Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Here it is in a nutshell. There is empirical evidence that Washington & Lee’s experiential 3L curriculum is delivering a significantly better education to 3L students—significantly better than prior graduating classes at W&L, and significantly better than W&L’s primary competitors. Moreover, at a time when total law school applicants are on the decline, W&L’s getting more than its historical share of applicants and getting a much higher yield. When many schools are worried about revenues to survive next year and the year after, W&L is worried about creating the bandwidth needed to educate the surplus of students who enrolled in the fall of 2012, and the backlog of applicants that the school deferred to the fall of 2013.
[This is a long essay. If you want it in PDF format, click here.]
Alas, now we know: There is a market for high quality legal education. It consists of college graduates who don’t want to cast their lot with law schools who cannot guarantee students entree to meaningful practical training. Some might argue that W&L is not objectively better-- that the 3L curriculum is a marketing ploy where the reality falls well short of promotional materials and that, regardless, prospective students can't judge quality.
Well, in fact there is substantial evidence that the W&L 3L program delivers comparative value. The evidence is based on several years' worth of data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE). I received permission from Professor James Moliterno, someone who took a leadership role in building W&L’s third year program, to share some of the key results (each school controls access to its LSSSE data.) They are below.
But before getting into empirical evidence, I want to put squarely on the table the most sobering finding that likely applies to virtually all of legal education. It is this: On several key LSSSE metrics, W&L has made impressive gains vis-à-vis its own historical benchmarks and its primary rival schools. But even for this leader, there remains enormous room for improvement. More on that below.
Here is the bottom line: Traditional legal education, when it is measured, does not fare very well. Yet, as W&L shows, substantial improvement is clearly possible. We law professors can respond to this information in one of two ways:
- Don’t measure, as it may disconfirm our belief that we are delivering a great education.
- Measure—even when it hurts—and improve.
I am in the second camp. Indeed, I don’t know if improvement is possible without measurement. Are we judging art work or the acquisition of key professional skills needed for the benefit of clients and the advancement of the public good?
Moving the Market
I doubt I will ever forget Jim Moliterno’s September 2012 presentation at the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers (ETL) conference at the University of Denver. He presented a single graph (chart below) showing W&L actual applicant volumes since 2008 versus what would have happened at W&L if its applicant volume had followed national trends.
While law school applicants crested a few years ago, W&L enjoyed a large run-up in volume of applicants, presumably due to the launching of their new 3L program. This larger applicant pool effectively served as a buffer when applicant declines began in 2011 and 2012. Since 2008, overall law school applicants are down -19%, yet W&L is up overall +33%.
But much more significantly, after their experiential 3L year was up and running and the overall legal job market continued to stagnate, W&L yields spiked. Ordinarily they would enroll 135 students. But for the fall of 2012, they received enrollment commitments from well over 260 students. Indeed, at the ETL conference Jim Moliterno said the school had to offer financially attractive deferments to get the class to approximately 185 incoming students -- a 50 student bulge.
When Jim Moliterno showed the above graph and explained the corresponding changes in yield, my good friend Gillian Hadfield, a skeptical, toughminded, evidence-demanding economist who teaches at USC Law, leaned over and said to me, “that is the single most important takeaway from this entire conference.” I agreed. The market for a legal education with practical training is, apparently, much more inelastic than the market for traditional JD programs.
Yet, what is perhaps most remarkable is that a large proportion of incoming students at W&L were enrolling based on little more than faith. Nobody knew for sure if W&L had the ability to pull off their ambitious 3L curriculum. The program relies on a large cadre of adjunct professors, after all, and W&L is located in remote Lexington, Virginia. Many law faculty outside of W&L, and perhaps some inside, thought (or perhaps think) that the program could not live up to the hype. Well, as shown below, the program appears to have produced meaningful gains.
The only data-driven critique anyone can muster is that the gains remain significantly short of perfection. But that critique bites harder on the rest of us. To use a simple metaphor, W&L is tooling around in a Model-T while the rest of us rely on horse and buggy. What ought to be plain to all of us, however, is that, just like automobile industry circa 1910, we are entering a period of staggering transformation that will last decades. And transformation will be roughly equal parts creation and destruction. See Schumpeter.
