Students often consider a school's reputation and employment rates for graduates when deciding on a law school. But they may also want to research their potential professors.
"The best teachers distinguish themselves by their thoughtfulness, caring about their students, high expectations, commitment to student learning and ability to engage their students," write the authors of "What the Best Law Teachers Do," which will be released in August.
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Authors Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald Hess and Sophie Sparrow studied what makes a good law teacher for almost five years. They solicited nominations for exceptional professors, reviewed stacks of student evaluations and observed professors as they taught.
The result highlights the personalities, teaching methods and classroom techniques of 26 teachers at schools across the U.S., such as McGeorge School of Law at University of the Pacific, University of Houston Law Center and Elon University School of Law.
The 26 professors describe how they make their office layouts more welcoming to students, email students after class to show appreciation for their participation in a discussion and help J.D. candidates who struggle to grasp the material.
The book is squarely aimed at teachers who want to help students succeed, but the authors say their research holds lessons for aspiring J.D. candidates as well.
Chapters that cover the teachers' relationships with students, their expectations of students, how they teach and how they assess their students may be helpful for prospective students, says co-author Schwartz, who will become dean of the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas—Little Rock in July.
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The authors spent much of their research visiting professors to learn how they help students excel. Prospective students deciding between law schools can do a similar exercise to learn about a school's faculty.
When shadowing law classes, potential J.D. students can ask themselves, "Is this a classroom I would want to spend 42 hours in during a semester with this teacher?" says Hess, co-author and law professor at Gonzaga University.
They can ask if teachers emphasize a traditional Socratic approach to better understand their teaching style, says Paul Campos, a law professor at University of Colorado—Boulder.
"The traditional Socratic method is something that is really aimed at people who think that they want to be trial lawyers, and it's supposed to be beneficial for that," he says. "But if you're interested in doing something else that might not be the best teaching style for you."
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During a campus visit, potential students should also observe current students to evaluate how much the professor connects with them. "Are they engaged in the class? Or are they shopping for shoes online?" Hess says.