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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Harvard Law's Curricular Reform: 3 Years In

Several years ago, under the stewardship of then-dean Kagan and then-professor-now-dean Minow, Harvard Law School made a significant change to its first year curriculum. Different portions were phased in at different times, but this will be the third full year of it all being in place, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the reforms. Unlike the Langdellian Socratic method that was also started at Harvard, I have seen less copying of our reforms. That may be that others do not think it a good idea, but I suspect it is more to do with the fact that this was a resource intensive change (adding an additional 21 professors needed to teach 1Ls) that was implemented at a moment where most schools are facing economic woes.

Here is the reform in a nutshell:

The typical Harvard 1st year courses (Civ Pro, Contracts, Torts, Property, Criminal Law) were all dropped from 5 credit hours a week to 4 credit hours.  An additional 4-credit class entitled “Legislation and Regulation,” which largely combines a course in legislation/statutory interpretation with parts of administrative law was added.  In addition, a 4-credit international/comparative law elective was required and added to the first year curriculum. Students choose from a menu of seven classes for 1Ls with foci such as private international, public international law, international humanitarian law, an comparative law (China, for example).  Last, and most recently, we moved our finals into the fall and now give the 1Ls a winter (or J-) term class called “Problem Solving Workshop,” which is taught intensively over 13 week days. Each day the students are given a problem, and in small groups have a day or two to solve it and submit work product as a group. While some of the problems are focused on litigation, others are things like dealing with public relations and media, negotiating, and other skills. The next day the students re-assemble, debrief and consider how different groups dealt with the problem, and start a new problem. The course is pass/fail. Once in the middle of the class and once at the end the students meet with practicing lawyers to test their proposed solutions against the practical realities as the lawyers see it.

Students also take a regular elective in the spring.

Here is my internal sense of how these have been received, but one reason why I want to post about it is to get feedback from those of you in the world out there who have seen our students under the new curriculum and their performance.

The "leg-reg" class (as it is nicknamed) has been an unabashed success. The students like it a lot, it has generated a new textbook geared to it, and it remedies an embarrassing intellectual lacuna in the first year where we asked students to imagine the administrative state did notexist. I have also seen it pay dividends in Civ Pro, where the students are much more sophisticated about statutory interpretation. I think this reform would make sense for any law school.

The international law classes have caused many more of our students to consider ways in which their career might relate to the global legal order, in jobs both inside and outside the U.S. The split between international and comparative law has meant that the students get very different experiences depending what they opt for, but it has also had the positive impact of introducing our students to other students outside of their section. I think the reform made a lot of sense for Harvard because many of our students will need to know something about international law in the jobs they go into, but perhaps not as much sense for schools whose graduates will face different career interests and opportunities.

Problem solving workshop is the newest to be implemented and I am not sure I have sufficient data yet to comment. The class is nicely responsive to concerns raised by the Carnegie report, and the view that our students were excellent on their own but could use more opportunities to hone their teamwork skills since that is much more the reality of legal practice today. Some of the problems also get our students out there into the real world. The nature of the course means its success will turn a lot on who teaches it. Joe Singer and Todd Rakoff designed the course and are deeply invested in it, as are the other teachers who basically give up their lives for the winter term and meet themselves as a team to debrief each day. In less skilled or invested hands, though, I could see this being much less successful.

Well that is all good news. What is the downside?

First, the reform has been very resource intensive. We now need 42 (7 classes of 7 sections) faculty members just to teach the first years, which is almost half of our faculty. At a period in time where we have reduced the number of visitors, this has also created logistical difficulties in making sure the right people can teach at the right times. It also requires a lot more space to teach in, which will hopefully be remedied when our new building opens soon.

Losing a credit in each of the original classes has been a drag, in that most folks have really dropped only half a credit worth of coverage and thus are cramming in more to a shorter time frame.  Add an additional exam each semester, and it means our students are working harder than ever. Now some of that tension has been relieved by pairing this reform with our grade reform, but I have to say I see more and more of our students looking tired than I did before. Still, while I am not sure the students view it this way, given that the price of matriculating a 1L has not dramatically increased and we have added substantially to what the students learn, we seem to be offering much more bang for the buck than we did just a few years back.

So that is the insider’s perspective. But I am curious what the outside world thinks….

Posted by Glenn Cohen on December 8, 2011 at 04:50 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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None of these changes make a lick of sense to me, but I graduated before them.

Harvard's problem was 3Ls who checked out. I knew a dozen who skipped most of their last year, playing video games, working on campaigns, living elsewhere, even Europe.

How does making 1Ls work even harder fix a law school that can only keep students engaged for 2 years? (In 1L, I knew a lot of people who were prescribed psychiatric meds to handle the stress.)

If the core curriculum is flawed or outdated, why not fix those classes instead adding more classes? Doesn't property have some statutes to interpret (instead of adding more material and another exam)?

