Politics in, and of, Law Schools

That legal education is tied up with politics is no excuse for indoctrination or ideological homogeneity

In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail Lisa Kerr and Lisa Kelly criticize “[c]alls for a return to … a legal education free of politics”, which they say amounts to “[s]tripping law of context”. Legal education, they insist, is necessarily, and properly, political. It is not just about legal doctrine, but also about “the complex relationship between legal principles and societal values”, as well as “history, culture, economics, and political economy”. I do not disagree with most of what they say on this point, so far as it goes. But I have a strong impression that Professors Kerr and Kelly, as well as their enthusiastic supporters in the Canadian legal academic corner of the twitterverse, elide crucial distinctions, and fail to address important questions that arise is their claim about the relationship between law, and especially legal education, and politics is accepted.

One claim in Professors Kerr and Kelly’s op-ed which I would not endorse without qualificaion is “that law and politics are not distinct domains”. To be sure, as I argued in one of my early posts here, “legal theory … is different from scientific theory, because it is in some measure argument [that] involves values, and hence ideology”. (Some of the things I said in that post now strike me as overstated, but I stand by this claim, and the post’s general tenor.) And it’s not just theory. As I wrote elsewhere, while Canadian courts is sometimes contrasted with American law as being less ideological, this is a mistake; Canadian judges are ideological, though they tend to share an ideology, and observes of Canadian courts believe, or pretend, that it is no ideology at all. Yet for all that, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that law and politics are wholly indistinct. Politics (in the sense of ideology, not necessarily partisanship) influences law, but it is not all there is to law. Professors Kerr and Kelly disparage “formalism”, but the law’s forms and procedures are important and valuable. “Due process of law” is not the same thing as political process, or the court of public opinion. I am not sure whether Professors Kerr and Kelly mean to suggest otherwise, but it would have been better had their op-ed not been open to such an interpretation.

I am also quite skeptical of the claim that Canadian law professors teach students not only law but also “history, culture, economics, and political economy”. With respect to my colleagues, how many of them master these subjects at even an undergraduate level?How many regularly read even, say, blogs written by historians or economists ― let alone scholarship? As readers who have followed my occasional musings on the “empirical turn” in constitutional law will know, it’s not that I am against the law being informed by these ― and many other disciplines; quite the contrary. But I am also skeptical about the capacity of the legal profession ― including the academy, as well as the bar and the bench ― to carry out the immense work that the “empirical turn” requires. Canadian law schools are several hundred Richard Posners short of offering the sort of interdisciplinary teaching that Professors Kerr and Kelly claim for them.

Be that as it may, as I said above, what worries me more is what Professors Kerr and Kelly do not say. First, as Michael Plaxton points out, there is a difference ― which Professors Kerr and Kelly elide ― between “drawing attention to political values” that permeate the law, and “adopting any particular political view, or imposing one on students”. One can expose the law’s politics and explain its context without necessarily arguing that the law is good or bad as a result. Now, I think that this distinction can only be taken so far. Given the limits on the time available to teach any subject, the choice of readings one assigns, or issues one emphasizes, is in part influenced by what one finds interesting and important, and one’s politics help shape those perceptions. Still, that’s not an excuse for giving up on even-handedness, or on broadening the issues one raises beyond one’s own interests and preoccupations.

Another important distinction is that between the positions of individual educators and educational institutions vis-à-vis politics. Professors Kerr and Kelly elide this distinction too, speaking of the way “we … teach law” and “the role of a law school” as if they were the same. They are not. Individual professors will, unavoidably, bring their particular political orientations to their teaching. They have a responsibility to strive, nevertheless, to fairly present views and concerns with which they disagree, but there are limits to how well individuals can discharge this responsibility, both due to the imperfections of the human nature and to the practical constraints I have already mentioned. Professors’ duty to create an environment where students who disagree with them feel free to do so is more absolute, but again, I am afraid that there are limits to what one can do. Ultimately, the professor gets the last word in a classroom discussion ― though the last word should often be a reminder that disagreement is welcome.

