Tag: laptops in the classroom

Clinical legal educationLaw schoolLegal educationLegal skillsMoot Court

Habit-forming classrooms     

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?

40,600 minutes

677 hours

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:

Kristen Murray, Let them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate over Laptops in the Classroom

James Levy, Teaching the Digital Caveman: Rethinking the Use of Classroom Technology in Law School

Steven Eisenstat, A Game-Changer: Assessing the Impact of the Princeton/UCLA Laptop Study on the Debate of Whether to Ban Student Use of Laptops during Class




Client developmentFact investigationLaw schoolLegal technologyPeople skills

Is attention personal or professional?

A law professor’s New York Times op-ed, “Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom,” prompted lots of discussion on blogs and Twitter. Should law students be told and required to close their screens and (to the extent this is even possible) pay attention in class?  Or should they have the freedom to decide whether to engage in behavior that may (or may not) hurt their learning, disrespect classmates, and create a distraction?

I think a hard question here is this:

Is attention personal or professional?



If attention is personal, then the student should have the freedom to decide whether and how to use a laptop. It’s the culture of American education to wax nostalgic about daydreaming, note-writing, talking to one’s neighbor.  The teacher takes countermeasures, seizing notes and flashing the light switch on and off. But there’s something heroic about the student’s personal quest for autonomy and freedom to think and stage whisper about . . . whatever. And even more so in law school, which is a professional school for grownups who (opponents to Rosenblum’s position argue) should be able to make the decision when and how to pay attention, and when and how to take notes.

If attention is professional, then law professors have a better argument on laptops. What is a law school? I googled this question and came up with a law review conveniently titled the same, by Prof. Stephen Wizner of Yale. Granted it’s from 1989, but this still seems like a decent answer for today:

What is a law school? That is a question that ought to have a fairly straightforward answer: a law school is a professional school for the education and training of lawyers. If we know what lawyers do – or ought to do – we should be able to design a curriculum that will prepare law students to carry out that professional role in a competent, ethical, socially responsible manner.

Paying attention is part of being competent and ethical. And, I would argue, seeming to pay attention is also part of being competent—or at least part of being able to attract and retain jobs and clients. Judicial ethics rules officially sanction “the appearance of impropriety.” On a far more unofficial level and a far more pervasive scale, potential employers and clients sanction “the appearance of inattention.” They don’t give jobs to candidates who don’t seem to be listening and paying attention in an interview. They don’t return more work to an associate who doesn’t seem to be listening and paying attention when meeting with a partner. And they don’t give their legal business to lawyers and law firms who don’t seem to be listening and paying attention in a “dog and pony” show to demonstrate their desire and ability to take on a new case.

This connection of the law school classroom to what lawyers actually do is part of Professor Rosenblum’s argument for banning laptops:

Students need two skills to succeed as lawyers and as professionals: listening and communicating. We must listen with care, which requires patience, focus, eye contact and managing moments of ennui productively — perhaps by double-checking one’s notes instead of a friend’s latest Instagram. Multitasking and the mediation of screens kill empathy.

Likewise, we must communicate — in writing or in speech — with clarity and precision. The student who speaks in class learns to convey his or her points effectively because everyone else is listening. Classmates will respond with their accord or dissent. Lawyers can acquire hallmark precision only through repeated exercises of concentration. It does happen on occasion that a client loses millions of dollars over a misplaced comma or period.

The importance of these skills leads him to the following conclusion:

My students need to learn how to be lawyers and professionals. To succeed they must internalize an ethos of caution, care and respect. To instill these values and skills in my students, I have no choice but to limit laptop use in the classroom.

The reaction of the legal and broader education communities varied quite a bit, from cheers to jeers. Personally I haven’t banned laptops. I like being able to ask people to quickly look something up as part of their interaction with my writing class, and I share materials on my course site that students can download and take notes on. This is a writing class—not a pretrial lit class with interviewing skills—so listening and paying attention are an implied but not explicit part of the class goals. If I were teaching an interviewing class, listening and paying attention and not looking at a screen would be very open and transparent parts of the evaluation and grade. But I’m not, and neither is Prof. Rosenblum as best I can understand. (He mentions a stilted, unproductive discussion in his class on sexuality and the law as the catalyst for his decision to ban laptops.)

So one way to ask the question is, how much does a professor assume the responsibility of teaching and valuing soft skills relevant to students’ professional success? This is both a question of traditional professorial autonomy and preference (how much does each professor actually want to do so) and of institutional decisions (should soft skills be pervasively taught and modeled; or cabined within certain dedicated classes and domains)? For example, a career services adviser should certainly be giving a student feedback on focus and perceived attention level during a mock interview. And any student who gets distracted by a smartphone in the midst of interviewing a simulated client—or heaven forbid, a real client—should be given a bad grade.

It’s perhaps ironic for a listening blogger that my decision arguably diminishes the value of listening in my own classroom. I don’t think—I know—that paying attention and listening will help students get jobs, get better assignments, and get clients. And paying attention and listening will help them do their jobs, exceed expectations on individual assignments, and lead clients to want to give them more work. I guess I want them to have the freedom to take notes and encounter the world of information necessary for my class using their laptops—while also developing the mental agility and personal willpower to appropriately switch back and forth from computer use to personal listening. Those who can do this are more likely to thrive professionally, and those who cannot are more likely to . . . not thrive.

So there is no clean answer and thus no single approach. Attention is both personal and professional. How law professors teach and train new lawyers will continue to hover delicately over that line.