Spotlight on Sections: Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession

Spotlight on Sections: Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession

By Barbra Elenbaas

AALS sections provide opportunities for law school faculty and staff to connect on issues of shared interest. Each section is focused on a different academic discipline, affinity group, or administrative area. For a full list of AALS sections and information on how to join, please visit

At its November meeting, the AALS Executive Committee provisionally approved the new Section on Leadership, raising the total number of sections to 103. The section will promote scholarship, teaching, and related activities that will help prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles. To join the Section on Leadership, contact AALS Sections.

As part of the ongoing “Spotlight on Sections” series, AALS sat down with the leadership of the Section on Minority Groups and the recently created Section on Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession to discuss section activities at the AALS Annual Meeting and beyond.

Judith W. Wegner, University of North Carolina School of LawChair: Judith W. Wegner, University of North Carolina School of Law

Neil W. Hamilton, University of St. Thomas School of LawChair-elect: Neil W. Hamilton, University of St. Thomas School of Law

How did the idea to create this section come about?

Judith Wegner: I had been thinking about such an initiative since I worked for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in developing their study Educating Lawyers, published in 2007. During my time working with the Foundation, I learned that scholars in other fields were engaged in the “scholarship of teaching and learning” and wondered whether legal educators could take on similar challenges. There are so many active questions about legal education these days, and I thought if we had a platform, people could work together more effectively across the country in addressing them. I was also inspired to pursue this venture based on the reactions of colleagues attending a recent conference at UC-Irvine on legal education, the legal profession, and related topics.

There is a good deal of activity and interest percolating already. When we initially reached out to people who we thought might be interested in getting the section off the ground, we gathered two or three times the required number of signatures in a short time. Others around the country are working on bar examination issues, changing dynamics within the legal profession, and strategies for improving teaching, learning and assessment. Recently, I received an email from some colleagues who attended an assessment conference at Purdue and were wondering how they could plug into activities going on here at AALS. That is a good affirmation that the topics covered by our section are of national interest.

Neil Hamilton: Once Judith had the concept and strong support from other leaders in AALS, she began bringing others on board. I’ve had a deep and long-term interest in the Carnegie Foundation’s three “apprenticeships.” This overlaps into the competency movement, as new accreditation requirements are inspiring us all to move to competency-based education. This section, however, will have a much broader appeal than just that Carnegie-related niche.

What can you tell me about your membership? Who are your members, what do they do, and what do they teach?

JW: The members of the Executive Committee are a good indication of our breadth: we have former deans and clinical faculty as well as people involved in assessment, law and society research, student development and learning styles, and academic support—we really run the gamut. We hope that our section will be of interest to associate deans or committee chairs in the run-up to accreditation visits. We had the sense that there were a number of people working on intersecting topics, but because we tend to be so siloed in the academy, we didn’t realize who else was working on the same issues from different perspectives. The idea of this section is to try to broaden the conversation by bringing everyone together.

Why is the empirical study of legal education particularly important right now?

JW: Changes in accreditation standards are requiring schools to get serious about assessment and learning outcomes.

In addition, during the period of declining student applicants, more people have become aware of insights developed by experts in cognitive science and what factors affect successful learning and teaching. At many schools, there has also been growth in scholarly work regarding the legal profession as it has restructured. If we come together, we can find ways to combine forces with people at different schools to undertake a common inquiry.

NH: One reason this is important right now is that competency-based education is now required. That is a significant change in how legal education will proceed and how professors will understand their role. First you must define the competencies—which is happening now with learning outcomes—then you must define assessment tools and design a curriculum that leads to good outcomes for students on those assessments. Ultimately, you’ll have to evaluate the entire program. We are now at the beginning stages of that process.

The second key piece is that the legal services market is dramatically changing. That poses a challenge for educators—and goes hand in glove with the competencies, as schools figure out what the students actually need to be successful in the modern legal profession. We have a deep interest on the part of the profession and legal employers, as well as legal educators. One umbrella term here is “professional development” because we’re seeing a huge increase in law schools requiring some professional development in the curriculum.

The last piece is bar passage, which has been an issue for quite a number of students and schools. Again, these issues cut across the entire law school because faculty and staff together create the curriculum and culture. There’s a lot of interest in this area among student support, career services, and others.

JW: Schools have also been grappling with students who are of a different generation than the professors who are teaching them. Because faculty are trained to be self-critical and pay attention to evidence, there is an overriding sense that we better fully understand these new factors affecting student learning. The world is different today, and it’s making a difference in how our graduates will represent people as lawyers. There’s a sense of change as to students and their professional trajectories. Our students haven’t grown up reading the same kinds of books we did, and they study in different ways. Faculty, who take great pride in their teaching, want to be good teachers and want their students to learn. We are all asking if there are tools we haven’t used before that might make it possible for these students to learn better.

I believe all of these ideas are interconnected, but our dilemmas will not be solved unless we look at them holistically. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, we must learn from each other. As pressure increases on any given part of a law school, and as the number of professional staff who may not be in the classroom increases, we must make the effort to have crossover conversations.

Another reason that we are now at a critical juncture in legal education is that we face a wave of retirements among professors who came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s, as law schools were expanding and becoming more diverse. I just retired. Many colleagues around my age are retired or about to retire. We should be thinking about leadership development to prepare others to take our places and helping them imagine the tools they need to develop skilled lawyers and skillful institutions in coming years. We should be encouraging the rising generation of faculty who are going to be associate deans, committee chairs, and deans to be thinking hard about key questions relating to teaching, learning, assessment, and the legal profession. If schools try to take on new initiatives such as online teaching, there will be new educational questions that need to be addressed. Having a fundamental appreciation for what’s involved in institutional research will be an advantage. I’ve become an avid reader of institutional research related to college-age students and those seeking further education in connection with aspirations for second careers. I suspect there are others who, if they knew how to access and understand such research, would be doing that as well. We need to find a way to position more people to tap into such insights.