Law schools, as institutions, are subject to different constraints. Unlike individual professors, they are not entitled to their own political agendas. Individuals can only go so far in resisting the influence of their pre-existing commitments on their teaching. But law schools should have no pre-existing political commitments to resist. On the contrary, given the inevitability of a certain politicization of the teaching of individual professors, law schools should try to counteract this politicization by ensuring a certain degree of ideological heterogeneity among their staff, so that students are exposed to a variety of perspectives during the course of their studies. As Emmett Macfarlane points out, concerns about the role of politics in legal education have to do with “homogenizing attitudes” at (some) law schools that present them as committed to specific political orientations, so that other views would be unwelcome or at best devalued there.

One response to this that I have seen is to say that professors do not really change their students views. I think this is beside the point. For one thing, I don’t think that it’s necessarily improper for professors to change their students’ minds. If the change results from the students’ free assessment of arguments on both sides of an issue fairly presented by the professor, it’s a good thing, not a bad one. But conversely, even if  professors who set out to indoctrinate their students, or take a one-sided or authoritarian approach out of sheer carelessness, do not succeed at changing the students’ opinions, they are still causing harm. As Ilya Somin observed in a recent discussion of Keith Whittington’s new book on freedom of expression in universities, and as Matt Harringon pointed out in response to Professors Kerr and Kelly, students respond to such professors by hiding their true opinions, which harms the quality of classroom discussion. As Jonathan Haidt often reminds us, this leaves the holders of the majority opinions quite unprepared to argue against contrary views when they are confronted with them ― as will inevitably happen in the legal world, in particular.

 

So while I take Professors Kerr and Kelly’s point that the teaching of law is inevitably political, it is only true in certain ways and to some extent. Good legal educators do not shy away from discussing values, but they try to present more than their own value-laden perspective on the law, and do not seek to impose their own on their students. And, knowing that these attempts are bound to succeed only imperfectly, good law schools try to ensure that students are given opportunities to learn from professors whose political commitments are not homogeneous. I hasten to add that I strongly suspect that any legislative remedies for real or alleged failures of law schools and their faculties to live up to these commitments would be worse than the disease. But that just means that legal educators have to work very hard at it ― no one else can help them.

Passing Observations

Some thoughts on writing exams, from a guy who just graded 240 of them

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I recently graded (or, as we say in New Zealand, marked) more than 240 exam papers (or scripts). So I thought I’d volunteer some observations, in case any students who might be reading this are looking for tips. Of course, much of what follows will feel intuitive to many, and perhaps to most. The art of answering exam questions is not especially difficult to master. But there are, I can now tell, more than a few people who really could use some advice before they sit another final. (Whether they read my blog is a different question, admittedly.)

By way of introduction, let me say something of which students don’t think (I know: it’s not very long ago that I was a student myself!). A student writes only four or five exams, at most, at the end of a semester, but an instructor has many dozen, and possibly (as in my case) several hundred of them to read. This means that I only have a few minutes to devote to each script. (Ever complained about the marking taking too long? I know I have. But if it had to be done faster, that would mean even less time to look at your answers!) If I don’t know what you are saying ― whether that’s because your answers are poorly structured or even because your handwriting is atrocious ― I’m not going to spend a lot of time figuring it out. If you want me to understand you, it’s your job to make sure I do.

