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law school laptops

Ann Althouse has a very common-sense post about law school laptops. She describes how many schools, including mine, have chosen to use exam software that won't run on Macs, and she accurately identifies the revulsion that this inspires in people like myself. I've handwritten all my exams so far because I stubbornly refuse to go out of my way to satisfy the demands of my school's favored exam software. Life's too short.

But I'm disappointed, if not exactly revolted, by the need for any exam software at all. The only reason apparent to me that law schools feel they have to use it is that they think their students will cheat on exams if they get the chance. This is insulting, probably false, and counterproductive.

1. Insulting

Insisting that law students use exam software is insulting. It sends the message that the school thinks you might be a dishonest cheat, in spite of all their palaver about how great they think you and your classmates are. If the school really believed that, why do they think it's necessary to depend upon technology to restrain students from lying and cheating? Answer: because they believe that students won't be able to resist the temptation to succumb to their base impulses.

I came to law school from medical school, where we all signed a pledge every year to abide by the school's honor code. When we picked up an in-class exam, we could go anywhere we liked to take it: the back row, the classroom down the hall, the Starbucks. So long as we turned it in on time, we were trusted not to cheat. In some ways, the temptation to cheat was much greater in medical school than in law school. Med school exams were almost always multiple-choice, a format that lends itself well to cheating. Don't remember which antibiotics are effective against TB? It's easy enough to look it up, i.e., to cheat. And the rewards are great. Only a few more right answers could make the difference between a "P" and a coveted "H." But I don't think too many people cheated. It would have been too embarrassing; after all, we were treated like honest professionals.

Now, I don't know how this law school thing works. Maybe exam software is required by the ABA or some other national accrediting organization. Still, though, the disappointment remains. It's just that I'm disappointed in another decision-maker.

2. False assumption that law students cheat absent technological restraint

So whoever it is that requires exam software must think that cheating would be rampant if the software wasn't there to prevent it. I'm open to being proved wrong with historical evidence, but just thinking about it, this doesn't make sense.

If, as has been my experience, doing well on a law school exam does not depend so much on writing down the black-letter law as on applying the law to the facts given on the exam, I don't understand how cutting and pasting notes would really be an effective way to cheat. In fact, it seems to me that if you decided to waste your time doing that kind of thing, you'd be almost guaranteed not to write a high-scoring answer to the exam question. It's not like a medical school multiple-choice test, where cheating can be effective because all you need to do is look up the answer in a textbook.

Take away the exam software, and assume that some students try to cheat, and I'd bet those cheating students wouldn't get the top grades in the class, or even get any better grades than they would have gotten without wasting their time trying to cheat. A few rounds of failed cheating, and the few dishonest law students out there would either stop trying or cheat their way to the bottom of the class.

3. Counterproductive to insist on anti-cheating technology

Even if I'm wrong about (1) and (2), I think the benefits of using anti-cheating software are outweighed by the long-term drawbacks. In my limited experience, people tend to perform to your expectations of them. If you send the message to neophyte lawyers that the solution to dishonesty is technology, there's going to be a lot of practicing lawyers who will learn this lesson too well. Later in their careers, when they find themselves unrestrained and able to cheat, lie, and steal at will, they'll be more likely to do it because they're not accustomed to handling the burdens of trust.

Beyond the fact that exam software that can't be used on a Mac fills me with revulsion and scorn, the whole idea of exam software period is very disappointing.

Comments

we don't use ExamSoft (so it's not an ABA rule), but then again, we don't have grades either, or class rank, so I'd suspect that the temptation to cheat is greatly reduced.

but you have a good point about how law exams don't really lend themselves to cheating easily - it's hard to look up the answers. my Con Law prof even went so far as to tell us that none of the commercial study aids would help us either, because what do they know about Legal Realism and Positive Law?

The part of me that likes to give people the benefit of the doubt suggests that maybe schools don't insist on using exam software because they don't trust all their students or because they think cheating may be "rampant" but because they think *some* students might fall prey to that temptation, knowing how "competitive" law school is purported to be and how high the stakes supposedly are for performing well.

By the same token, I also think that people who, unfettered by technological restraints in practice, would cheat (lie, steal) would have done so notwithstanding those restraints in law school.

I suspect that learning not to cheat at this stage of life is too late. I tend to think it is a matter of character, which is taught at a much younger age. And, of course, we have plenty of evidence from many other professions (and dare I say our own?) that some people will cheat. Look at professional sports, for example.

Having said all that, I must say that my preference would also be to not use anti-cheating technology and instead have law school mirror the real world -- some people will get away with cheating and it will cause them harm ("cheat their way to the bottom of the class"), some people will get away with cheating and it will benefit them (at least in the short term) and some people will not get away with it and will be subject to appropriate sanctions.

To the extent that this comment sounds contradictory in places, I can only offer for my defense a paraphrase Descartes -- "I contradict, therefore I am."