Balkinization  

Monday, November 13, 2006

How do blogs change legal education?

JB

I was giving an interview the other day on how blogging affects legal scholarship, and I noted that this is the first group of law students to pursue their legal education after blogs became popular. Many students and professors have their own blogs, and there are many other sources of legal information produced in the blogosphere. The question I'm interested in is how this changes the way that students experience legal education. Does the presence of law professors outside their law school whom they can read everyday change their understanding of the law? What about the use of blogs in the classroom? And what about the presence of fellow students (from other schools or from their own institution)sharing experiences about what law school is like?

When I want to law school in the 1970's Scott Turow had just written One L, which described what life was like for a fictional Harvard Law School student. But now one can choose from a vast array of law school narratives by real students actually undergoing the process of educational transformation in real time. When I went to law school, it was a thoroughly immersive experience, with professors (and the law library) as main sources of expertise. Now law students can hear legal opinions from law professors around the country (and the world), and on almost any subject they desire.

I see my work on this blog as a natural extension of my work as a teacher, which reaches not only lawyers and law students but also the general public; naturally I hope that legal blogs also make traditional legal education richer. But I'd like to know whether law students believe that is so, or whether blogs make legal education less rewarding, less exciting, or more confusing for them. I'd be interested in hearing what people think in the comments section, particularly from students who have been in law school since the rise of the legal blogosphere.


Comments:

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Legal and scholarly blogs certainly have affected my law school experience. I'm a 2L at a top-20 law school, I finished top 5% and will be working at a well known Wall Street firm--more than likely doing corporate work--in the legacy of a family with many attorneys. I note this to contrast me with students who have no lawyers in their family or who distinctly see themselves going the law professor/academic route, to which it appears blogs are geared.

Off the top of my head, I think legal blogs have enriched my law school experience in a few ways. First, in the Karl Llewellyn "there is no cure for the law but more law" approach to law school, reading the debates and discussions of law professors and practicing attorneys on sites like this one, Volokh, Scotusblog, and a others I believe gave me a distinct advantage in quickly understanding what a legal discussion looks like and what is material. I look at this as being privy to the internal letters and memos that likely have gone between law faculty for years. I also agree with Professor Balkin's note that it does empower a student to be able to access professors with different views than they may have in their classrooms. If nothing else, blogs fully reinforce the idea that there is very little law in law school, only issues.

Second, the fact that blogs respond to what is current is rewarding because: (A) instead of discussing the meaning and holding of Carbolic Smokeball or Marbury v Madison (though there is some of this as well), which have been heavily critiqued and analyzed, to see how lawyers attack novel problems is enlightening. Many of my professors have been teaching the same cases for so long it is a bit old hat--it's helpful to see someone bright and intelligent struggle a bit with a case or a rule. (B) From a practical point of view, sometimes it's helpful in lieu of scholarly material on tough and new cases. My Con Law class discussed Gonzalez v Raich at length, so I turned to blogs--I remember Randy Barnett, Larry Solum, and others discussing its nuances in detail. At my firm job this past summer I worked on a difficult Stored Communications Act issue and I found some writings by Orin Kerr and others on the ECPA and recent decisions all quite helpful.

The other helpful thing I've found about blogs is during the second year in trying to find note topics and doctrinal fault lines is easier. First year, Students are introduced to the fundamental and the basic, and then shortly into second year asked to contribute something to the fringes of law and blogs and the internet in general can quickly show where there are still unresolved issues where a student may be able to add something. Even if first year does expose a student to the fringes, it is likely only to do so regarding contracts, torts, criminal law, etc--versus securities regulation, banking law, criminal procedure, international law, etc.

The biggest problem I'd say with blogs and being a law student is simply their diminishing returns. Reading about Hamdan v Rumsfeld or a Fourth Amendment issue may be interesting and rewarding but ultimately not altogether helpful for a law student who needs to master his courses. This goes hand in hand with how many blogs there are and how many bloggers. Only so many are relevant and only so many of their posts are helpful. Blogs often are just one more way to waste time on the internet, but it's easier to justify to yourself that you're doing something "law related."

