Changing the Law School Curriculum

Wordle of ABA Standards for Program of Legal Education.
Wordle of ABA Standards for Program of Legal Education. Don’t worry…. I hate myself for using a Wordle too.

If you’ve paid even the slightest attention to either the implosion of the legal services market or the legal education one, you’ve seen it taken as fact that law schools are not producing “practice ready” graduates.

If this is a common complaint, and one that’s been in place for decades at this point, why hasn’t it changed?

I’ve always assumed that the ABA Standards for law school curricula (See Chapter 3) were so exacting and rigid that there was little room for improvement or innovation. After all, that’s why the first year curriculum is basically the same across law schools, right?   And why a law school’s environment in the year leading up to an ABA Accreditation visit is what a Tudor household must have felt like before a visit from Henry VII?  Much to my shame, even after 6 years in the legal academe, it wasn’t until recently with all the hubbub over the proposed changes to the standards and William Mitchell going online that I sat down and actually read them.

For a document written by a bunch of lawyers, it’s really not that detailed and has a LOT of wiggle room.

This is probably why the official interpretations of the requirements are twice as long as the standards themselves, but even those aren’t incredibly specific.

Basically, this is all that is required by the ABA as far as curriculum goes:

  • A foundation in substantive law.  They do look at bar passage rates, so although it’s never specifically said, one assumes that this means the bar exam topics
  • Two substantive writing requirements – one in first year, one in later years
  • Professional responsibility/ethics
  • 58,000 minutes of instruction time with 45,000 in person
    • No, I don’t know why they use minutes to explain length either
    • In one of the interpretations they explain that 700 minutes per semester is equal to 1 course credit hour.
    • They also say that a law school on semesters must have no less than 83 credit hours for graduation.
  • Must complete course work in no less than 2 years and no more than 8.

That’s it.

I decided to see what one could do within that framework and graduate a more prepared student.

Let’s start with the bar/important courses.  For the purposes of my law school, I assigned the following credit values based on my own experiences.  I realized that every law school noodles with the credit hours and timing of these, but I think this is pretty fair.  As you’ll see, we have plenty of room for adding if necessary.

  • Torts – 4
  • Contracts – 4
  • Civil Procedure – 6
  • Constitutional Law – 6
  • Property – 4
  • Criminal Law – 4
  • Criminal Procedure – 3
  • Commercial Paper – 3
  • Tax – 4
  • Wills and Trusts – 3
  • Business Associations – 4

That’s 45 credit hours out of a bare minimum 83.  Which gives us 38 credit hours to play with.

Now, you’ll notice my “required” course list hasn’t yet mentioned legal research, legal writing or professional responsibility.  In my law school curriculum, all three would be combined into a “Legal Methods” course, which will be 6 hours in the fall and spring of the 1L year.   Standard 302(a)(2), (4), and (5) require “legal analysis and reasoning, legal research, problem solving, and oral communication”, “other professional skills generally regarded as necessary for effective and responsible participation in the legal profession”, and “the history, goals, structure, values, rules and responsibilities of the legal profession and its members.”  That’s what this course will cover and more.

There is much talk about teaching lawyers to program.  Believe it or not, I don’t think they actually need to go that far in technological instruction.  When I taught legal research or using the Internet, I always went into an explanation of how, for example, search engines work.  If 80% of our students are becoming solo or small firm attorneys, they will be the ones making the purchasing decisions on law firm technology – legal research, client management, web pages, social media and marketing and more.   The analogy I used to my students about WHY I was going into these topics was this:  If you drive a car, you don’t need to know how to build an internal combustion engine.  However, it’s pretty darn useful to be able to change a spare tire or at the very least, have an idea of what it means when you see a liquid leaking out of the bottom so when you take it to a mechanic, you don’t get ripped off.   So the level of technological knowledge I’m going for is “red liquid leaking means transmission fluid.”

Legal research, legal writing, oral advocacy, dealing with clients, basic book-keeping, ethics and basic technological knowledge will all be combined into one course.   It will be a bit of a patch work at times, but I strongly believe it needs to be in one course.  Why? Because most of these topics are inter-related and separating them out (a) removes the context from the skill and knowledge and (b) causes students, quite practically when grades are so important, to ignore their 1 credit hour legal research courses in favor of their 4 hour torts or property courses.