W&L Data, Internal Historical Benchmark
LSSSE is a phenomenally rich dataset – nearly 100 questions per year on a wide variety of topics related to student classroom experience, faculty interaction, type and quantity of assessments, time allocation, and perceived gains on a variety of dimensions related to personal and professional development. The survey instrument is online here.
Aside from a host of questions related to demographics, career goals, and debt, major sections in the LSSSE include:
- Section 1, Intellectual Experience (20 questions)
- Section 2, Examinations (1 question)
- Section 3, Mental Activities (5 questions)
- Section 4, Writing (3 questions)
- Section 5, Enriching Educational Experiences (9 questions)
- Section 6, Student Satisfaction (7 questions)
- Section 7, Time Usage (11 questions)
- Section 8, Law School Environment (10 questions)
- Section 9, Quality of Relationships (3 questions)
- Section 10, Educational and Personal Growth (16 questions)
W&L deserves to be a detailed case study. But frankly, legal education can’t wait. So I will do the best I can to cover the landscape in a blog post. I hope every law faculty member who reads this post makes a strong plea to their dean to enroll in LSSSE. Why? So your school can benchmark itself against the detailed LSSSE case studies that are bound to flow out of W&L and other innovative law schools. Though they don’t get much press, there are, in fact, other innovative law schools.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Brian discusses the bleak employment prospects of law schools, but (through no fault of his own) understates the nature of the structural change that is occurring in the U.S. and global market for legal services. In Part II, I will write about some logical next steps for law schools looking to get ahead of the coming tsunami.
I tried to write Part II, but a blog post just was not up to the task. Further, I sensed that my colleagues were in no mood for half-baked solutions. There has been enormous criticism of legal education on the blogs and in the media, but very little in the way of detailed prescriptions to improve the situation. I felt an obligation to back off on the criticism and focus on solutions. So, in essence, Part II of my Tamanaha review became an article.
I just posted to SSRN an article entitled "A Blueprint for Change" forthcoming in the Pepperdine Law Review. It is both a diagnosis and a proposed solution -- a solution I am actively pursuing. Here is the abstract:
This Article discusses the financial viability of law schools in the face of massive structural changes now occurring within the legal industry. It then offers a blueprint for change – a realistic way for law schools to retool themselves in an attempt to provide our students with high quality professional employment in a rapidly changing world. Because no institution can instantaneously reinvent itself, a key element of my proposal is the “12% solution.” Approximately 12% of faculty members take the lead on building a competency-based curriculum that is designed to accelerate the development of valuable skills and behaviors prized by both legal and nonlegal employers. For a variety of practical reasons, successful implementation of the blueprint requires law schools to band together in consortia. The goal of these initiatives needs to be the creation and implementation of a world-class professional education in which our graduates consistently and measurably outperform graduates from traditional J.D. programs.
I have a large backlog of shorter articles and analyses that I have not posted because I wanted my own detailed solution in the public domain. I hope to tie all of these ideas together over the coming weeks.
Thank you, Brian Tamanaha, for writing an book that required me to think in terms of solutions.
[posted by Bill Henderson]
January 18, 2013 in Current events, Data on legal education, Data on the profession, Innovations in legal education, Scholarship on legal education, Scholarship on the legal profession, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (2)
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Rarely do I get a gush of exhilaration and hope from a news story, but it happened today. NPR has a wonderful story about journalist Paul Salopek embarking on seven-year, 21,000 mile journey on foot. The route he will take is based on the migration out of Africa by early humans. But, says Salopek, the journey is less about the past and more about the future.
"It's about how we've changed the world, and how the world is being radically altered in our view by such things as the Internet. I'm starting out this walk with about 35 percent of the world wired. By the time I reach Patagonia in 2020, about 80 to 90 percent will be wired."
Below is a graphic of Salopek's journey.
I really believe that a journey like this has the potential to create a shared focal point that will remind us what we have in common -- our pasts and our futures as members of the human race -- rather than our differences.
I am sure many many people would love to join Salopek on this journey. To my mind, it is a pilgrimage -- i.e., a journey of moral and spiritual significance.
[posted by Bill Henderson]
Thursday, January 3, 2013