Ask yourself 5 questions before your law students pay your ‘lazy tax’

Law school is expensive. Are your law students paying your ‘lazy tax’?

For many law students, their first day and the first class of law school is the end of an amazing chapter of hard work.  Data from the United States tells us that the majority of students arriving at colleges are ‘non-traditional’ in the sense that they might be older, employed and with dependantsReforms to Australian tertiary education in the early 2000s have meant that Australian universities are accepting students from a much broader range of socio-economic backgrounds.

For Australian law studies engaged in legal studies, the data is a little patchier.  The last, large-scale survey of new law students in Australia is now more than 20 years old – before the reforms in the 2000s.  It found that most still came from affluent families, were still living at home and had studied at non-government schools.  However, it also found that newer and regional law schools had started to increase their enrolments from older, employed and lower socio-economic areas.

While for non-traditional law students, entry to law school might be the end of a chapter, it’s the start of a new one with all the challenges, frustrations and victories that it might hold. One of the things that, as law teachers, we should not and cannot throw into law students’ way is another barrier that might just be the result of lazy teaching.

Everyone accepts that law text books are expensive.  The cost of most of the latest editions of the required texts is between $100 and $200, even for the e-book versions (which, frustratingly and inexplicably, are the same price as the print versions).  Second-hand copies of text books are available, but even then, law students are understandably looking to make at least a little of their money back again.

Libraries will have some copies, but not always enough – although one notable exception for which the University of Sydney should be congratulated is buying a large number of licences to the electronic copy of first-year texts.

For a full-time law student enrolled in four units of legal studies in each semester, the total cost of their texts alone can be as high as $800 – more than the current minimum weekly, full-time wage.  With reading lists being sometimes published less than a month before the semester starts, its also not an expense that can be planned too far in advance.

So, for students who come from non-traditional backgrounds, they can be starting their law studies at a substantial disadvantage.  If nothing else, they might be starting the semester one, two or even three weeks behind in the reading with the knock-on effect to their first assessment.  For many of these law students, they might be too embarrassed to tell a tutor or lecturer, or even to ask for help from friends.

Having the current information available to law students to support a law unit is essential.  But, in the course of preparing unit outlines, how many law teachers stop and ask themselves some simple questions about their reading list before they prescribe yet another weighty tome?

1.  Do law students need more than one text?

As an undergraduate in law, I remember being asked to buy two texts for some law units – and never opening one of them.  I could never figure out (and still can’t) why some law teachers insist on prescribing more than one text for the sake of a chapter or some additional commentary.

If a passage from another text is relevant, ask your library to produce a PDF or electronic copy of it.  If they don’t have it, it never takes more than a few minutes to scan it and send it to them (my library’s collection has become increasingly eclectic as a result of my scanning!)

2.  Can several texts be turned into one text?

If you need law students to have more than one text, some publishers have begun to offer to compile excerpts from different publications into a single text.  This only works for texts published by the same publisher.  But it can provide a massive discount to prescribing several weighty tomes.

3.  Do law students need the most recent version?

Clearly there are some examples where the answer to this question is ‘yes’.  An important change to legislation or the common law has occurred that isn’t reflected in earlier editions.  Even then, some publishers have published short inserts to go into the most recent version to avoid the text being out-of-date before it’s even sold.

However, it’s also not uncommon for some popular texts to get revised editions in which the substantive changes are difficult to pick out.  I recall excitedly opening the most recent version of a popular law text like some sort of law nerd on Christmas morning only to find that the changes were mostly to the introduction – and mainly for the worst.

Publishers send law teachers the most recent editions of texts for free.  Before you sentence a law student to spend a small fortune on a shiny new book, is it necessary?

4.  Is the text prescribed last year still the best one this year?

The start of semester tends to be a whoosh and a roar for law teachers as much as it is for law students.  Sometimes it is easy simply to re-prescribe the text used last time around, mainly if it worked well and it has a certain cachet as being often cited by lawyers and judges.

However, as well as new editions, publishers are also producing brand new texts in areas which, sometimes, are far better than what might have before.  Sometimes venerable and well-used texts begin to become a little monumental, and possibly ornamental.  Some have become so dense with layers of textual sediment that have been added over time that they are verging on the unreadable.

New texts have the potential advantage to forge a new path through the overgrown meanderings of traditional texts.  They also have the benefit of sometimes being much cheaper.

5.  Do you need a text at all?

I have left this question to the end because it is potentially the most radical.

With the quantity of material now available on the internet or electronically through subscription databases, do you need a law text all?

I used to teach a unit on lawyers and professional responsibility.  I never found a text that suited the direction of the unit or addressed some of the questions raised by professional responsibility and conduct.

The approach I took instead was to develop a reading list of materials that was drawn from the relevant legislation and rules, commentaries by legal professional organisations, online case law databases and current legal professional publications.

Legislation, rules and case law are now freely available in up to date versions as well as date-in-time.  Teaching in another unit, I was often disappointed at the number of law students who had come to rely on text books and had never read the provision that their text was telling them about (and if they had would have found it much easier to understand).  Databases like the Commonwealth’s Federal Register of Legislative Instruments now even make Explanatory Memoranda and related regulations available through the same Act ‘homepage’.

When cases first appeared on the internet, they were generally in media neutral form.  The most recent decisions still, but some subscription databases like Westlaw AU make the ‘authorised’ versions (PDF versions of the pages from the reporters) available while some of the decisions now appearing on Jade have page numbers as well as paragraph numbers.

And including the most recent commentary from professional associations and publications means that your unit is up-to-the-minute in terms of the issues that it is addressing.  My experience has been that law students are also quite pleased and relaxed about late additions to reading lists where the addition is something that had been published or handed down in the last 48 hours.  The purpose of doing it is apparent to them – especially where they may have had the experience elsewhere of using texts that haven’t changed for the last ten years.

So, before you bankrupt a law student, or prevent them from succeeding in your unit at all, ask yourself if you know what’s out there, or are you making your law students pay the ‘lazy tax’ for you?

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