ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thoughts on Curricular Reform VI: Preparing the Academically Adrift for Practice

Liberal artsThe title of this post references Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's influential 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.  For the sake of argument, let's assume that this book accurately reflects the state of higher education.  That is, let us assume the following:

  • Undergraduates attending U.S. colleges and universities report that learning is not their top priority;
  • Students make alarmingly little academic progress, especially in terms of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing, during their four years of undergraduate education;
  • The gap between students who get a lot out of their undergraduate educations and those who get little is at least persistent and perhaps growing;

In addition, let us adopt the hypothesis that our students are not adults, but emerging adults.  That is, let us assume that our students are not fully formed, cognitively or emotionally.  They are beginning to accept the responsibiltiies of adulthood, but they are not really there yet.  

SydneyIf all of these things are true, what is an appropriate curriculum for 21st-century law students?  

For those of you who have been following this series of posts, the answer might not be surprising.  Students are not learning the skills that a liberal arts education used to provide.  One way to make certain that they develop those skills is by providing a liberal arts education in law school.  It would not be a traditional liberal arts education but a liberal arts education designed to meet the needs of twenty-somethings rather than teens, and clearly oriented towards arriving at practical, professional goals.  As I suggested before, for most law schools, the model should be small, cloistered liberal arts education, at least in the first year, rather than the research university model.  In some ways, designing this curriculum is easy and a lot of fun, because we already know what our students want to do career-wise.  We don't have to design a one-size, fits-all curriculum that would be appropriate for both English majors and engineers and everything in between.  Whether our law students are English majors or engineers, they still need the same package of professional skills necessary for the legal profession.

While tuition pressures and student impatience and immaturity are pushing reform towards a shorter law school curriculum, our students really need a longer and more intense learning experience in law school.  Most but not all law schools would benefit from a first year designed to get students' critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills to the level that, twenty years ago, was presumptively already achieved after college.  That means they need to take a lot of small, writing-intensive courses while also learning professional skills and training for an ethically challenging, client-centered practice.  

DaumierFinding a way to deliver such an education without greatly increasing our students' debt-load is of course the great challenge.  One option would be to create a hybrid model in which the first two years of legal education focus on the sort of liberal arts cognitive and ethical skills development that I discussed above, combined with the sort of integrated doctrinal education that has been subject of previous posts.  The second two years (yes, the second two years) should be underwritten by prospective employers who work collaboratively with law schools to develop a curriculum that is part apprenticeship, part law clinic and part bar preparation.  So, while law school now takes four years, students only pay for two of them, with the firms or businesses covering remaining tuition costs in lieu of salaries for their apprentices.  In principle, all four years of such a legal education could be rewarding and challenging for the students, and they would emerge far better prepared for practice that they are under the current system.

This is just one idea for addressing our students' needs, if in fact the assumptions that inform this design are accurate.  I am agnostic on the question of whether undergraduates really are academically adrift and are emerging rather than fully matured adults.  Like everyone in the academy, I have my own views, but I admit that they are anecdotal and unscientific.  I have chosen these assumptions because they seem to be informing a lot of the ideas for change that are driving the movement for curricular reform at law schools today.  But I think there is a disconnect between the problem and the solution.  

Law schools are playing a game of "Can You Top This?" by touting their clinical and skills training programs, because that seems to be what the students and the market are demanding.  But if students lack basic cognitive skills, as well as maturity, what is the rush to get them into practice?  We all need to slow down.  If the assumptions listed above are informing calls for change, we need to wait for our students to become adults before we force them to deal with adult problems.  We can't expect them to magically develop critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills by simply throwing them into practice.  We also should not give up on their cognitive development because, if the emerging adulthood literature is right, our students are still capable of intellectual growth of a kind that our adult brains cannot match.

Vance SusanStuart06As educators, our main concern is providing our students with the training they need so that they can succeed in the profession of their choosing.  But as legal educators, we also have to consider the needs of our students' future clients.  The fact that our students want to serve clients as soon as possible is not a sufficient reason to let them do so before they are ready both in terms of their cognitive development and their maturity.  

I should add that my thoughts in this area have been influenced by the work of two of my colleagues, Susan Stuart (right) and Ruth Vance (left), who are engaged in a scholarly project devoted to working out the long-term consequences for legal education of the latest research into the preparedness and cognitive development of the current generation of law students.  My thoughts here only scratch the surface of the subject matter.  And those interested in the topic should look for Ruth and Susan's work, which we all hope will be coming to a law journal near you in the near future.


Commentary, Law Schools, Teaching | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Thoughts on Curricular Reform VI: Preparing the Academically Adrift for Practice:


Only commenting to point out the EXTREME irony in misspelling learning ["leraning," and of all the words on which to err!!] in the title of of Academically Adrift... I mean, this has to be intentional, write??

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Dec 19, 2012 8:58:35 AM

Thanks for pointing out the typo. It has been corrected.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Dec 19, 2012 9:12:49 AM