Is Self-Service Education Entirely A Bad Thing?

July 31st, 2012

At The Faculty Lounge, Jim Gardner writes about his concerns with what he sees as the current generation of law students desire for “self-service education.”

    But I also worry that many of our students not only would prefer to acquire as much of their legal education as possible without human interaction, but that many of them are flummoxed by in-person contact with other humans, especially ones they don’t know well.  Our director of university counseling services told me a striking story about an increasingly common kind of problem in the dorms (mainly among undergraduates, so far).  Two roommates get into a dispute.  They are unable to resolve it face to face; indeed, the dispute only becomes more acute as resolution eludes them.  Each storms into his own bedroom.  An exchange of texts or IMs ensues.  They emerge with resolution.  Nothing more is said about the incident in person, ever.

All this for me points to two problems.  First, educators have done a poor job explaining to today’s consumers of education why in-person contact is an important part of the enterprise.  It seems self-evident to us, but that is no longer the case for many of our students.  (Indeed, it is no longer the case for many educational policy makers.)  Second, I find this trend worrisome as it relates to training future lawyers to function proficiently in professional environments.  I’ll address these issues in my next post.

I posted this comment:

Do you think that future generations of clients, who were also brought up with the self-service style of learning, may wish to interact with similarly-inclined attorneys? That is, clients desirous of legal services may seek to obtain them through alternate channels, with much less face-to-face interaction (for early signs, look no further than products like LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer).

The nostalgic tone of this post picks up on a burgeoning trend, and accepts the fact that students are evolving, but takes for granted that clients also evolve. The very same generation of law students who like to do things “self-service” are also the MBA students who will want to obtain legal services in that fashion. The law students of today should not  necessarily strive in all respects to be the law students of decades ago.

Done correctly, training students in the ways of self-service can help differentiate them in their roles as attorneys, and meet a certain demand.

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers. Instalanche!

Update 2: Gardner supplied these comments to the ABA Journal:

Gardner says he fears students who don’t interact with humans in law school will have difficulties forming relationships after graduation with clients, judges and colleagues. Or maybe interactions will take on less importance as the new generation assumes leadership, he tells the ABA Journal.

Update 3: Gardner wrote a follow-up post, which I don’t think adds too much. But I would like to draw attention to two comments.

The first from Orin Kerr


Interesting post as always, but I disagree. It seems to me that you’re describing the process of learning from the teacher’s perspective, focusing on what the teacher thinks and how the teacher acts and what the teacher experiences. But the proper concern here what the students experience, not what the teacher experiences.

Before computers, when a student tried to learn a subject area, about 90% of their time was self-service education: Reading the book on their own, studying the book, reviewing notes, etc. The teacher was never present for that. In those days, good luck trying to find a professor to answer a question out of class; most teachers were not particularly accessible to students. It seems to me that these days, learning is far more interactive for students. They can e-mail, chat, share notes more easily, go online and find good resources, e-mail their professors, etc. From the perspective of a student, the process on the whole seems to be less “self-service” than it was before computers.

It may be that the presence of computers makes it marginally harder for less successful teachers to feel like they “have the room.” Professors know the students are surfing the web, whereas in the old days students who were daydreaming looked like maybe they were paying attention (although let’s face it: they weren’t). Thus the fear the relationship may be souring; maybe professors are not feeling as respected as before. But it seems to me that this is a question of how the professor feels, not what skills students have or need.

The second from Michael Duff:

My students very obviously interact less with live humans today than I was required to do. There is quite a literature on these “post moderns” (Gen-X, Gen-Y, Millennials)and it is clear to me that this group is different. But I think you’ve hit on the right question, Jim. The students are different because the world in which they live is different. The question is whether their strategies of fitting (strategies we might have thought of in the past as “not fitting”) will fit whatever the profession will look like in the future better than what we can teach them of what the profession has been up to now. The fact is, we can’t know; and I feel like I face dilemmas like this as a parent all the time. What we have to determine is whether there is some irreducible professional core that we can continue to teach. I think there is because the constant will be servicing clients with disputes (or near-disputes). Future lawyers will have to know the details of the disputes and they will have to know client objectives. I can’t see how that will not continue to require some refined human interaction skills. So we have to keep trying, I think.