Shiny Happy Students

Law schools that emphasize teaching over scholarship are more likely to produce happy, well-adjusted students who get higher grades and do better on the bar exam. Or at least that’s the upshot of study published recently by professors Kennon Sheldon and Lawrence Krieger in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The study was based on evaluations of students at two schools with similar admissions profiles, yet different approaches to legal education. At school 1, faculty members are hired mainly on the basis of past and potential scholarly production, and scholarship plays a major role in compensation. School 2 places a greater emphasis on hiring faculty who have practiced law and are likely to be good teachers, and teaching ability counts as much as scholarship in setting salaries. In addition, school 2 provides teaching skills seminars for its faculty and has a more robust skills curriculum. According to the study, students at both schools experienced a marked decline in psychological well being during their first year. But students at school 2 were happier, received better grades, scored higher on the multi-state bar exam, and were more motivated to begin their legal careers than students at school 1.

The study’s conclusions strike me as relatively unsurprising. Although the authors use jargon such as “autonomy support” and “self-agency,” they are basically talking about the extent to which law professors are supportive, nurturing, and understanding as opposed to detached, unsympathetic, and insensitive. Of course, being a productive scholar and an engaged teacher are not mutually exclusive. Some people are both, while some are neither, and it is certainly true that writing scholarship can make one a more interesting and dynamic teacher. But I do think it stands to reason that if a school cares primarily about scholarship, most faculty members will devote more of their energy to research and writing than to all the little things that make students feel appreciated and respected: office hours, review sessions, career counseling, letters of recommendation, social events, etc. And if students feel appreciated and respected, it makes sense that they will be happier, feel better about law school, and hence be more interested in studying and learning.

One mystery is the identity of the two schools. The authors do not identify them, although they do provide several clues. School 1 is a public school located in a small city with about 230 students per class. The median age of entering students is 25, and there is no part-time or evening program. In addition, there is a mandatory curve. School 2 is a private school in a major metropolitan area with about 330 students per class and a significant part-time/evening program for students who work. The median age of entering students is older (28), the students have more work experience and graduate with more debt. In addition, the percentage of white students is higher at school 2 than at school 1. According to the authors, both schools admit “highly qualified” students with largely equivalent undergraduate grades and LSAT scores, though school 1 has a significantly higher national ranking for reputation and scholarly production than school 2. Think you recognize your school in one of these profiles? Let us know, and maybe we can solve the mystery.