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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 29 (Luke Bierman)

My approach in this virtual symposium has been to lay out the experiences of Elon Law in changing our curriculum and should not be read as ignoring the postings of others.  Indeed, I have kept abreast with each posting and have the filled binder, laden with handwritten notes, to prove it.  I am especially interested in the postings about adapting for and teaching of technology, offering undergraduate degrees, reducing cost and debt, and providing cautionary tales for the future.  Upon reflection, I will keep to my original design of describing the think and do approach of changing the curriculum at Elon Law and then turn to other thoughts, random and responsive, to complete my posts in this virtual symposium.  I appreciate your indulgence in allowing me this opportunity to present, which concomitantly has provided some personal perspective on Elon Law’s recent endeavors to adjust to the changing environment of legal education.


Achieving a substantial curriculum change in six months is a notable accomplishment; I have been reminded more than once that is rare in higher education.  But our experience at Elon demonstrates that it is possible.  But, alas if it were all THAT easy.  The revisions to the curriculum required alterations to calendar, course sequencing, credits, teaching assignments, budgeting, space, and many other aspects of our operation.  We also needed to publicize the changes and recruit students while continuing to educate current students under the preexisting curriculum.  Approval of the University board of trustees also needed to be accomplished.  Alumni were notably interested in what was going on and many town hall meetings, virtual and otherwise, occurred.  There was no rest for the weary.

Since final approval did not occur until after we had begun recruiting for the next academic year, we moved expeditiously to edit our admissions materials.  And we decided to do something else, which has proven significant in our journey – we began to interview prospective students.  This step, taken to emphasize the uniqueness of our new curriculum, also allowed us to begin to distinguish candidates who demonstrated an aptitude for learning by doing, whether by work experience, prior service learning or other focus points.  Because I remain skeptical of the utility of standardized testing generally and of the LSAT specifically (a topic notably lacking of attention in this virtual symposium), I supported the idea of different admissions emphases for our law school with a difference.  Indeed, we began to redevelop our recruitment approach including materials around the idea that Elon Law’s highly experiential approach to legal education was distinctive.  The University administration supported this approach as the University board, after hearing from the President, Provost and me, approved of our redirection. 

The board’s support derived from assurances that the academic approach was sound but also that the fiscal issues were likewise.  The board was well aware of the challenges permeating legal education, including those of a financial nature.  Accordingly, the board was reassured that the approach being proposed was no worse than what was expected if we did nothing, with a much more substantial upside predicted with the change.  This required us to rethink how to approach pricing.  Since one of our stated goals was to address cost and debt issues, we decided to freeze cost for the life of a student’s time in law school and that the best way to do this was to base tuition on the cost of degree rather than by credit or term.  Working from this perspective, we were able to devise a budget for several years that, based on anticipated increases in enrollment, reduced the overall cost of the JD by about 20%, and promised no increase during enrollment, the latter of which we also promised to currently enrolled students. 

We then had to adjust the semester calendar for a trimester system that led to graduation in 2.5 years but also brought 1Ls to campus in August for a new introduction to legal studies course designed to ease the transition to law school.  This required balancing tuition with financial aid allotments, courses, credit hours and teaching loads.  Luckily, members of the faculty 4C committee, employing James Madison-like instincts, were dedicated to this work and, with input from staff, other faculty and administrators, helped to devise the system that then fell to the registrar and senior administrators to coordinate.  This approach really took 3 years to implement, with adjustments made along the way as we encountered unanticipated consequences, such as rescheduling a spring moot court competition run by 3Ls, who no longer would be enrolled at school in the spring, and reorganizing law review and student organization selection processes. 

Running essentially 3 calendars simultaneously was challenging but did provide some comic relief as we kept straight which students were at what point in their studies.  We also had to devise new processes and procedures for the residency-in-practice while faculty were recalibrating their syllabi to ensure adequate coverage of classes under the trimester system.  Although the amount of class time was not diminished under the new calendar, trimesters are more compact than semesters, which permits greater focus on fewer courses at a time but also require adjustments to preexisting and practiced pedagogies.    

While we were pleased to see that prospective students seemed to be self-selecting to attend Elon Law’s new approach to legal education, continuing students did express some trepidation that they were not getting deserved attention.  We had been wary of this possibility so had implemented a number of new and expanded courses, especially in bar preparation, for those students while keeping their tuition steady, thus providing them with more class time and educational support than they had expected and had paid for.  While this mollified many of the continuing students, others were less sanguine and we continue to work with our alumni group.    

The residency-in-practice component went surprisingly well considering it was without any real analogue elsewhere.  We were relieved when we found any number of lawyers in many settings including judges not just willing but anxious to assist by serving as supervising attorneys, so that placing students was readily accomplished.  This may have been facilitated by the fact that all of the students on residency were eligible and in fact received a student practice certificate, permitting them to undertake more work independently than a typical clinical or intern student.  We also designated a faculty member to lead the program and with some training, guidance and examples, the faculty and supervising attorneys did a more than credible job in their first efforts. 

As the third class entering under the new curriculum arrived in August 2017 while the first class of 3Ls under the new curriculum prepared for their final trimester, Elon Law was able to return to a single calendar based on the 2.5 year curriculum requiring the residency in practice, among other innovations.  We have begun studying the effects of our changes and, with wisdom from our experiences and the input of students, made some adjustments along the way.  We will benefit from a substantial grant from AccessLex for a three year study of the new curriculum, performed by independent researchers, the results of which will be published so that we can share in more depth what we have learned from our comprehensive approach to redesigning the law school experience.  In my next post, I will report on some preliminary results of what Elon Law has accomplished to date and what our next steps may look like. 

Luke Bierman (Elon)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 20, 2018 at 07:29 AM | Permalink


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