Regarding student blogs: I think they are a terrible idea. Now, blog de novo and a few others attempted to attack substantive areas, but it's not altogether rewarding to read what a 1L has to say about some area of law (though it may be rewarding for that 1L to write about it), particularly with so many professor blogs out there. Second, because of how intense the law school experience is, most law student blogs seem to devolve into discussions of the student's life. In the insular world of law school, these blogs get discovered, and inevitably people regret things they have written on their blogs, and, if nothing else, clutter up what could be an interesting/scholarly blog.

Finally, no class I've taken thus far has integrated blogs into the course itself. I suppose they could be pedagogically effective, but what role would they serve? If a course required itse students to post on various topics, this would force them to think about a topic and post it in a public forum. This is good, but does this force them to be any more thorough or articulate themselves better than if it was merely handed in to the professor? And if these writings are turned into blog posts versus just turning memos into the professor, then the big difference is audience. Thus, who is the target audience of a course-related blog? I imagine few courses or areas of law would significantly benefit from having a student run blog. If you were a professor in say Criminal Procedure, at what point in your research--or even daily entertainment--do you spend readingthe University of Michigan Upperclass Crim Pro class blog? Would you read it regularly? If not a professor of criminal procedure, then who else would read it? And if no audience, then why not skip the blogs altogether? Not saying that blogs couldn't be fruitful, but there would have to be some meaningful reason to integrate them. I suppose it could be there for the other students in the class to read the posts, but at that point you're just trading technologies: blogs for photocopies.

Sorry for the novel.
 

I'm a 1L at a pretty good school, but not one where there's a lot of school specific blog material out there (such as you might find at Harvard).

The law student blogs are probably the most helpful, in that just like One L did when Turow wrote it, they prepare incoming students on what to expect. To go in blind, I think, would be shocking. And it's nice to be able to see that other people have gone through what I'm experiencing, and that they made it out OK.

Law blogs, such as Balkinization, the U. Chicago and GULC faculty blogs, and to a lesser extent Volokh and Prawfsblawg are (or can be) interesting. What's going on in the world and in the legal world? What do we need to know about (now Chief Justice) John Roberts? Check the blogs. What does the "torture legislation" really say? See what Marty Lederman has to say. Etc.

Where blogs like this one don't really make a difference is in my studies. At most I'd say I'm vaguely familiar with a few things before seeing them because of legal blogs. For example, when we hit Justice Jackson's concurrence in Youngstown recently, I thought "I've seen this before in the (un)constitutionality of the President's NSA program!" A better example might be Hamdi (also recently read) -- I've heard of it before, and could probably dig up what Jack Balkin and a few others think of it, but that's not particularly *useful* insofar as I really have to read the opinions and analyze them myself. Or in Raich, I'd already heard that Justice Scalia isn't always faithful to his professed originalist jurisprudence... but read in connection with Lopez and Morrison, a student should be able to see that for him-/herself (especially after class discussion!). And with respect to torts, contracts, and civil procedure, there isn't enough blogging to make them feel at all familiar.
 

I think the vast majority of law students suffer from a lack of real-world context, precisely because of the "immersive" nature of law school, as Jack put it. Considering that law is not an Ivory Tower discipline, this lack of contextual awareness is very, very bad. The blogs help those who are already predisposed to seek out the world outside, but does nothing for those who have already chosen the world of the hedgehog.
 

I'm not a law student, nor did I play one on TV. I'm a consultant who works with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues for business and government.

Your blog has given me a very different appreciation for the law and how the process works. Or doesn't work. It has greatly enriched my appreciation for our legal system, and it has affected the way I approach politics. Now, there are things the talking heads on TV can't get me to swallow; I have an independent source of information that is even self-correcting in the event of error.

And which does not leave out useful information.

Thanks.
 

I will offer my perspective as a mature undergraduate senior who is currently involved in the law school application process. Personally, there have been two main benefits to following the legal discussions that occur on blogs. First, the exposure to modes and conventions of legal thought and scholarship have been illuminating. I feel it has been helpful in aligning my thought process to that of practioneers of law.

Secondly, as a result of the blogs that I choose to read, I have become more ispired to pusue a career in law. The examples put forth, this blog featuring prominently, by principled, concerned bloggers working to hold the line on our constitutional freedoms and repudiate the bad-faith arguments used to that end have exposued me to important issues beyond the ones that I was already interested in. And added depth to my understanding of familiar and new issues.