And beyond that, it’s in your self-interest to make sure that I… how to put this nicely… don’t get too worked up while reading your answer. Sorry as I am to say this, when reading the answer to the same question two hundred times over, it is unfortunately easy to find small things aggravating. I know one should not get aggravated, and I try not to. But still, don’t give me reasons to become annoyed. Try to spell correctly ― especially when you are writing my name on the exam booklet. (Seriously. I’ve seen my name spelled a couple dozen different ways, though the best one was the student who wrote my last name as Sinatra.) Try to punctuate sensibly ― instead of just randomly strewing periods all over your answers, or at the end of each line. Try to use proper syntax. In particular, ensure that your sentences have subjects and conjugated verbs, and that they are not just subordinate clauses floating around without anything to attach them to. (Of all the annoying things I’ve seen, this one is perhaps the most bizarre.) If your writing tone is formal, don’t be pretentious; if it is conversational, don’t be familiar. Oh, and please, don’t make unfunny jokes. Keep in mind that if you feel the need explain your joke, it’s probably not funny. And when in doubt about whether a joke you want to make is funny, abstain.

This all goes to the form of your answers. Let’s now turn to the content. The single most important thing is also the simplest one: answer the question you are asked! I will at least try to overlook those annoying periods all over the place, ignore ignorance of apostrophes, and put those free-floating subordinate clauses down to the stress of the exam room; but I can’t pretend that you are answering the question when you are not. In particular, if the question is a descriptive one, asking you what the law on a certain point is, don’t answer it as if it were a normative one, asking you what the law ought to be. And if the question asks you for a prediction about the consequences of a development in the law, don’t answer by explaining why this development ought not to, or will not, happen. That’s just not what I want to see, and as a result, your grade for that question will not be one that you want to see.

Another general point is that you won’t get very far by simply spewing the notes you took in class, and a fortiori the notes that I provided, right back at me. For the most part, doing this just shows that you have no idea what you are talking about and are throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at me. The same goes, of course, for keywords from my Powerpoint slides inserted into answers regardless of relevance. A related point is that if the exam is wholly or partly open book, you shouldn’t just print out your entire notes for the semester. Prepare an aide-mémoire that synthesizes what you’ve learned ― it will help you study, and finding things during the exam will be much easier than rummaging through a semester’s worth of notes. The one I used for the first year contracts exam, for a full-year class, was all of seven pages long, in size 12 font. It’s perfectly doable if you put in the effort. And of course, “putting in the effort” means actually understanding the material, enabling you to show the instructor that you have understood ― which is precisely what he or she wants to see.

Some more specific issues now. Perhaps the most important one is that you need to distinguish what is and what ought to be. This is one of the most important things in legal education, and it’s a safe bet that most instructors try to get you to do this, and want to see you do it on an exam. So don’t assume that things are necessarily right the way they are, and don’t assume that things were necessarily wrong in the past, when they were not as today. Don’t assume that judges always act as they are supposed to ― they are only human beings, prone to error and susceptible to the corrupting effects of power, especially to the desire to increase the power of courts at the expense of other institutions. But don’t assume that Parliaments and governments are always looking out for the public good, either. Don’t assume that they are all always wrong, or corrupt, or evil, of course. Judge each case on its own merits, and don’t forget that there is a decent chance that, if you are being asked a question, the answer to it is not altogether clear-cut or obvious. Pay attention to the context of your answer, perhaps especially on problem questions: if you are asked to write a memo for a client, it is probably not helpful to launch into philosophical disquisitions, or discussions of Roman law. Whatever the question, however, avoid making pompous general statements, which are invariably untrue and almost as invariably irrelevant (these include, for example, declarations that something has been done “throughout history” or needs to be done “in every country”). Last but not least, know your stuff! Don’t confuse Governor-General and Attorney-General. Don’t represent a concurring or a dissenting judgment as that of the court (even if I focused on that particular judgment in class). And don’t bring up a case to illustrate the application of a common law rule developed or a statute enacted years after that case was decided (in other words, know when the cases we studied were decided).

Contrary to what some students think, it’s actually a lot more fun for an instructor to give good grades than bad ones. It’s certainly more fun for me. But that doesn’t mean I’ll do it without good reason. I’m happy to interpret borderline cases favourably to you ― but not to pretend that your work is better than it really is. Do it well, and we’ll both be happy. Good luck!