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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 16

The viewpoints and suggestions offered in this symposium are wonderful for their breadth and thoughtfulness, not to mention passion and immediacy.  Legal education has stewards from literally all over the globe earnestly interested in protecting if not expanding the rule of law, the delivery of legal services, and the education of new generations of lawyers dedicated to a nation aspiring to equal justice under law.  It is unfortunate then that our collective narrative is not more widely shared and internalized by a new generation who might be lawyers.  

We all know the story well – for a half century interest in attending law school increased, as reflected in more and more applications, culminating in just over 600,000 applications for admission in the fall 2010 … but then KABOOM.  The fall off was rapid and dramatic so that, in this case, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.  Here is a depiction of law school 1L enrollment over the last roughly half century:

Those 600,000 applications yielded over 50,000 1L students and then – BUST.  The enrollment growth of almost a half century disappeared in only five years so that by the fall of 2015, 1L enrollment was back to early 1970’s levels.  Ouch.  The modest bump in applications that we currently see this academic year does not mitigate some generally held impressions that we are not likely to return to 2010 any time soon, especially considering demographic predictions for high school and college graduation rates over the next 25 years. 


It is against this backdrop that in 2006 Elon University opened the doors to its new law school.  Starting off strong in an environment of law school fecundity, Elon President Leo Lambert charged founding dean Leary Davis and his successor George Johnson to create a law school with a difference, drawing on a mission based in experiential learning that had brought the University growth and renown over 20 years.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking at Elon Law’s initial convocation in 2006, noted that the new Law School had strong bones and already was a “force with which to be reckoned.”  ABA accreditation followed in the shortest time possible.  And then, the bottom fell out. 

I arrived as dean in 2014 amid declining enrollment and budget challenges with a charge to revitalize the enterprise.  I had prepped for this assignment in and out of the academy, which turned out to be a good apprenticeship for this moment in legal education, but most recently had spent some time at Northeastern University School of Law, learning about its unique approach to preparing lawyers through co-operative education.  I was attracted to this pedagogy because I was convinced that the critiques of legal education held some serious validity – too long, too expensive and too disconnected from the profession.  Northeastern had made important strides to address at least the latter issue – by sending students out to work full time, the individual and the institution gained some real world connection that could, if guided, accelerate professional development and maturation.  Study and analysis of Northeastern alums undertaken by Bill Henderson tended to confirm this proposition.  

So, my arrival at Elon Law at the depths of the legal education bust offered an opportunity to reinvigorate the institution by developing these principles, which were entirely consistent with the approach Elon University championed and had infused into its Law School’s mission.  I quickly appointed a faculty committee to explore curriculum changes that might provide some of the advantages of co-op education while pushing those advantages and perhaps concomitantly addressing the cost and time issues as well. 

This committee was small to facilitate accomplishment but reflected diverse aspects of the curriculum, including 1L, upper level, writing and skills components.  This group met regularly for about 6 months, working quickly due to the urgency of the situation but consulting with others about issues like admissions and budget.  Four issues were identified as core to the work, including curriculum, calendar, competencies and communication, which gave rise to the moniker “the 4C Committee.” This group worked from the proposition that was embedded in the Law School’s strategic plan to establish and fulfill an overall curricular goal “to create a bridge from legal theory and doctrine to the practice of law.”  Approaching this mission from an outcomes oriented perspective, the 4C committee essentially worked backward by identifying the skills, knowledge and professional identity that students should acquire by graduation and then building a logical progression of learning to reach those goals. 

The signature experience would be a “directed practice placement,” or residency-in-practice, during which every 2L student would work full-time in a judge’s chamber or law office setting for academic credit.  This placement would differ from Northeastern’s co-op, which is essentially self-directed learning, through an accompanying course that the student would complete to enhance the experiential learning while keeping the student in touch with faculty at the Law School.  A “Bridge to Practice” course after returning to campus but before graduation would provide a capstone experience for the students in conjunction with required bar preparation instruction to ensure proper focus upon graduation.  Labs in the 1L courses starting with Criminal Law also were included to leverage the experiential focus of the curriculum. 

Working in this way, the 4C group deconstructed the calendar and was able to establish a trimester system that provided fewer classes per term, allowing more focus on them, and that allowed for a two and one-half year path to graduation.  The same amount of class time was provided so that credit hours for graduation would not change.  What this did offer was an opportunity to reduce tuition, and hopefully debt, for our students while diminishing the lost opportunity cost of being in law school for three years. 

This proposal generated significant debate, as anticipated and hoped for.  Over the course of several faculty meetings, the advantages and disadvantages were discussed as were alternative proposals.  In the end the 4C committee’s proposal was adopted by a two-thirds majority of the faculty.  Recognition that the law school with a difference should be even more different than it already was provided some support for the proposal but the real underlying theme around adoption was a palpable desire to create a more guided and pointed experiential curriculum that led students to capability for practice.  And so with the curriculum adopted, implementation became our focus.  My next post will describe how Elon Law turned thinking into doing. 

Luke Bierman (Elon)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 13, 2018 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


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