How much time do law students spend in class? I’ve been thinking about the behavioral implications of so much time in front of laptop screens. I look forward to reading but don’t actually need to read Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked to know that looking at a screen is some kind of behavioral habit. And the time students spend in law-school classrooms may be feeding that habit.
Yes, some professors ban laptops. Most do not. Yes, some law students use their laptops just exactly like a yellow legal pad and quill pen, never once checking any updated social media feed during class. But most do not. So just how much time do law students spend in front of laptop screens during a typical three-year JD program?
An estimate can be derived from ABA regulations for law schools, which I learned more about at the Legal Writing Institute’s recent conference for moot court advisors helped to answer this question. ABA Standard 311 requires 83 credit hours to graduate, 64 hours of which must constitute “attendance in regularly scheduled classroom sessions or direct faculty instruction.” The broad topic of ABA requirements came up at the moot court conference because within this 64 hours, students graduating in 2019 and after will need six hours of experiential-learning credits to graduate. Moot court advisors from Oklahoma City College of Law, Mississippi College of Law, the University of North Dakota, and Ohio State University talked about the new ABA requirement for experiential learning.
That number—64 hours—is the key to answering my question about total laptop time.
Let’s use the ABA’s numbers to assume that a student takes only 64 classroom hours to graduate and the rest of the 83 comes from extracurricular activities, externships, and other types of educational activities.
Out of the required 64, let’s further assume six of those are experiential learning in a clinic or simulation, in which students should be closing their laptops and working closely with people a substantial portion of that time.
That leaves another 58 hours of course credit in lecture and Socratic law-school classes. Let’s assume the student uses a laptop during all of that time. Is this an unrealistic assumption? I don’t think so, but you can easily adjust the math below to reach estimates for 80 percent laptop usage or 60 percent laptop usage.
If we do assume the student opens a laptop for notetaking during all of these class sessions throughout law school, what’s the total time that student’s eyeballs will be on the screen?
A credit hour is 50 minutes of classroom time per week plus two hours of preparation time (ignored for purposes of this calculation). Each semester has 15 weeks, but one of those weeks can be used for exam review and exam taking. Thus the total amount of classroom time can be calculated as follows:
50 minutes a week,
14 weeks a semester,
multiplied by 58 credit-hours.
What’s the mathematical result?
84-and-a-half business days
That’s a lot of time with eyeballs on screens. Taking notes in a law-school lecture may not be habit-forming like Candy Crush, but it’s still a behavior. Repeat a behavior enough, and you have a habit (colloquially defined). Walk into the room, take out the laptop, pop it open and turn it on. When the professor begins to speak, direct attention to the front of the room, and start typing. Listen for a while and keep up with class, typing notes in bullet and sub-bullet form vertically down a Word or notes page of some sort. Then a thought pops up about an expected email reply. Open a tab to quickly check. Keep one ear on the professor’s words and get them down. Close the email tab and return to the notes doc. Rinse and repeat.
The 58 credit-hours of classroom time make up almost two-thirds of a student’s academic time in law school. Assuming that a student gets excellent training and practice on interviewing (including listening skills) somewhere in the other 35 credit-hours, can that training and practice overcome the weeks, days, and hours spent looking at the laptop? Of course people use different communication skills and tools in a large classroom and a one-on-one interview. But are these communication habits so easily siloed and separated? What is the leakage—if any—between classroom listening habits and professional listening habits? As Will Durant said in paraphrasing Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, “We are what we repeatedly do.”
This month tens of thousands of law students are shaking off their final exams and going out into the “real world” for summer work. At courts, agencies, businesses, and law firms, these personal laptops will largely be left behind. But what habits won’t be?
Here are just a few of many recent articles on laptops in the law-school classroom: