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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Law school on the "Block Plan"

For no particular reason, I was thinking today about the "Block Plan" (or "One-Course-at-a-Time") approach used at liberal arts colleges such as Colorado College and Cornell (IA) College. As the name suggests, students take (and professors teach) one class in an intensive 3 1/2- or 4-week block, take one week off, then move on to another single class. And at least Cornell plays up internship and other outside-the-classroom opportunities.

So: Any thoughts on whether law school could work on this model?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 27, 2009 at 06:06 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink

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That is more akin to what law firm life is like (at least initially); you get assigned to a new case, and sooner or later (usually sooner, but sometimes things take a while to ramp up) you have an intense period of work in which you have to master the subject matter/procedural rules of the case.

While there is obviously cross-over between cases, in my experience one case generally dominates 60-80% or more of my time in a given period. Eventually, things quiet down (settlement, briefing is completed, discovery ends, etc.). Then the process starts again.

I don't know if, pedigogically, this model is better, but there are certainly some parallels with practice.

Posted by: John | Oct 28, 2009 11:07:51 AM

I discussed this with my roommate and we both think that this would be much more feasible (and perhaps desirable) for 1L year, when the curriculum is already set. Benefits would be that you could focus entirely on one area of the law (which is already probably extremely confusing to you) before getting bogged down in multiple others. Additionally, you can take an actual law school exam and analyze your performance on that before you have to move on and do others. As it currently stands, you may be a terrible law school exam taker, and don't realize it before you've already taken 3-4. However, I think you would need to take civil procedure first, so that you understand what it is that is going on in some of the cases later on, but maybe that's just my personal opinion.

After the first year, I think this could be a disaster in terms of scheduling. Schools obviously couldn't offer their entire course catalog each "block" and if, by luck of the draw, every class, or a majority of the classes, that you wish to take are offered in one block, you're out of luck. I'm not sure how schools that use this model deal with this problem.

Posted by: Robert | Oct 28, 2009 12:04:38 PM

Of course, the problem of conflicts between desirable classes exists now--both Fed Courts and PR are offered at 1 p.m. Monday/Wednesday, so what should I take? I think that is a scheduling thing that can be handled.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 28, 2009 12:33:08 PM

I don't think blocks would work well for law school, at least not in the first year. Think about what we teach in the first year: Some black letter law ("information"), yes, but also the skills that students need to understand and teach themselves the law throughout their careers: how to read a case, how to craft legal arguments, how to think through a problem, how to extrapolate from one context to another, etc. Between the "the law is a seamless web" problems, the novelty of the source materials ("you mean it matters whether the Rule says 'or' or 'and' and I can't just skim?"), and the breadth of what we're trying to teach, students need time to absorb as they learn. You can't just pile three long days on pleading, three on personal jurisdiction, two more on subject matter jurisdiction, and a few more on joinder and expect the students to get anything out of it. I suspect there's a vast literature on block learning generally, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of it is negative based on a general need for time to absorb; but regardless, first year law students need that time.

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Oct 28, 2009 4:12:02 PM

Of course, there are middle grounds. Although I didn't do my first year at the University of Toronto, they had in their first year a number (around four) of "bridge weeks," centered around particular and more theoretical (Toronto truly is the Yale of Canada) issues. It would also, of course, be possible to organize bridge weeks around skills, transactions (that would be a valuable and much-needed experience, I think), statutory interpretation, and so on, as well as theoretical concerns. This would of course require interrupting the first-year curriculum several times a year, but it would not entail replacing it.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 28, 2009 5:21:14 PM

I was part of an experimental class at my law school and in the first 6 weeks of my law school career took both Contracts I and Civ Pro I and took exams on each. That was followed by another 6 weeks where Contracts II and Civ Pro II and exams for each were taken. The next semester consisted of your typical first year courses in your typical full semester manner.

7 years later, I can remember and understand Contracts and Civ Pro much more than property, torts and crim law.

Perhaps this is unique to me but I am of the belief that I am not alone among my classmates.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 28, 2009 7:30:39 PM

Block scheduling would get rid of a problem (admittedly not a serious one) I had in the second semester of my 1L year. We were doing Roe/Casey in Con Law, and in the very next class, Civ Pro, we were doing forum non conveniens. So I went from wrestling with some of the most contentious issues of our time (life, when is a human being a fully moral human person, etc.), to wrestling with the question of: How much inconvenience is too much inconvenience for a defendant? It was definitely hard to take Civ Pro seriously that week.

Posted by: sehi | Oct 28, 2009 11:09:42 PM

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