July 23, 2008
BYU Law School
Posted by Gordon Smith

Earlier today, Jason Solomon highlighted my law school over on Prawfsblawg under the title, "Just How Good is BYU Law?" Jason asked for some first-hand accounts, and this is my attempt to provide some context for his remarks, based on my one year here.

First, Jason links to our website twice to provide evidence that our teaching is focused on particular learning outcomes. How does that translate to the classroom? Hard to say. I started putting learning outcomes on my syllabi for the first time when I came to BYU, partly because the Dean was endorsing this as a sound pedagogical practice and partly because the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning, with whom I am consulting about re-designing my courses, also emphasized the importance of clarifying the learning outcomes. The faculty at BYU Law School does not spend a lot of time in organized sessions talking about teaching -- we should probably do more of that -- but we have an annual retreat, and I gather that teaching is always part of the discussion there.

Second, BYU has never emphasized live clinics. One of my colleagues, David Dominguez, supervises a community lawyering program that is clinical, but by and large, the school has avoided live clinics in favor of simulations. My understanding is that this emphasis on simulations started early in the law school's history (the law school was founded in 1973), and several faculty -- including Larry Farmer, who is linked in Jason's post, and Gerry Williams, who recently retired, among others -- gained national recognition for their work in the area. As a result, simulations have become part of the DNA of the law school, a point of pride, if you will. More recently, BYU has developed an expansive externship program under the tutelage of Jim Backman.

Third, an aspect of BYU's culture that I value greatly is the emphasis on faculty student interaction. We don't have very good ratios compared to our peer institutions, but my observation is that the faculty generally make an effort to interact with the students, and I think that is reflected in the Princeton Review surveys.

Finally, the most distinctive aspect of BYU Law School is the religious affiliation. Jason makes the obligatory disclaimer: "And no, it's not for everybody with its religious affiliation and fairly conservative faculty, administration and student body ..." Can't we say "And no, it's not for everybody ..." about every law school? Wisconsin is not for people who hate snow. Lewis & Clark is not a great place for people who hate hanging around environmentalists. Chicago is pretty uncomfortable for stupid people. So, yes, BYU is distinctive on religious grounds, but as Jason observes, most people figure that out long before they set foot in the building.

Paul Horowitz explores the point about religious affiliation a bit in a follow-up to Jason's post. He is particularly interested in "religious homogeneity" and its effect on law schools. This is a big topic, and I won't be able to do it justice in this blog post, but I will offer a modest and highly personal defense of "religious homogeneity."

I teach business law classes -- Business Associations, Contracts, Corporate Finance, Law and Entrepreneurship, and Securities Regulation -- and I expect that my colleagues who teach Constitutional Law or other subjects may have difference experiences, but my experience has been that religion is peripheral to most of my classroom instruction. It comes in occasionally in the form of an inside joke or a brief aside, but it is rarely a focus in my class.

On the other hand, our common religious values allow me to interact with the law students outside of class in a manner that is often more direct and meaningful than was possible with students of a different religious heritage. While I love my students at Wisconsin, Vandy, Lewis & Clark, etc., the unique opportunities for mentoring that I have at BYU are among the most important reasons that I am here rather than at another law school right now.

Finally, the notion of "religious homogeneity" is a placeholder for a much broader accusation of lack of viewpoint diversity. While I am not going to pretend that BYU has no challenges with regard to diversity, I was impressed with the passion of my first-year law students last fall in Contracts on all sides of the issues we covered in the course. (By the way, I was using the Wisconsin materials, so we weren't ducking tough values issues!) The empirical point is hard to verify, but my impression was that religious homogeneity actually enabled or encouraged many of those discussions. Why? Because the students were required to examine the implications of their (assumed) shared beliefs. They could not pass off their disagreements on the simplistic ground that they held different values than their classmates. This was real learning, not indoctrination.

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