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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Law School Evening Divisions

Yesterday we had our orientation for both the day and evening sections of our first year class.  The evening event brought to mind the issues surrounding part-time legal education, not just here but, from what I can gather, across the nation.

Evening divisions of law schools often have long histories.  Related to these programs' longstanding nature is their focus on serving underserved communities; my law school, for example, is said to have started, as a night school, in order to provide legal education to Catholics and Jews, who were excluded from the then-existing law schools in southern California.  Of course, those bad old days are (mostly) gone, but the fact remains that part-time programs offer a legal education to people who can't afford to spend three years not working in order to attend law school.  That class is surely a demographic that is underrepresented among lawyers today.  Of course evening programs take in other types of students as well, from the prosperous corporate middle-manager who doesn't want to give up a well-paying job to a twenty-something just out of college who wants to take law school more slowly. But in my experience the "classic" evening student remains a major part of our student body, and, I suspect, the student bodies of other evening programs.  I still remember talking to an LAPD cop a couple of years ago who responded to our call about a possible intruder in the backyard; as we were filling out the paperwork he noticed my job and immediately started talking about how much he'd like to attend the evening program.  I suspect there are a lot of people like him out there; indeed, I see them in my classes.

But modern legal education (and modern life more generally) has posed some major challenges for evening programs.  Clinical and externship opportunities -- which are becoming more and more important to students -- are harder to come by, since most law offices operate on a standard workday.  Law review and moot court activity often happens during the day.  Some faculty resist teaching in the evening, for personal schedule reasons (though, thankfully, some faculty actually prefer teaching in the evening).  It's harder to create the same broad curriculum I can create for the day students (although this is mitigated by the availability of adjuncts to teach in the evening).  And as far as the students are concerned, the changing nature of the workplace (nobody gets out at 5:00 anymore) and increasingly horrific traffic make it harder for working students to get to campus in time for class, let alone take advantage of the academic atmosphere (office hours, talking to classmates in the quad, going to hear a speaker) that day students take for granted and from which professors often expect their students to learn.

The difficulty a lot of would-be evening students face has caused a  nationwide drop, or at least stagnation, in application numbers.  In turn, this has put downward pressure on class sizes which has only made it more difficult for schools to offer a full-service evening division with an adequate curriculum.  Being in a big city helps mitigate this problem for us, but all evening divisions are facing fundamentally the same dynamic.

So it's a difficult situation.  Law schools with evening divisions are talking about all sorts of responses -- from distance learning to more flexible scheduling to weekend classes -- but none of these comes costless, either to the students themselves, their educational experience and/or the faculty or institution.  But as long as both economic inequality and the cost of legal education continue to rise then evening programs -- to the extent they continue to serve their traditional demographic -- play an important role in keeping the doors to the professional slightly more open than they would otherwise be.

Posted by Bill Araiza on August 15, 2007 at 07:05 PM | Permalink


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i have just started an evening program and greatly appreciate this post for providing a broader context on the challenges facing evening programs and, by extension, evening law students.

i am viewing the issue of externships/summer positions as a possible asset for the evening student. of course, this view may or may not be borne out by my experience over the next few years, but here's what i mean...

i work in PR. and though the legal profession is learning the value of effective communications more and more, i am intending my education as a change in career. my plan is to use a summer position as a break from my current career, leading a full-time job within the legal profession. our school has an excellent pro bono and clinic experience for evening students that i am already involved with and my summers will also include some, again hopefully, some pro bono legal experience.

combining this with my education, i hope, will allow me to compete with "traditional" day students who might otherwise have an advantage over me by virtue of their summer positions and externship.

hopefully, experience will prove me right. either way, i'm pumped to have started on the project of law school.

Posted by: dk | Aug 17, 2007 4:17:21 PM

Great post! As an evening student entering my final year, the subject is near and dear to my heart. I fall into the "not able to forgo working full-time" category, and so I'm in the evening program at Chicago-Kent.

Overall, it's been a good experience. The faculty who teach in the evening program are great and seem to care very much about providing a quality legal education to the students. That isn't to say there are not issues. There are times when I think actions taken by the school benefit the day program with little regard for the evening students--but I understand that the bulk of the school's mission is in serving the full-time program, so I take that with a grain of salt.

However, I do think there is some room for flexibility, perhaps modeled after Executive MBA programs. I do understand the difference between the typical Socratic method employed in law schools and the case method often employed by b-schools, but I also think there are many similarities. In the Chicago area, for example, there are some (outstanding quality) b-schools that offer both evening weekend programs and Exec programs. I've seen Exec Ed programs built on a model of one week per month, consisting of intensive classes and also another that meets two 3-day weekends per month, also of intensive classes.

That model works for a lot of non-traditional students--and although it is very demanding, I still think it's possible to adequately cover the curriculum in intensive sessions. I know I've had law classes that would have been great as a one-week intensive session, but stretched out into a whole semester, seem to drag a bit.

I also think distance learning would be great--but it wouldn't solve my biggest issue with the part-time program, which is lack of face time. Honestly, there have been a couple of faculty members I've really enjoyed in class and would like to help on research projects or in clinic, but the time just isn't there. Unfortunately, for students in my position, there is no easy answer to that problem.

Posted by: Dave! | Aug 16, 2007 10:57:38 AM

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