Beyond my person, a larger benefit might exist to the public dialog. Legal blogs, insomach as their language is accesible to lay-persons, enables access to complicated legal topics. I know that I personally interpret and represent these views online and in the real world; I suspect others do the same. Frequently I link to this blog, or repost it on a message-board.

I commend you, Professor Balkin, for thinking on this topic. I urge you to continue to do so, perhaps in the context of the ISP. Blogs are perhaps one of the most visible of the new technologies, but I see great potential in wikis and FLOSS databses (think: court reporters) also.
 

I have to object to this:

"Regarding student blogs: I think they are a terrible idea. Now, blog de novo and a few others attempted to attack substantive areas, but it's not altogether rewarding to read what a 1L has to say about some area of law (though it may be rewarding for that 1L to write about it), particularly with so many professor blogs out there. Second, because of how intense the law school experience is, most law student blogs seem to devolve into discussions of the student's life. In the insular world of law school, these blogs get discovered, and inevitably people regret things they have written on their blogs, and, if nothing else, clutter up what could be an interesting/scholarly blog."

I am a 1L and I've been blogging for 2 years. Unsurprisingly, since I started school in September my blogging as focused more on legal issues (though my cobloggers still do politics exclusively). One of the most important characteristics of blogs is that they provide non-experts a platform to say what they think and to use that platform to learn through discussion. Earlier this year I posted on Rumsfeld v. FAIR got a mixed bag of reviews. Just because JB here or SCOTUSBlog or any other expert blog had more authority didn't bar me from engaging in the debate and learning.

As a student blogger I value my blogging for its educational value. My self-imposed writing deadlines force me to think outside my law books and to remain engaged in contemporary legal issues. In fact, my own blogging seems to apply to Chris's first three points. If my posts aren't read for their legal expertise, so be it.

However, I certainly won't argue that my blogging or my reading of other legal blogs is educational in the same way my books are. I'm not learning substantive law from blogs. What I have access to, though, is a discourse and a way of talking about legal issues. It's definitely a distraction but I think reading ACSBlog's SCOTUS reviews is a better distraction than TheSuperficial.com or instant messenger.

So in short, yes, blogs have enriched my experience and I don't really see a downside.
 

I graduated in 2006 and began reading blawgs in spring 2005. I was given the opportunity to be a part of the articles committee on law review. Blawgs were immensely useful for staying current on what professors considered interesting and what they thought of the whole articles selection process. Blawgs were not useful in the classroom; in fact, they were a distraction.

Blawgs can serve as great note topics.

Student blawgs lack the authority and experience I'm looking for.

Now - as a lawyer - I will have a life-long interest in academic scholarship (as long as my practice doesn't get in the way); and a genuine respect for what professors want to say (hat tip to SSRN and HeinOnline). I want to know what Balkinization thinks before the NY Times when a Supreme Court case is decided. (And I have no intention of teaching.) Plus, I read more than legal blogs. I've expanded my blog-reading to all my other interests: economics, politics, tax policy, technology, science, even celebrity gossip. The information is basically free. I read about 60 blogs via Bloglines, and keep tabs on about 60 more through Firefox's live bookmarking feature.

I would like to know what non-lawyers and -law students get from reading legal blogs.

In short, the free information and ideas available from law profs didn't improve my grades but diversified my legal knowledge and increased my legal interests.
 

All I know is that Professor Charles Kingsfield wouldn't be caught dead with, or on, a blog.
 

I'm a bit too young to be in law school yet, but legal blogs have had a huge impact on me personally and politically. Especially here (anti-torture memos in particular), and to a lesser extent Volokh's place. Glenn Greenwald had a big impact too (particularly his stuff on the NSA wiretapping program), but by the time I started reading him, I was already sort of on my current trajectory.

There's no way I would have become interested in these sorts of issues without legal blogs (or done research for Glenn Greenwald's book on the Bush administration, for that matter). The 2005-2006 high school debate topic was all about search and detention issues, and I coached a team that argued the Hamdan decision, but I don't think I would have cared about it as much as I did without a good dose of the Anti-Torture Memos from here. Detention policy and international law certainly wouldn't have become a potential career path for me.

At this point, most of my legal experience is blog-mediated, so legal blogs are likely to have a lasting effect on me regardless of what else happens.
 

