the "perfect place"? How often do you hear faculty attacking the "naive" suggestions of practitioners, students, alumni, and other outsiders?

It's important to be proud of our accomplishments; but it's vital to avoid groupness. During the last year, I've seen many welcome signs of law schools waking to the need for serious change. But I've also seen signs of resistance, of increased chest thumping and declarations of excellence. As we welcome the new year, let's embrace the lesson that A&P never learned: After a hundred years, times change.

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Cooley would be an example of the kind of school which does not follow groupness. It expands to new campuses while others are contracting. It rejects US News rankings and publishes its own. It even has a minor league baseball team when other more traditional schools would not think of spending money on such a thing. It has been financially successful.

So the next time an outsider suggests that your school should be more like Cooley, you should listen to them.

Posted by: Hipster | Jan 1, 2013 1:19:45 PM

I've never heard ant professor defend the case method in anything like those terms.

Posted by: Garrett Epps | Jan 1, 2013 5:19:22 PM

The thing about reconsidering the premises of an organization is that most organizations are not set up to foster the reconsideration of basic beliefs. Individuals can change course--get up in the morning and say "I'm going to do the opposite today and see what it brings"--but for groups it's almost impossible. Everyone in the group is wedded to their own niche in the world, and no one wants to lose anything. No person wants to lose his niche--people are super risk-averse. Where the smart thing would be to invent, groups do the dumb thing, which is to boast. Boasting fits the current environment, but inventing does not. All this simple psychology stuff, but maybe worth repeating.

I say this as a writing teacher with an efficient method of teaching freshmen in college to write really well in one semester--a novel method. Because bad student writing is a major problem in colleges, you might think colleges would be trying out new methods that might work better. You would be wrong. No college and no English Department I have been in has ever been interested in the well-tested writing pedagogy that I have proposed. Colleges are not hurt if students write badly. But incentives to maintain the status quo in English Departments are legion. So student writing remains horrible even in the senior year of college. The colleges more or less want it that way.

Posted by: Lowellguy | Jan 2, 2013 7:21:39 AM

@Lowellguy: Don't bother trying to change the English Department -- they are the ones directly threatened by the change. Sell your approach to the Business or Engineering Schools; call it Technical Writing, or Business Communication, or something that doesn't sound like English. These are the disciplines that would benefit from people who can write clearly.

Posted by: rafinlay | Jan 2, 2013 12:27:03 PM