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Monday, April 16, 2018

Pacing change, changing paces: when and how to reform legal education

Derek Muller's ruminations on legal education and the profession are always interesting and thought-provoking.  Today's post is no exception.  It is worth reading and noodling over, and more than once.  I certainly intend to do so.

Its normative claim, a tad hard to disentangle, but there in the middle and also at the end, is that reformers (radicals and moderates alike) may be pushing reform agendas with an urgency that is both counterproductive for our students and is insufficiently attentive to the historical evolution, steady and unsteady, in legal education.  Perhaps change, but no so fast.  And let us not through the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes indeed.  Much to say, but let me focus on just two aspects of this dense post:  The claim that we need to assess the efficacy of current curricular and administrative structures before undertaking big changes is clearly right; but slipping from that into the claim that there may well be little that is broken so as to warrant revision seems misguided.  To be sure, there are reformers who would practice a version of zero based budgeting -- reform tabula rasa.  Many folks on my twitter feed are of this variety; but few legal educators (and nearly no deans) are so inclined to recommend this, even as a thought experiment.  We would do well, as Derek and I agree, to look clear-headedly at the mechanisms that are very successful, measured in many ways, and leave well enough alone.  And this should be true at both the general level (take, for example, the welcome durability of the first-core core curriculum) and the granular level (say, the requirement of legal writing and of ethics).  Few dispute this, and those that do undertake a heavy burden of explaining why the road to sound education and professional success of our students lies in root-and-branch reform.

But where the recommendations of reform are grounded solidly in judgments about what a dynamic, technologically impacted profession expects out of law graduates in 2018, 2020, and 2030, as based on input from myriad stakeholders and on the basis of good evidence, then the complaint that such reform has, as the emperor says to Mozart, simply "too many notes," does not compel.  Students face a zero-sum world in law school, of that there cannot be any doubt, but the capacity to adjust to new modalities of pedagogy and modern structures of knowledge, including multidisciplinary knowledge and exposure to new subjects at the intersection of law, business, & technology is higher than I believe Derek imagines.  Moreover, even in a zero sum world, it might be worth giving up other curricular expectations here and there in order to make this more promising world into a reality.

As to the tangent about administrators in Derek's valuable post, I would say, sure, our role as administrators -- deans and all others -- is to facilitate student opportunity and reduce unnecessary friction.  At the same time, it is to enable opportunity and widen the lens of what a law student can and should do and what a modern professional ought to focus on in these precious three years.  So, less time for reporting requirements ok, but fewer opportunities to be exposed to, say, lunchtime programs, interesting externships, bar-academy collaborations?  No thank you.  Idle hands and heads are the devil's plaything, but we might see our commitment to our students facing big expense as entailing a bazaar of opportunities and an exhortation to profit from the bounty of interesting initiatives enabled by a serious rethink of our curriculum.


Posted by Dan Rodriguez on April 16, 2018 at 07:33 PM | Permalink


Yes, I think we are at the dangerous point of raging agreement. I take to heart your good recommendation about curtailing onerous administrative burdens on students, and agree that they have grown in the last few years. And a comprehensive analysis of which changes over the past, say, half century have been salutary and which have been deleterious would take more than a hefty blog post or three. Now as to the nagging question of why you style your approach as Burkean . . .

Posted by: dan rodriguez | Apr 17, 2018 9:42:09 AM

Thanks, Dan. If I may defend my tangent with a concurrence--I agree that enabling opportunities and proving greater perspective are, I think, wholly worthwhile. Exposure opportunities are valuable. I also think that some new "burdens" (a term I use here quite generously) are wholly worth the "cost"--for instance, professional formation and development is much better than it was 20 years ago. That said, I am not wholly convinced that a suite of new changes--and, in turn, (sometimes) administrative requirements placed upon students at a time when we are un-requiring certain things (e.g., curricular requirements)--has been an entirely (emphasis on this adverb!) worthwhile tradeoff. But, I think we have more in common on this point, and lest this comment turns much denser or entangled I'll leave it at that....

Posted by: Derek Muller | Apr 17, 2018 9:37:11 AM

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