Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Top Legal News / UNC professor makes list of country’s 26 best law teachers

UNC professor makes list of country’s 26 best law teachers

UNC law professor Don Hornstein rejects the idea that law teachers can achieve success without dedicating much time to books

“Not here you can’t,” he said. “We factor teaching in absolutely. We’ve refused to bring people in if they were bad teachers. We’ve refused to tenure people who are bad teachers.”

Hornstein’s enthusiasm for the craft is one of the reasons he’s included in a book recently published by Harvard University Press, “What the Best Law Teachers Do.” It aims to shine a spotlight on the teaching process – an aspect of the job that can become an afterthought, given the research and publishing demands and the faculty politics on some campuses. The book focuses on the work of 26 law school professors who are highly regarded by students and colleagues.

The book’s trio of authors conducted a four-and-a-half year study dedicated to creating the first systematic, rigorous examination of excellent law teaching. Hornstein is the Aubrey L. Brooks Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, where has won the McCall Award for Teaching Excellence eight times. He teaches administrative law, economic regulation law and insurance law.

The authors of “What the Best Law Teachers Do” are Michael Hunter Schwartz, dean and professor of law at William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Gerald F. Hess, professor of law at Gonzaga University; and  Sophie M. Sparrow, professor of law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. They began the process of creating the list by soliciting nominations between March 2008 and March 2010. The group received more than 250 suggestions from law students, professors, deans and alumni, most through the website

After they got their initial batch of nominees, they asked the approximately 150 who chose to participate to submit a statement of teaching philosophy, two years of student evaluations and evidence that they had a “extraordinary, sustained, salutatory” effect on students. The authors left interpretation of that up the nominees. Each author did field visits and conducted interviews that became the basis for a qualitative review.

They then decided on a list of 29. Of the three not included in the book, one asked to be left out; another, Gerry Hess, became a co-author; and the third was Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, who asked not to be included because she was set to chair the congressional oversight panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The book is organized by topic, not by teachers, to put the focus on the common themes that make a teacher excellent. In reviewing the nominees and the nominations, the authors considered personal qualities, relationships, high expectations, class preparation, teaching activities, assessment methods and definitions of exceptional learning.

Lawyers Weekly asked Hornstein a few questions, just in case the rigorous process of being vetted for the “Best Law Teachers” wasn’t enough.

How does UNC Law ensure that dedication to teaching remains part of the school’s culture? 

We actually like our students, we don’t take them for granted. We don’t view them as conduits, as vehicles for us to get somewhere else. We’re invested in them.

In recent years, as the economic environment has forced change in the legal profession, UNC law has put even more emphasis on teaching. How is this manifesting itself?

We’ve sort of doubled down on teaching. We’ve changed the way we’ve taught over the past four or five years, adding clinical courses even for those of us not in the clinic. The Transition to Practice Courses are the fastest growing segment of our curriculum. They are deliberately small, not lecture based, quasi-clinical.

You serve as the faculty advisor to UNC’s Holderness Moot Court program. How is the role you play in moot court different than the one you play in the classroom? 

There’s a difference between coaching and teaching. When you coach, you’re like Roy Williams. It’s a pretty intimate thing. It’s sometimes a difficult thing for them to have me breathing down their necks, but I’m very invested in them. I guess a piece of that is a lot of students I get to know will come and talk to me, they’ll do independent projects for me and I’m just pretty accessible outside the classroom.

Are there other ways you stay invested in the process?

I’m a good classroom teacher and I enjoy the enterprise. I’m difficult, and my classes sort of have a reputation for being hard. Possibly the greatest key to my success is I teach these classes that are generally viewed as dogs. Administrative law. Who the hell even knows what that is? Economic regulations, insurance law—I don’t teach any of the nice sexy courses like constitutional law or anything like that. I think what happens is, they come in with low expectations, and it’s easy to exceed them.

You were one of the first professors to teach a MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) at UNC when you offered your environmental law and policy course for undergraduates this fall. About 22,000 students enrolled in the class.  What motivated you to take this on?

One of the reasons I did it is that it actually has different pedagogical ways to teach and to grade. The key to a MOOC is that grading has to be automated. You can’t possibly grade those numbers. Part of the reason I did it was I wanted to get some experience myself and test the claims that Coursera and others were making about how legitimate these auto-graded things were. I got some hands-on experience in ways in which I could let students test themselves as we go and give them immediate feedback. I did the MOOC in part so that I could get experience in it and I could translate that over into my experience in the law school.

What will you integrate into your law school teaching?

There were two things. One was multiple choice questions have to be increasingly looked at seriously. There’s a real skill to learning how to write those. That was one thing I found myself getting experience with, as a way to give people real hard feedback without so much of the grading burden on me.

Also, the peer-reviewed essay software program. Most law school exams are essay questions graded by the professor, and that’s the limiting factor in law school. It’s hard to grade them. It takes a long time and yet we have confidence that it’s a good evaluation method. With peer review you’re getting your classmates to grade. Well, the first time you hear that you think, ‘That’s just crazy. That’s like the blind leading the blind. Who cares what your classmates think?’ But there are ways that give the person who’s evaluating you an incentive to take great care in evaluating you. The software is evolving, and there isn’t a lot of evolution in education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *