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How Law School Teaching Styles Differ (and Why It Matters)

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 13, 2016 3:56 PM

Not all law schools are the same. A student who gets a JD from Yale could have a much different experience than someone who studied at the University of Southern California, who in turn could have a very different three years than someone at the University of New Hampshire.

We're not just talking about differences in ranking, professors, or geography, either. We're talking differences in teaching styles. And those differences could have a significant impact on your success in law school and your career afterwards.

Finding the Goldilocks School

For the most part, law schools are fairly standard. They all cover the same basic curriculum and they all rely heavily on the Socratic method, with a dash or legal writing and opportunities for practical experience thrown in too. But if the foundation is often similar, the superstructure can vary significantly.

Some schools, for example, are extremely competitive. For competitive students, this sort of environment can help them thrive. For those turned off by the paper chase, it can make their law school experience three years of stressed-out hell. If you're the latter, you might want to seek out a more relaxed, collaborative student body.

How can you learn about the school's environment? You can check out online message boards and rankings, or turn to the law students themselves. When you visit a prospective law school, ask multiple students, not just your guide, just how competitive they think their fellow students are.

Practice vs. Theory, Research vs. Pedagogy

Some schools, too, are more focused on practical knowledge over legal theory. Yale Law School, for example, is known for emphasizing the theory of the law over black letter knowledge. It produces brilliant legal scholars, but doesn't have the highest bar passage rate. Others law schools, like the University of New Hampshire's, are focused on what's known as a "practice-ready" curriculum. New Hampshire's Daniel Webster Scholar Honors Program, for example, focuses on skills like pretrial advocacy and client interviews, rather than the ancient origins of the Public Trust Doctrine.

You can see which approach a school takes by checking out its curriculum. If you're interested in experiential learning, look for plenty of clinics, competitions, and practice-focused classes.

If you're in love with the law qua law, look for courses like "Originalism in Theory and Practice" and "Comparative Criminal Justice." And if you simply want plenty of choices, look for larger law schools or schools with sizable L.L.M. programs; they're likely to have the greatest variety of course offerings.

Finally, there are the school's focus on teaching. Professors in law schools, like professors in any academic setting, can sometimes be more focused on their research than their teaching. That means you can have a well-known academic leading an absolutely horrid law course. If teaching skill is important to you, look at professor reviews and law school teaching awards; when you visit, ask students how many professors are willing to try more than the Socratic method and which, if any, of their professors they find most engaging.

With a little work, you should be able to find the best law school for you.

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