A year ago, in late August 2013, I posted a brief bit about my hopes for the coming year from the standpoint of innovation in legal education. (Here is the link.) By design, I was somewhat melodramatic and apocalyptic about what needed to be done substantively, and (perhaps) not forthcoming enough, and too procedural, about what I was expecting at my own law school, having been charged with chairing a local task force on what should be done there.
I did promise an update regarding what the task force did. So here I am again.
There is, unfortunately, not a lot of news that I can report. Our task force worked hard over the last academic year, harder than many faculty committees in my experience, talking not only with faculty colleagues but also with current students, alumni, the law school’s staff, members of the bench and bar, and folks in legal tech and legal services industries. We did what I suspect is being done at many other law schools: We researched what’s happening at other law schools, in other countries, and in other genres of professional and undergraduate education. We studied opportunities at our university and elsewhere in our region. We assembled a long and pretty comprehensive report — not a strategic plan by name, but a strategic plan in many other respects — and delivered it to the Dean and the faculty. It’s not ambitious enough by some measures and too ambitious by many others. I wish that I should share it here, but it’s not my report to share. We will see, as the coming year(s) unfold, whether and how our recommendations are adopted. The task force was aware of the work of the ABA in the accreditation area, and some of our recommendations anticipated the recently-announced changes regarding experiential education and student learning outcomes. So, at minimum, there will be developments on those fronts.
The general question is still on the table, only very incompletely answered: Amid changes in the legal profession, changes in what’s now called the legal services industry, emergence and evolution of a multi-faceted legal tech industry, and concern among law school faculty, graduates, students, and prospective students regarding the adequacy, appropriateness, and affordability of legal education — what can and should any particular law school do? What can and should any particular faculty member do?
If there are lessons here, they are reminders that change is hard, at a collective or institutional level, and change in academic institutions is especially hard. It’s hard even if a group of committed faculty members want to see change, see an urgent need for change, and lay on the table a broad range of specific things to change. Change in legal education can’t really be understood or approached without thinking carefully (and at the same time, creatively) about change in undergraduate education, and other professional education — domains that taught our task force a lot of good things — as well as change in the worlds of professional services.
My experience last year did motivate me to move more aggressively in my own courses to make some changes that I had been thinking about for some time. Small changes, to be sure, but first steps and all that. This Fall, I’m teaching Contracts (resuming a course that I taught for years but gave up back in 2007) and Trademark Law. I will not require that students purchase a casebook; the primary readings will be free for downloading (and printing, and editing, annotating, etc.). There will be substantial amounts of graded writing during the semester (something that I’ve been doing for a while in my upper-level courses) and relatively little emphasis on end-of-semester final exams. There will be an increased emphasis on mandatory group work. I will continue my existing practice in upper-level courses of banning student electronics in the classroom, but I’ll extend that to my first-year class. I’ve been talking with our career services staff about how to make explicit, for the benefit of current students, connections between how and what I teach and the skills and knowledge that our students need to have in order to succeed in the profession. I’ve been spreading the word among my former students — our alumni — about these modest changes and about hopes for more, and where appropriate incorporating their feedback into my methods. There is more on my plate than that, but for now, at least with respect to what goes on in my classrooms, that’s enough.
Perhaps in a year’s time, I’ll have more news. Good luck to everyone on the start of the new academic year.