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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 34 (Luke Bierman)

The devil may be in the details and the proof may be in the pudding but at Elon Law we learn by doing.  Adjusting Elon Law’s curriculum and calendar demonstrates that wholesale change can be accomplished to positive effect.  Of course, there are many effects that can go into assessing the outcomes of legal education.  USN&WR rankings may be one but more on that for another day.  Our assessment of the comprehensive redesign undertaken at Elon Law must first be measured by our stated objective “to create a bridge from legal theory and doctrine to the practice of law.”  Likewise, our efforts to address the primary critiques of legal education as too long, too expensive and too disconnected from the profession that we had identified offer another approach for assessment.  And our identification of learning outcomes along the logical continuum of preparation in Elon Law’s new curriculum provides yet another point of departure for assessment. 

Perhaps most pertinent to our efforts, the first class admitted under the new curriculum graduated in December 2017 and now anxiously awaits the results of the bar exam.  These pioneering students arrived at Elon Law in August 2015, persevered the transitions inherent in changing the curriculum, and graduated with guidance and advice from NC Chief Justice Mark Martin, who delivered the address at this important milestone event that also was our 10th commencement.  These students successfully navigated the new residency-in-practice program with experiences at law firms, corporations, government agencies including prosecutors and public defenders, and judges’ chambers including CJ Martin’s.  Surveys about the residency experiences reflect uniformly high results from both students and supervisors, which provide a foundation for much closer relationships for our law school with the bench and bar. 

These students also succeeded in reducing their debt some 20% compared to earlier Elon Law classes and, of course, they have the opportunity to enter our profession earlier than others who started law school when they did, thereby adding to the value of this approach to legal education.  We already know that some of these students have translated their residency experience into full-time law jobs although the full impact of that possibility awaits further assessment after the bar exam results are delivered.  We are proud that we successfully have begun to address in meaningful ways the length and cost issues affecting a variety of decision making by prospective and enrolled students. 

We also have some early results about the appeal of our innovative educational program to those interested in being a lawyer, which may offer further insight into the issues affecting access to law school.  This is especially critical considering the characteristics we are identifying in a new generation of prospective students and the adaptations of our profession to the information age and accompanying technologies.  Of course more precise assessments, which also will inform how we continue to refine this curriculum, will await deeper study and we are very appreciative to have the support of AccessLex to conduct a longitudinal review of aspects of this transition. 

For now, however, we know that over the first three academic years of our new curriculum, while applications to law school nationally remained flat, Elon Law saw an increase of about 40% in applications.  This academic year, as we completed our transition to the new curriculum and applications nationally are showing some amount of a bump up, interest in Elon Law’s innovative approach to preparing lawyers continues to remain strong with applications to date ahead of last year by about 35% with noteworthy increases in the metrics typically viewed as important including LSAT, UGPA and diversity.  Recognizing that we remain early in the admissions season, we nonetheless are pleased with these results thus far and see strong indicators of turning applications to admissions to enrollees.  We expect to continue this path as surveys of our applicants indicate a strong self-selection based on various aspects of our curriculum including the highly experiential components and the value proposition embedded in that curriculum. 

It is worth recognizing that as an innovator in preparing lawyers, Elon Law has taken a long view to achieving success, recognizing that it will take some time to refine the curriculum while explaining the advantages of our approach to legal education.  This is consistent with our strategic approach to respond positively to those aspects of legal education that suffer serious critique and that we sought to improve including cost, length and disconnect from the profession.  From those perspectives, our assessment thus far is positive although we have some important aspects to continue to monitor and fulfill our strategic imperative for continual improvement. 

Moreover, in the reputation heavy enterprise of law, where long held opinions are tough to shake, we at Elon Law fully understand that innovation may take time to permeate our collective professional consciousness.  The changes reported and advocated for in this virtual symposium are necessary because we are writing on a foundation some 150 years in the making.  Changes in complex enterprises like higher education do not come easy or quickly.  And we are making adjustments not just to address past critiques but to accommodate future trends. 

As we must be thoughtful about attracting law students coming of professional age in the 21st century, we need to be adaptable and responsive to social, cultural, economic, political and technological trends as well as those legal.  To educate a generation born of technology, schooled in service learning, and delayed into maturity, we cannot simply replicate our experiences but must focus on a curricular program, cost structure and professional development path that considers a new generation’s worldview.  For example, the next generation of students’ experience with service learning suggests a more fulsome integration of experiential learning into the curriculum.  Likewise, the contemporary presence of technology is yet another example of a trend that must be more integrated into the law school experience as a curriculum component and in other ways.  Much of the discussion in this virtual symposium informs the thinking about how to adapt these many trends and I hope that our experiences at Elon Law are useful to that thinking and eventual doing. 

This will conclude my posts about our experiences at Elon Law, where we have turned thinking into doing, heeding the Call to Action by Professor Madison that sent off this virtual symposium.  I look forward to sharing more about our experiences at Elon Law but that will await other venues.  I will post next some thoughts derived from the interesting observations and musings of the other participants in this virtual symposium. 

Luke Bierman (Elon)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 27, 2018 at 01:10 PM | Permalink


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