What do you hope to accomplish with this section? What are some of the early ideas for section activities?

JW: We will be establishing working groups on several topics of broad interest. We’re conducting an interest survey that will feed into both the working groups and our Annual Meeting program. I think there are likely to be overlapping areas in what people find interesting, but everyone is seeing legal education from a different perspective. I don’t know any other section that has taken steps to pull together so many subsets of scholars and professional staff.

For the potential group working on assessment, one concrete suggestion is for that group to explore the instruments and methods schools are using in the run-up to their ABA visits, review those, and identify some standards so everyone isn’t reinventing the wheel every step of the way. For a potential working group on bar examinations, I could imagine discussion about a variety of alternative examination strategies and interventions to prepare students better.

NH: Sometimes, sections can be very focused on the Annual Meeting. We want to reach out and create more interest and engagement throughout the year—hence the working groups. We’re also thinking about a section newsletter. The interest groups are the first priority—we’re hoping to get two or three off the ground and successful. Then we’ll expand from there.

JW: Another part of our exploration is that we want to help people be more comfortable as scholars developing—and consumers interpreting—qualitative and quantitative empirical research. We want to open up the opportunity for more training. We might identify a group of people willing to conduct webinars, or we might propose a day-long or half-day session at the 2019 Annual Meeting in addition to our regular section program.

Our Executive Committee has been brainstorming about these ideas, but we’ll come back from our session at the 2018 Annual Meeting with a better idea of the interests of our colleagues. We hope some concrete action will happen soon, but we won’t make assumptions before consulting interested parties.

What could someone joining the section look forward to in terms of participation and opportunities for leadership?

JW: Members can suggest areas for collaboration, join the proposed working groups, or contribute to the newsletter. I think it would be great to identify and recognize some of the strongest scholarship in this area every year. If we get law librarians involved, we could get a law school to feature research or topical insights about legal education, the legal profession, teaching and assessment tools, and other areas.

None of these ideas are set in concrete. Our Executive Committee is eager to see the feedback we receive from our survey (referenced below). That will give us an idea of how we can best plan to meet the broader community’s interests and needs. For some people, it may be enough just to attend the program at the Annual Meeting. For others, we hope to provide a variety of options for more intensive involvement.

What kind of collaborations can we expect from the section?

JW: We’re trying to build bridges with other organizations such as AccessLex (formerly Access Group) and LSAC , both of which are crucial institutions that have been doing important research. Not everyone is used to looking for research on legal education, or related work by scholars who are writing in fields removed from legal education. We’d like to make it easier for colleagues to tap into these resources.

Simply sharing embryonic ideas among one another provides opportunities for collaboration. I don’t think it’s likely that we will publish research under the name of the section, but we’ll try to stimulate people to share ideas and disseminate some of the work that’s already being done.

NH: Through the working groups, people can get three to five schools on board with, for example, a survey instrument. Then the data set is much stronger, and they could even seek funding.

Tell us a little about your program at the upcoming AALS Annual Meeting.

JW: Our program will feature an interactive session with short “TED-style” talks from colleagues involved in path-breaking empirical research on topics relating to legal education and the legal profession. We’ll start with a panel featuring presentations on crucial issues regarding the legal profession, legal education, and the bar examination. We’ll also be including the leaders of LSAC and AccessLex as panelists in this conversation since they have institutional research agendas that are important for others to understand. This approach provides a way to bring in the cross-cutting conversations we’ve been emphasizing. After the panel, we will break into discussion groups facilitated by our Executive Committee to get a sense of the consensus top research priorities relating to legal education and the legal profession. The idea is to get people interested and excited in some of the work already being done, and to see how the section is going to support this work. We will also talk about training sessions on empirical methods.

Is there a long-term vision for what you would like the section to become?

JW: In the long term, I have three goals for the section’s first five years: first, make people aware that there are ways to design programs that substantially increase bar pass rates, particularly for first-generation students and people of color. Second, establish a national clearinghouse with tools and best practices that schools can use when they’re conducting assessment around learning outcomes. Third, we need to build a systematic arrangement for research methods training at a practical price. These goals track well with the initial working groups we plan to convene. While there are many tasks to be completed in each of those areas, my hope is that in five years, we can accomplish at least one thing on each front. That would be a good start.

NH: As we learn where people are energized to contribute, we’ll go where the energy flows. If I were reflecting my own interests, I would emphasize the importance of working across our different silos. We all have such similar interests, and it appeals to me greatly to see some concentrated, coordinated efforts around them. One of the biggest challenges facing legal education is going to be breaking down the silos within the institution itself—legal services is moving toward team-based projects, and that’s where legal education will need to go as well.

Get Involved

Interested in related topics or in participating in this section? Take a short survey on important issues for empirical study and related matters, available through the end of November.

Join the Section on Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession online.

The section’s program at the 2018 AALS Annual Meeting in San Diego will take place on Wednesday, January 3 from 3:30 – 5:15 pm. The program will focus on “Framing an Agenda for the Work to Come” and will feature Rachel Moran (UCLA), Bryant Garth (UC-Irvine), Victor Quintinilla (Indiana-Maurer), Raul Ruiz (FIU), Kellye Testy (LSAC), and Aaron Taylor (AccessLex).

For a full list of AALS sections and information on how to join, please visit