Book Review: What the Best Law Teachers Do

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Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess, and Sophie M. Sparrow, What the Best Law Teachers Do. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). 355 pages. ISBN: 9780674049147. $29.95 (Hardcover).

In What the Best Law Teachers Do, Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess, and Sophie M. Sparrow present a perspective that has been lacking recently in the legal world, one that is focused more on positive than negative.  Instead of discussing the topical issue of how legal education calls for change, they write about the methods used by twenty six of the top professors that are getting it right; that are teaching in a way that is widely recognized by students, colleagues, and other legal professionals, as exceptional.  The authors document the success of these professors throughout the book by including personal interview narratives from the professors themselves as well as reflections from their students on the classroom setting.

“But who claims that these are the best professors?  And, how are those claims verified,” an inquisitive reader may ask.   Schwartz, Hess, and Sparrow are quick to lay that qualm to rest.  They open the book with a detailed map of the phases they went through to gather and analyze the information that serves as their basis.  In 2008, they began seeking nominations for professors that were considered “the best” by law students, alumni, professors, and deans.  The second phase of their research called for selecting their subjects from the nominations, followed by the third, which they conducted in depth interviews of the professors and critically examined their credentials and teaching methodologies.  This data gathering phase also included onsite visits to witness firsthand the instructional prowess of the professors.  The fourth phase required the authors to analyze their findings and led to the final phase where they organized the findings and conclusions and produced their written manuscript.

This diligence is well reflected in the book.  Schwartz, Hess, and Sparrow break down their work in ten rich chapters.  Chapter 1 includes the introduction, presents the roadmap for the book, and gives details outlined above delving deeper into methodology of the authors and giving background on the twenty six professors highlighted.  Chapter 2 includes the results from another study conducted of the individuals that nominated the “best” professors, which requested that the nominators define their criteria for “extraordinary learning.”  This provides the reader with much needed context to assess the standards of the law professors’ methodologies.   

Chapters 3 to 9 include large portions of narrative text, transcribed from interviews with the “best” professors and the students they taught.  These chapters covered topics from what the professors actually do in their classrooms to the expectations the professors have for their students, and equally important, for themselves.  They also discuss topics such as the nature of the relationships between the professors and the students and how the professors prepared for class.  I found these portions of the text to be particularly useful, as a new librarian who just completed her first semester of teaching legal research.  Finally, in Chapter 10 the authors conclude and give suggestions of practical applications for law schools and individuals to implement in their programming and courses.  For example, Schwartz, Hess, and Sparrow suggest creating a visiting-teaching-excellence program where schools invite professors that are widely acknowledged for their skill in teaching to come to a law school, observe the teaching there, and suggest possible improvements.   

The book documents the best practices followed by the best professors.  It is an excellent guide for someone that is just beginning to teach and is looking to build a good foundation.  The book also has high utility for seasoned professors in search of ways to improve their teaching.  There is always room for some change and perhaps reading about the methods used by others will inspire all law teachers to try their best.  The final take away point, which I found to be the most compelling, is that the authors continually presented the perspective of students.  It is most important to cater to the audience.  Listening to the students and soliciting their thoughts about their experience is key for a “best” professor.  Professors teach students, students learn from professors, the best professors learn from students. 

Anupama Pal is the Reference and Government Documents Librarian at Elon University School of Law.

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