Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dean Chemerinsky on legal skills training in the 21st century

The following is an excerpt from a recently posted article on SSRN called "The Ideal Law School for the 21st Century" by Dean Chemerinsky of U. Cal., Irvine:

During the [inaugural year of UCI] . . . , the attention on curriculum was almost entirely focused on the first year.  Since we were beginning with sixty first year students in August 2009, it was less necessary to plan the upper-level curriculum. We set out to do that during the following year and found it to be more challenging than we expected.
We quickly decided that everything in the upper-level curriculum should be electives except for two requirements: a major paper to fulfill an upper-level writing requirement (as mandated by the ABA and as is common at all law schools) and a  clinical experience. We decided to have no other upper-level requirements beyond the number of units needed for graduation. There were arguments made for various courses being required—Property, Evidence, Business Associations, Administrative Law, and so on. I have been a law professor long enough to know that an impassioned argument can be made for countless courses being a requirement. But in the end we felt that students should be able to choose their classes based on their interests and that we would do our best to provide advice and guidance in course selection.

The challenge for the faculty was how to talk about the upper-level curriculum if everything is an elective. We decided on a few things. One is to encourage the incorporation of skills training into traditional doctrinal courses. For example, while at Duke, I taught a course on civil rights litigation and had all students draft a complaint, engage in a negotiations exercise, and do a discovery plan. The reaction of the students was overwhelmingly positive. I know that some of my colleagues have revamped their upper-level courses to include more simulations and more  opportunities for exercises throughout the semester.


Another choice was to create capstone courses for the third year. These will be classes based on actual problems or simulations that allow students to integrate what they have learned in diverse classes and to apply the material as they will need to do as lawyers. We surveyed capstone courses across the country and discovered that the phrase has no consistent meaning. In some schools, a major, in-depth paper can be labeled a “capstone experience”; in other schools, it requires a practice experience.

We have agreed that “capstone” will have a more definite meaning at UCI. The goal is to allow students to take what they have learned in several classes in a field and apply this to a complex problem. These might be based on actual on-going issues so their work might be of benefit to those handling the matter. Or a capstone might be built around a carefully constructed simulation. But the common goals of all of the capstones should be synthesis and application; they should allow the students to synthesize material learned in separate classes and to apply it to a new situation. A committee will be working during the 2010–11 school year to have these ready for the inaugural class in its third year, 2011–12.

Although my central vision for the school was preparing students for the practice of law at the highest levels of the profession, there are other core aspects of my vision as well. One is that there should be a tremendous emphasis on interdisciplinary study and understanding. I think that the most important development since I was in law school in the mid-1970s has been the realization that law is inherently interdisciplinary; it is informed by disciplines such as economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and these disciplines in turn study law and offer tools for understanding it. In this sense, I applaud the increase in the number of law faculty with degrees in other disciplines and the great rise in interdisciplinary scholarship. At the same time, I realize that law schools exist preeminently for training students to be lawyers and a faculty must be a big tent, with room for faculty deeply engaged in the practice of law and for faculty who have never practiced law at all.

Download the full article here.

Hat tip to the Law School Innovation Blog.


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