Paul L. Caron

Thursday, June 27, 2019

What Law Schools Can Learn From Harry Potter

Sarah Gerwig-Moore (Mercer), What American Legal Education Can Learn From the 'Harry Potter' Series:

Harry POtterI’m sitting in my law school office daydreaming about the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and I’m working on pedagogy, not fantasy.

Published just over 20 years ago, the Harry Potter books captivated children and adults alike, with dramatic storylines, imaginative characters and even moral lessons about courage and self-determination. But the fictional world of Harry Potter may also have some useful insight for law schools and those of us who teach in them.

Both legal education and a Hogwarts magical education involve a new way of seeing the world—an immersive and intense process requiring, in many ways, a transformation. Students need a new wardrobe for both law school and wizarding school—and an awful lot of puzzling and expensive textbooks. Both Hogwarts and law school have been accused of operating entirely apart from reality. One of these criticisms may be valid.

Broadly speaking, the pedagogical goals of legal education and practical education are the same: to turn out competent graduates. But there is a tremendous difference—beyond the obvious—between the ways in which Hogwarts students and law students learn, as well as how they are taught by the professors instructing them. ...

At Hogwarts, young witches and wizards are offered hands-on instruction and are shown the potential impact of the skills they learn in class. Beginning in Hogwarts students’ very first year, they receive step-by-step charms demonstrations, specific instruction in wand technique and contemporaneous feedback on potions-making. ...

Law classes, on the other hand—especially in the first year—are focused on helping students “think like lawyers,” to acquire a certain vocabulary and to develop a fundamental understanding of legal systems, important court opinions and fundamental concepts. This is all, of course, essential—but is generally missing hands-on instruction on filing matters in court, interacting with clients or wedding theory to practice: doing like a lawyer. 

Some of the differences between magical education and legal education include the ways in which law professors are hired, evaluated and promoted. Hogwarts professors regularly practice magic and demonstrate it for their students in class, while law professors very rarely practice law at all—and only accept cases with students in discrete contexts. I want to be clear that I mean no criticism of colleagues who do not continue to practice law after joining a law faculty; rather, I take issue with an educational model that presumes to teach law outside a practical context.

It’s not that law professors cannot practice law—of course, many do so before moving into academia. But there are few incentives to continue to take cases after joining a law faculty; faculty members’ primary obligations are to scholarship, podium teaching and academic writing with hopes of earning tenure and institutional service. Outside clinical courses—and perhaps even including them—continued connection to litigation is undervalued and underrewarded. 

In the end, this is a loss. For Professor McGonagall of Hogwarts, this skill is a point of pride; she reassures her students in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “We teachers are rather good at magic, you know.” ...

I am far from the first to offer this criticism of the structure of legal education. ... Most law schools offer a number of varied and impactful clinics supervised by talented faculty and offering legal services to underrepresented clients and causes. Law faculty who teach clinical and externship classes have been on the cutting edge of this movement for some time, and clinical pedagogy would fit in well with Hogwarts professors’ approaches to teaching and learning. However, at many law schools, clinical law faculty differ from other law professors in rank, salary, job security and faculty voting rights. 

Law faculty already have ample work without additional litigation responsibilities, and it is potentially dangerous to entrust a law student with a client’s important legal matter. But is it sensible or appropriate to entrust clients’ legal matters to a recent law graduate whose education consisted only of 1/15 hands-on legal training? Practice is what we must do before we practice, and law students need more opportunities and guidance before they graduate and sit for the bar exam.

This lighthearted comparison to the Harry Potter stories can perhaps join other voices to help make a serious and important case for practical legal education. There are few principled reasons for not requiring more hands-on experiences while in school; financial realities are difficult for law schools and have been for years, but finances cannot be the primary driving force of pedagogy. After all, Dumbledore, another key character from the Harry Potter novels, reminds us, there are times “when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

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