So that’s 12 more hours gone from our schedule, leaving us with 26 credit hours.

3Ls in my law school will spend 6 hours each semester in a clinic or incubator setting.   I’ve been looking into incubators and I’ve been surprised at how many are already in existence. Almost everything in my curriculum changes are somewhat easy to set up – allowing time for course planning, this could start in Fall 2015.  Incubators and clinics will take a bit more time to get going and will require the hiring of many more clinicians and adjuncts.   Aside from teaching practical skills, it will also offer a chance to close some of the Access to Justice gap currently plaguing our country.

Twelve more credit hours gone, leaving 14 available.

One of the traditional things that students will not get credit for is working on law review.  Why?  Because they won’t be.  Oh, my law school will have a law review, just not one staffed by law students.  It will be peer reviewed and staffed by the faculty.  I do not want to hear complaints that this will cut into their scholarship time, because ensuring the quality of scholarship published in one’s discipline is just as important of a scholarly activity as writing.  They would still have time to write, of course, just perhaps not publish as often.  If this model was adopted all over, it would also cause faculty to be perhaps more selective in where they submit because they know other law professors will have to read them.  Assuming law profs don’t go all Tragedy of the Commons.

Just as an aside, here’s how law review submissions often go…  a faculty member will submit their articles to several journals using a service such as ExpressO.  Then they wait.  And if they are accepted at one, they push the editors at the higher ranked journals for an expedited review and try to game their way to the best publication placement.  I mean, it’s bad enough that law students are reviewing scholarship, but asking them to speed it up?   If the academe wants the world to take its scholarship seriously, it needs to start with itself and treat scholarship with respect.

ANYWAY…. although the students will not run law journals, upper division law students will be required to spend 2 credit hours at some point either TAing the 1st year Legal Methods course, acting as a research assistant for a professor or doing an independent research or coding project.  Teaching others, as in the TA possibility, or teaching yourself, as in RA or Independent research project, is pedagogically a great way to learn.  TAs in the first year Legal Methods will allow for greater student/teacher interaction for the 1Ls and assist them in adapting to legal world culture.

This final requirement leaves us with 12 credit hours for the student to spend however, or at least one course a semester of the student’s choice for the final two years of school.  And that’s if we stick to the bare minimum 83 hours of instruction time.   Will things like “law and literature” or foreign study programs become not as viable?  Yes, but this is a professional school.  The time for “fun courses” is over.   Sorry.  But not really.

I suppose another controversial item in my proposed schedule is that the only substantive law in the first year is civil procedure and constitutional law.  I believe the heavy work load of the Legal Methods course combined with the culture shock of the first year of law school would make it pointless to add any others.  My goal is to educate students, not run a hazing program.  Also, those two are so foundational that understanding them combined with excellent research and writing skills would still make these 1Ls valuable summer employees for local firms.

This is what my class grid looks like:

  • Fall 1L: 3 credits Civil Procedure, 3 credits Con Law, 6 credits Legal Methods
  • Spring 1L: 3 credits Civil Procedure, 3 Credits Con Law, 6 Credits Legal Methods
  • 2L Year: 2 credits TA, RA, or Personal Research, 32 credits TBD
  • Fall 3L: 6 credits clinic/incubator, 6 credits TBD
  • Spring 3L: 6 credits clinic/incubator, 6 credits TBD

One could spread the credits out a little more evenly between the 2L and 3L years or allow clinical/incubator experience starting in the second semester of the 2L year.  Or even make the summer between 1L and 2L another semester for classes instead of working.  The point is, aside from the need to hire more clinical faculty, all of this is possible right now.   And if one considered courses/projects  like the A2J Clinics, Georgetown Iron Tech, or the Columbia Collateral Consequences Calculator as clinical opportunities, the new faculty/facilities requirements on a law school aren’t as onerous.  And all of this isn’t taking into consideration that the ABA does allow variances and encourages law schools to apply for them.

The rules aren’t what’s stopping innovation in legal education.  It’s just a failure of imagination.


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