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Law students show discontent

Ken Fowler | Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Notre Dame’s recent six-spot drop in the US News and World Report Law School rankings has highlighted feelings of discontent among Law School students for reasons ranging from ordinary to overarching.

While many have questioned the leadership of Dean Patricia O’Hara, the dean said she understands why a conversation about the future of the Law School would be taking place after the release of the rankings, which knocked Notre Dame from 22 to 28 – the program’s largest drop since 2000.

“I can appreciate that for students it’s very unsettling when there’s a drop in the rankings,” O’Hara said. “And so it’s not at all – it’s very understandable that students would be upset by that decline and that there be a certain amount of conversation and dialogue going on within the Law School community as a result of that.”

In an e-mail to Law School students after the rankings were released, O’Hara said the Law School administration would fully evaluate the reason for the drop. However, she stressed that the schools in places Nos. 20 to 30 finished with unusually close overall rankings, indicating the separation between 20th and 30th is minimal.

One area in which Notre Dame’s base score dropped for the rankings was in its selectivity rating. For the 2006 incoming class, the Law School’s acceptance rate jumped to over 21 percent. But, O’Hara said, an analysis of other school’s numbers showed similar jumps in acceptance rates around the country, minimizing whatever effect it would have had on Notre Dame’s final ranking.

“There was some indication that applicants were applying to more schools, so even though the volume of our applicant pool was the same as the prior year, whether or not the head count was exactly the same was more difficult to determine,” she said.

She said it was too early to tell if the pattern would last.

For many students, however, the drop is already a sign of lost potential: where Notre Dame should be excelling, instead it is declining, at least in relative terms.

“To me, when there are things that are holding it back from the potential that it has. It’s kind of frustrating when you know it could be so much better than it is,” said Jake Kiani, a third-year law student. “It’s great already, so why shouldn’t it be better?”

The complaints are varied, with some wondering about the five-year delay in the opening of the new building for the Law School (now slated for 2009), and others criticizing what they call inadequate upgrading of the current building.

Class selection

The overriding complaint, however, was with class offerings.

Melissa Nunez, a third-year law student, cited problems with property law classes and the cancellation of other classes in the days before semesters were set to begin as serious issues not fully addressed.

“Either Patty O’Hara needs to change … the way she runs the Law School or … they just need a new dean, to be frank,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons the school, in my opinion … isn’t doing its best to be a [top] university law school.”

Questions from many students center around the number of corporate law classes offered by Notre Dame in relation to the total number of classes offered in other sections of legal teaching.

O’Hara, whose specialty is in business and corporate law, declined to say if she felt the proportion of corporate law classes compared to the total number of offerings was adequate. Instead, she said the size of the Law School restricts both the number of faculty members and available classrooms – a concern that the new building will meet.

“There’s very few areas of the curriculum that we wouldn’t like to be offering more courses,” she said.

But whether the Law School is doing enough with its current resources is an important question, Kiani said.

“When I pick classes, I just feel sometimes there’s not as many classes as should be there in terms of what you really need to practice law,” he said. “They don’t have enough courses dealing with the transactional side of things.”

What’s more, Kiani said, the Law School should try to use more undergraduate classrooms at different times to allow greater flexibility in scheduling. With six main classrooms in the Law School, he said, allowing undergraduate courses to be taught in the Law School and Law School courses to be taught in undergraduate settings would allow law students an ability to register for classes that might otherwise conflict.

That, he said, is one of the major things that could be fixed but hasn’t been.

A more general concern many students said they had was with the amount of Notre Dame professors visiting other law schools this year – something they said seems to have had an effect on the variety and quality of the courses offered.

O’Hara said she did not know if this year marked an unusually high number of visiting faculty members, but rather pointed to the positive trend she said comes from having desired professors.

“We have an outstanding faculty, so it’s not surprising that our faculty would be attracted to other law schools and that they’re receiving offers to visit,” she said. “Within the legal academy, it’s a fairly common culture for law schools to hire visiting professors. … It’s in a sense a compliment to the outstanding caliber of our faculty.”

But on a different point, Kiani and Jim Paulino, a third-year law student, said the school’s ideology and strong Catholic focus – including classes on canon law – only diminish its overall teaching quality.

