Friday, October 20, 2006

More Law School Curricular Ruminations

Almost as stunning as Harvard Law School's (HLS) October 6, 2006, announcement that it is changing its first year curriculum is the relative lack of internet chatter about it since then. Things seemed to have peaked right after the announcement, and then dropped off precipitously. Maybe people voiced their opinions and then moved on to other subjects. Announcements and posts on the subject include HLS's official announcement, my October 9, 2006 post, a blog post by John Palfrey of HLS's Berkman Center, and comments on the Volokh Conspiracy.

But I keep thinking about it. And more to the point, I keep thinking about the current 1L curriculum at US law schools. Here are some of my thoughts and questions:
  • What should be different in the current 1L curriculum, if anything? Did HLS get it right? Wrong? Miss the point?
  • What courses among the standard 1L courses are perceived by students and law school grads as the most or least helpful or essential?
  • What about legal research and writing courses? Should law schools teach their students such practical skills in distinct courses, or should they incorporate this sort of skills-building into other courses within the 1L and upperclass curriculum?
  • By the same token, is HLS's new 1L course on legislation and regulations (see HLS's 10/6/06 announcement linked to above) something that should be in the first year curriculum of law schools? Or is the price of a separate course (taking time out of other 1L courses such as Torts or Contracts) simply too dear?

On that last point, it should be noted that a shift toward teaching more code-driven law has already occurred within some law school casebooks (and their supplements), at least to some extent. Look, for example, at a 1L Contracts casebook from 20 or 30 years ago versus a current casebook edition such as the one I use (Randy Barnett, Contracts: Cases and Doctrine (3d ed. 2003)). Chances are the new book, like Barnett's, includes significant use of the UCC. That's not to say, of course, that there shouldn't be more changes to the 1L curriculum, but it is to say that there has been some change in teaching focus in recent decades.

In any event, I would appreciate any comments readers might have on this subject.


Anonymous said...

At MC, I'm confused about the purpose of the Legal Analysis class for 1L's. I respect my professor very much, but we have no syllabus and no clear direction. Some days we discuss a case the professor's working on, and some days we talk about how to take exams, but I have no idea how we'll be tested on this come December. Now we're about to try our hand at legal memo writing--but the memo we're to write has to do with issues in property law that neither section y nor z have covered. We're given vague assignments with the promise that they'll be returned, yet they haven't been. I just feel that if I understood why the college wanted us to take this course, and what the professor thinks we should be learning, I'd be able to take a lot more from it. That's what I would change if I were in charge.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I had something else to add to my comment above. I spoke this week to a friend at the University of Cincinnati law school, and he told me that the first years there take neither property nor criminal law. Instead, they take a full year of constitutional law. What do you make of that?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I'll pass on your thoughts regarding legal writing to the appropriate people.

As for the 1L curriculum, that's actually something that has been in flux in recent decades at many law schools. Watch the 1973 movie "The Paper Chase" sometime if you have not already done so--it's set against a 1L curriculum of a full year of Property, Contracts, Civ Pro, etc. But that model no longer really holds. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the basic structure is still there, but it has had many changes made to it at the margins (e.g., reducing some courses from 6 hours to 4 hours, or from 2 semesters to 1 semester). In other cases schools have even eliminated courses or moved them to the second year.

These changes are partly in response to student demand for more electives, which is not necessarily a good thing. (Does someone who has never been to law school really know what they need to take--or at least know more than the school?) Part is also due to the addition of legal writing and other basic "skills" courses to the 1L curriculum, which I think on balance is a good thing. If you add those, however, generally speaking it has to be at the expense of something else in the 1L curriculum. So courses get truncated or eliminated.

All this assumes, of course, that the current curricular model is sound at its core. Harvard Law School has decided that in many ways it is not sound, and has thus revamped its 1L curriculum. (See my previous post.) There are faculty at all schools who agree with this, and others who strongly disagree with it. But it is clearly an opportunity and an invitation for law schools to do some very hard thinking about their current curricular requirements. My law school's curriculum probably should not look like Harvard's, but that's not really the question. Rather, the question is whether the school (meaning our students!) would be better served by large-scale changes to the curriculum, or incremental ones.

Anonymous said...

Maybe part of the apathy about the Harvard change is that legal education is not seen as very important to most people, including most lawyers.

And part of that is that law schools typically don't require or reward teaching skills. An article making the same point in a medical setting is here. It's telling that it's considered newsworthy when professional schools consider teaching skills to be an important faculty trait.

Anonymous said...

I found my legal analysis class to be complete waste of time early in the semester. Most of what was taught was too late to be of any benifit and more time consuming than it was helpful. I found the Legal reseach and writing class to be too overwhelming and the material flew by at blinding speed and I was unable to grasp most of what i needed to learn from the class. I think teaching research first semester and then legal writing second semester would be the better option. the better portions of legal analysis could then be incorporated at the appropriate times in these courses without wasting time the first semester on what is little more than an extended orientation for law school. That's just my opinion for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

Your mention of 1Ls & Legal Writing caught my eye. In my opinion, "our" law school has to do a better job of teaching 1Ls legal writing. I have put alot of thought into how this could be done more effectively, but I have yet to come up with a solution. Its impossible for a single professor (or 2, or 5, or 10 for that matter) to give students the individual attention necessary to teach writing. However, I do believe that we could do a much better job of providing students with better resources to be them in a position to excel. For example, the law school provides a summer reading list to 1Ls comprised of titles such as Scott Turow's "1L", as well as other "pleasure reading" titles. Is this really the best direction we can provide to show students how to succeed in law school? I personally do not think so. To me, some of the best things I've learned at law school have come from exploring the third floor of the library and reading titles that reallyprovide a guide to legal writing, researching, law school in general, so long and so forth. I just think that we have a large group of students that have no idea that these are materials are out there & that would take advantage of them if they did. I could go on and on on this subject for hours, but thats just my 2 cents.......