Posted by: Another HLS alum | Dec 10, 2011 8:44:13 PM

I graduated from HLS a few years ago. I'm proud to be an alum, and I had a good experience overall, but I started to feel after law school that there were significant gaps in my legal education - especially re: regulatory/statutory construction and international and comparative law. Of course, these classes were offered at HLS, but I didn't know enough as a law student to appreciate their importance, so I never signed up for them. I think these reforms sound amazing, and I'm glad to hear they've been well-received.

As for the downsides, they don't sound too bad. The workload does sound very heavy, but that'll just prepare students for the grind of practice (I say, after a week of straight 15-16 hour days :). And, as someone who still owes 27K in law school loans from my HLS days ... HLS charges Mercedes prices, and it should deliver a "resource-intensive" education in return. For what it's worth, I'd much rather have had the 1L experience you describe - even if it meant investing in a caffeine IV drip - than the "traditional" 1L experience I had in the early '00s.

Potentially the most serious downside you mention is the one-credit reduction in each of the substantive courses. Could you say more about the types of topics that have been cut from the traditional courses (e.g. criminal law)? Do professors teaching core subjects feel that they have had to slash key topics? Have students raised concerns that they aren't learning as much as they should in the core classes?

Posted by: HLS alum | Dec 9, 2011 8:42:18 PM

I suspect one reason other schools aren't following Harvard is that having 1Ls take some classes usually taken by 2L and 3L students is perceived as having more symbolic than practical importance. Most students will take those classes anyway, and it doesn't matter much if they take them in the fall 2L year or spring 1L year. Given that, I would think it's the Problem Solving Workshop, more than any other change, that might have an impact, and that other schools might try to follow -- if it ends up making a big difference that justifies its cost.

Posted by: Ken Foltz | Dec 9, 2011 11:19:32 AM

Sorry Jodi that was an oversight on my part due largely to jet lag (on which I'll also blame my bad math!): the students take our Legal Research and Writing course (taught by our Climenko fellows) in the fall and spring of the 1L year on top of the doctrinal courses.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Dec 9, 2011 9:40:13 AM

There is no mention of a legal research, writing, skills, methods course in the Harvard 1L curriculum. Where does that fit in?

Posted by: Jodi | Dec 9, 2011 9:35:39 AM

Georgetown's experimental section has had basically this exact curriculum for several decades. The students who take it really love it, but those who don't are very skeptical. Which seems to be the reaction Harvard is getting now.

Posted by: Amy | Dec 9, 2011 3:33:39 AM

Loyola Chicago, like most law schools I suspect, has moved to the one semester, four credit model for the required first year curriculum. Having, over the years, taught torts, contracts and constitutional law in this format, it is clear to me that they line up that way with torts the easiest to accommodate to con law the toughest. But, of course, it is true that you can teach, in some sense, any of those courses in any time frame. If your dean says a group of legal educators from Mars was coming through and he asks you teach them torts in an hour, most torts teachers could pull it off. I guess what I miss the most about the old two semester model is that now many fewer students come in to go over their exams. I know that can be time consuming and sometimes painful, but it presents tremendous teaching moments. On the other side of the ledger, the four credit model makes teacher assignments much easier and allows for freeing up some greater time for scholarship.

Loyola has also adopted an elective in the spring for first years. They cover a wide range of subjects from a tax/business course to a couple of international and compartive offerings, such as the labor and employment course I offer. One wrinkle is that upper level students can also take these offerings. As far as I can tell, that wrinkle has not caused problems but has worked well.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | Dec 8, 2011 10:31:29 PM

The University of Nebraska College of Law just approved in the last several weeks a reform of the 1L curriculum that will now require 1L students to take a 2 credit international and comparative law course (international perspectives course) -making Nebraska one of the few schools in the country to do so. Harvard's reform efforts were discussed in the background materials of the proposal that was considered by Nebraska's faculty. Total credit hours for 1Ls remains at 33 credit hours as torts is being reduced from 6 credit hours (over two semesters) to 4 credit hours (in one semester) upon the recommendation/approval of the professors teaching that course. The reform acknowledges that most lawyers regardless of practice area and regardless of geography will, with wide variation in frequency and intensity, face legal issues requiring familiarity with treaty issues and conflict of law rules that might point to application of foreign law. More generally, the international and comparative law course will likely help some first year students in processing and understanding their other 1L course subject matter as they see the different choices that are made on key issues in different legal systems. The reform was not resource intensive - three faculty members will split teaching duties to give the widest possible range of experience and expertise and thus perspectives to students, and no new classroom space is required (although our building as been expanded and classrooms completely remodeled in the last 3-4 years).

Posted by: Matt Schaefer | Dec 8, 2011 1:49:38 PM

I think Leg/Reg has to become a required part of the curriculum, if not in 1L than at some point. I am glad (although not surprised) that it has had a salutary effect on Civ Pro. I usually am the first course in which they have had to look at any sort of statutory text.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 8, 2011 10:48:43 AM

Glenn, Michael Froomkin beat me to it on the 9 or 10 RAs. 42 faculty members to teach the first year? Wow. But isn't 7 x 7 = 49? It is up here at Porter Square.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 8, 2011 7:40:27 AM

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