Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Radical Proposal for Law School Reform

There was considerable discussion concerning the structure of law school at the Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers Conference last week.  David Thomson had two proposals--one short term and the other long term.  His short term proposal is basically what the University of Denver does now.  He discusses this program here

His long-term proposal is more radical.  (detailed here)  In reaction to proposals that would eliminate the third year of law school, he suggests that law schools eliminate the first year, or, more specifically, that law schools should reengineer it by putting most of the first year online.  This would reduce the costs of law school while preserving the necessary experiential components of the second and third years.  It would also allow students to "try out" law school for a year at a low cost.  He declares: "For a substantially reduced cost, law schools could allow more students to enter the first year online, where they would study the basic first year courses – Civil Procedure, Criminal law, Contracts, Property, and Torts - at their own pace over the period of a year or even two.  Typically, they would be working during this period and thus would not lose the opportunity cost currently forfeited while in law school.  Students complete the “first” year when they pass their competency exams for each course.  Not everyone would pass, but this would allow for an admissions process based more on suitability for law study, which would go some distance toward solving another perennial problem: making law school more accessible for minority students.  Instead of being judged on their GPA, School attended, and LSAT score - all criteria that have little relationship to what lawyers do - they would be judged on how well they learned what lawyers actually do.  If some students never advanced, they would have paid a lower cost for a basic understanding of how the law operates which would be a public good in itself.  A certificate of mastery could be offered, and it might be all those students want or need."

He notes that "Law schools adopting such a model could receive nearly the same tuition revenue they currently receive by admitting more students, and there would be room for them, since the “first” year students would not be in the building."

I had the opportunity to discuss David's proposal with him.  As readers of this blog know, I am very skeptical of online courses because I see them as a way to reduce costs at the expense of significantly sacrificing quality.    However, I told him that his proposal might work if the students had a "workbook" for each class that they could use to drill themselves on the principles learned online.  Since only about a half of the students under David's proposal would make it to the second year, the students should be highly motivated to do the exercises in the workbooks.

In any event, David's proposal is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that legal education needs.  As I said in a post earlier this week, the state bars are going to force change on law schools, whether they like it or not.  Moreover, as David noted to me, outside forces may force change upon law schools in the same way that Craig's List forced changes on newspapers.  It is much better for law schools to make the changes than outside entities who are only interested in making a profit.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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