Beyond the First Year

November 8, 2006

Those who have gone through it know all too well: The first year of law school is a grind, an academic boot camp designed to train students to think as lawyers do. 

In meetings with alumni and other attorneys, Larry D. Kramer, dean of Stanford Law School, said nearly everyone cited the first year as being the defining one in their legal educations. Not surprisingly, then, much of the curricular change over the past two decades at some of the country's top law schools has focused on the introductory year. 

Last month, the faculty of Harvard Law School unanimously approved changes to its first-year curriculum, including adding three new course requirements, focusing on international and comparative law, legislation and regulation, and devoting fewer class hours to traditional subjects such as contracts, torts, civil procedure, criminal law and property. Harvard's changes have mirrored the general pattern of recent curricular updates, which have been generally popular with both students and faculty, Kramer said. 

But he said it's time for deans to change their focus.

"It's peculiar to me that schools are still spending all this effort on the first year," he said. "It's the one that already works. The thinking is you have to put all your focus into the year where you have the students' attention. But for some reason, we can't hold their attention during the second and third year -- most likely because it's more of the same."

Kramer, who started at Stanford in 2004, has a plan that he hopes enhances years two and three for students. Faculty have already approved the majority of Kramer's plan, and a proposal to add 11 new joint degree programs has to be O.K.'d by the university's Committee on Graduate Studies, which meets later this month. Among the highlights of the new plan are:

More joint degree programs. Students would be able to earn their J.D. and master's degrees in either three or four years. (The school currently offers a joint J.D.-M.B.A. program). Proposed programs involve fields such as earth sciences, biomedical ethics and engineering.

Kramer said the law school needs to take better advantage of the many other graduate programs at Stanford, and give students the chance to increase their skill sets. "Right now there's a huge gap in their professional education," he said. "If they are interested in going into environmental law, let's get them into the earth sciences program. The notion that someone with a J.D. can teach environmental policy as well as someone whose life it is is preposterous."

Mark Tushnet, a Harvard University law professor and co-editor of the Journal of Legal Education, said the addition of joint degree programs would probably increase the number of Stanford graduates who go on to become law professors, because students would be on their way to earning a Ph.D.

"My experience elsewhere is that there is a limited demand for joint programs – people want to get out of school," Tushnet said. "If you can squeeze five [years] into four or three, then you might find people willing to do it."  

Kramer said the programs would be particularly appealing to students who know what type of law they plan to practice and want to develop an area of expertise.  

An invitation to take outside courses. For students who don't want a joint degree -- or for those who cannot get into the programs -- Kramer said it will still be easier to take courses outside of the law school.  

Kramer said students have always been allowed to take outside classes, but that scheduling conflicts inevitably arose. The law school is phasing in a switch from the semester to quarter cycle to align it with other graduate programs. This year's modified semester schedule allows students to take classes in schools that are on the quarter system.

Stanford Law is also aligning the days that classes are taught with those of the majority of graduate programs so that students can keep their schedules compact. These moves, Kramer said, have not all been popular with faculty.

Kramer's plan calls for a sequence of optional team-taught classes that emphasize problem solving -- or, as he calls it, "thinking like a client does." He said that in a class taught by both law and engineering professors, for instance, students would be asked to take a product to the market, evaluate a business plan and determine what legal issues might arise. 

"If you are going into practice, you need to know more than just the law," he said.

Greater clinical focus. Clinical work, along with a professional ethics course, are the only two requirements in years two and three at Stanford Law. Kramer said he would like to make the clinical programs more central to the curriculum. When the law school switches to its quarter schedule, Kramer said he would like to make quarter-long clinical training an option. He said clinical rotations could take students outside of Stanford to other universities.

In all, Kramer said he would like to see about a year's worth of "core" classes offered in the last two years of Stanford Law. He said classes such as administrative law and tax law are de facto requirements, because students have historically found them helpful. But he doesn't plan to add any requirements or ask professors to dramatically change their course load.

“Reform fails when you say to faculty that you have to do something different,” Kramer said. "I've told them, 'What you are doing is working. Let's just give students more options.' " 

Mark G. Kelman, a Stanford law professor and vice dean, said he senses that "there is widespread enthusiasm about the prospect of students having the opportunity to broaden their skill sets, to learn to work collaboratively with non-lawyers, and [to] ensure that they use their last two years as productively as possible."

Carl C. Monk, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, said it is “always beneficial for a law school to examine its curriculum to assure that it is constructed to meet the needs of students who will be practicing law in the next generation."

Tushnet said he agrees with Kramer that more needs to be done to spice up the second and third years of law school -- which are "overly cumulative," he said. The Stanford plan is innovative, he said, but could be bolder.

“What would be a big deal is to have the entire third year be a clinical year, as opposed to just giving students the opportunity," Tushnet said.

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