The requirements of Ethics II and Jurisprudence, Paulino said, amount to watered-down classes with minimal practical use and poor treatment of the subject matter.

“The class was a joke, the course was a joke, the grading was a joke, the whole thing was a joke – and that’s what makes Notre Dame, quote, different. … It’s like a mockery of our intelligence,” Paulino said. “I think it’s embarrassing that they would waste my money as a student and my time as a student to take these things that really make no difference from professors who really don’t teach you anything. Everybody knows it’s a joke.”

On a separate issue, Kiani said he feels the administration hasn’t done enough to adjust to the number of faculty members on leave, creating a problem situation for students looking to take courses in certain subfields.

“That they know that faculty are going on leave … it seems to me you need to plan around that to get the professors here that need to be here to teach the courses that the students need,” he said. “This is supposed to be a law school at one … of the country’s best universities. … I don’t think that they are living up to the potential that they have here.”

Faculty evaluated

That potential includes a slew of young faculty members with Supreme Court clerkships on their résumés.

Many students noted the Law School’s young faculty as a significant boon to the students and the institution as a whole, but wondered if such success wasn’t being promoted fully.

“Notre Dame’s reputation in the legal community, at least among law schools, has not improved, despite a lot of these excellent, outstanding young faculty,” third-year law student Derek Muller said.

Mueller, who said he worried about an overreaction to the US News and World Report rankings, said the administration was not vocalizing support for young faculty members to the extent that it should. Nonetheless, he stressed caution to those criticizing O’Hara.

“When people tie the U.S. News rankings to the current performance of a dean, it only makes the law school look very, very bad in the eyes of the legal community,” he said in a follow-up e-mail to his interview. “The rankings are kind of like the 800 [pound] gorilla in the room, but it’s generally agreed that most law schools detest them, even if they do well.”

From the faculty perspective, the new building couldn’t come soon enough.

“I think growing our faculty helps us better serve our students,” said Amy Barrett, an associate professor of civil procedure and evidence in the Law School. “That’s already in the works as part of our strategic plan.”

An increase in the number of faculty members will allow professors to write and publish more scholarly articles, which will enhance peer evaluations of Notre Dame, she said. Barrett said the new building also will improve the opinion other legal scholars have of Notre Dame.

But Paulino and Kiani said a predominance of one ideology among most professors is a serious hindrance to getting a full legal education.

“A lot of professors are bad professors. They just can’t teach,” Paulino said. “But they’re good in terms of the school’s Catholic image because they’re good, conservative Catholic professors. But they couldn’t teach you anything if you begged them. They couldn’t teach you what the law is, but they’re still advisors.

“There’s no practicality to anything that we do here, except for the trial ad[vocacy] program, and it looks like that program is not getting enough of the respect it deserves. There’s nothing practical about coming to Notre Dame Law School except that you need your degree to practice law.”

Other issues

Paulino said he feels trial advocacy is getting too little attention, especially in terms of mock trial.

“The general feel is that trial advocacy for mock trial is on the way out, and they’re focusing more on appellate advocacy,” Paulino said. “Something that was tremendously valuable to me, that helped me get a good job, that’s going to help me be an excellent litigator, feels like it’s getting slowly phased out of the school, feels like it’s not as important as it should be.”

While some students have been vocal about their disappointment in the direction of certain parts of the Law School, O’Hara said she didn’t receive a great rush of students after the rankings came out.

She noted, however, that students typically approach the assistant dean for students, Gail Peshel, with concerns.

Nonetheless, O’Hara said she believed she could do a better job in communicating with students.

“I think there’s room for improvement in my relationship with students,” said O’Hara, who works in her office at night and often leaves the door open. “Deans wear a lot of different hats, and many of my responsibilities have demanded a lot of time and energy. … I think I can always improve on my access to students.”

Several students said a two-year lag time from the time students passed a petition asking for additional power outlets in the Law Library and the time the outlets were installed last year was indicative of the communications problems in the Law School.

“If any CEO of any company wanted plugs put in, they would put the plugs in the next day,” Paulino said. “This administration and a lot of the faculty members do things because that’s what they want to do … oblivious to what other people think or feel.”

O’Hara said the questions raised in light of the rankings could provide a positive platform for self-assessment and the ability to look for positive improvements.

“I want our students to be proud of the Law School and feel like this is a strong and good community for them,” she said.