I addressed the very issue discussed in this post on my blog, the Transnational Law Blog, a few months ago in a post entitled, "The Law Student's Role in Cyber-Scholarship." The post discussed Balkin's essay "Online Legal Scholarship: The Medium and The Message" and I noted that Balkin had failed to mention the law student's role in this field. I'm very happy to see Balkin engaging this aspect of the inquiry now.

Personally, as a law student, writing a blog has had multiple benefits and many of them have already been mentioned in other comments. However, most people neglect to realize that a blog is a great marketing device. I got my job last summer through someone who liked my online work and I assume I'll find my next job in a similiar fashion.

Anyone that thinks a student law blog is a waste of time hasn't read my blog or any of the other successful student law blogs (e.g. 3L Epiphany). Although I'm a law student, I bring to the table all of my past experiences, including living and working in China. I've tailored my law blog to focus on these aspects of the law. This has been an excellent way for me to synthesize what I knew prior to law school with what I'm currently learning in law school. The other members of my blog are making the same kind of synthesis, and the result is a fantastic myriad of informative posts written by aspiring law professionals that have already had success in areas outside of the law.
 

Chris's argument that law student blogs are not worth anything misses the point. The value is not for the person reading the blog; the value is for the blogger him/herself. The process of articulation that comes from writing a blog entry is enormously useful for the law student to undertake. Any comments made by readers help the blogger's abilities and thereby make him or her a better attorney.
 

I parenthetically mentioned that the person who runs the blog may benefit from, as said above, synthesizing, digesting, and writing about legal issues. And I'm not trying to say that even an audience-less blog is per se terrible. My point was, however, that a blog without an audience, both in actual numbers and intended readers, doesn't have a lot in its favor over some other method of doing this same process, such as writing about legal topics for submission to other websites or simply for themselves.

Couple this with the--admittedly anecdotal--urge to sink into the sordid details of the bloggers life I simply don't think student blogs are a good idea. Sites like 3L Epiphany are the exception out of the countless student blogs.
 

I am a recent graduate and am currently immersed in the law school application process. Blogs have given me a fresh perspective on the legal debates and concerns of the day, as well as what it is like to be in the shoes of certain individuals (i.e. professors, students, etc.). Additionally, blogs have allowed me to grow and articulate my own thoughts. However, when reading blogs, I think it is very important to keep in mind the context of the blog and who the blogger is. There is a wide range of motives and purposes for which people blog and it would be absurd to read any of these as though they were written in stone.
 

I graduated from law school in May; I read blogs all the way through. Obviously, I read more towards the end than at the beginning, as "blawging" (a horrible play on an already horrible word) grew exponentially over the past three years.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important I believe blawgs are to legal education. Just yesterday, I was talking to the managing partner at my firm about what I should be doing now to develop as a lawyer. He said, above all else, I should nuture my creativity as a lawyer, and related a story about how he, just a few days prior, had attended a conference of lawyers in a completely unrelated field.

I agree. While our profession does not require anyone be creative -- think of how easy it is to 'get by' once you know the ropes -- the fastest, most reliable path to success is to diligently apply a creative, flexible mind. I read over 75 blawgs (thank you, RSS!) and only about 10 are directly relevant to what I do. Yet, I "use" what I learn from the blogs every single day.

Going back to law school, let's be clear: law review articles and cases are long and typically boring. Worse, it's extremely hard for a law student to find either cases or articles that are actually relevant to a subject in which the student is interested. So while a few students may seek out articles and cases, even those students will become easily dissuaded when they realize how hard it is to find interesting, relevant reading.

Not so with blogs. The limitations of the format, such as length, demand of the blogger fresh, concise, interesting content. And *that* is what law students need. An extended discourse on any legal subject is obviously required for a judicial decision, but it usually does not provide students examples of the diversity and creativity the profession demands for excellence. Put another way, a jump across Balkinization, SCOTUSBlog, TalkLeft, and Volokh will typically do far more to inform a law student of the current constitutional issues facing the country than a review of a handful of cases the real courts may or may not apply in their review.

Can blogs supplant case law and articles? Of course not. But, frankly, my experience in law school wasn't that students couldn't comprehend detailed, extended debates. It was that they frequently didn't know where to start because their "start" was the middle of a selectively-edited, partially-relevant judicial opinion. Why not introduce students to legal debates the same way we introduce them to court and collegues, through our own words?
 

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