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.
"Have dialogue with law students," says Steven Sedberry, author of "Law School Labyrinth: The Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education." He encourages potential students to visit the school's law library, cafeteria or wherever law students hang out to learn more about their teachers.
Outside of class, ask professors what they were trying to accomplish during that day's lesson, if what they witnessed was a typical class and what was good about that day's class, Hess says.
It's important to consider faculty when deciding on a law school because they can influence how well a student adjusts to the school's environment.
"Are there teachers at the school that they think will take an interest in them, and help them in that process of getting a job?" Hess asks. Prospective students should feel confident that a school's faculty will help students during their job search, he says.
Professors can be critical for helping students get through tough semesters, Schwartz says.
"Law school's really a big challenge. It makes incredibly significant intellectual demands on students," he says. "Feeling like you have someone that you can be yourself with and that will support you can make a huge difference."