Richard Pierce on Law School Curricular Reform:
The New York Times has a story today on curricular reform in law schools. My colleague Richard Pierce, who has taught for 30 years at several different schools (Kansas, Tulane, SMU, Columbia, and GW) and briefly was the Dean of one (Pittsburgh), e-mailed around a skeptical response. I thought it was worth passing on, so I have reprinted it with his permission (with a few minor edits and paragraph breaks added by me):
  The Times story is a laugher for those of us who have been around for a while. It reports on "curricular innovations" that are being adopted by many schools. Number one is a required first year course in legislative and administrative law. Jerry Mashaw and I were just yuching it up about this innovation. Jerry, Dick Merrill, and I were victims of this new idea when UVA adopted it in 1969. UVA abandoned it after 5 years. Students hated it, and profs complained that students learned much less ad law when they were required to take the course and when they lacked basic building blocks like civ pro and con law.
  I was victimized a second time by a variation on this theme when Columbia hired me in 1989 to teach its new required first year course in foundations of the regulatory state. That was one of 3 new required first year courses Columbia introduced that year. None of the 3 survive today. A student poll ranked them 3 of the 4 courses students disliked the most. (Thank God for Trusts & Estates).
  The second most popular innovation mentioned by the Times is a mandatory externship. [GW Law has] had a successsful externship program for many years, probably because of the quality of the people who have run it combined with a legal community that provides unrivaled opportunities for good externships. The long history of externships around the country is rich and not particularly encouraging, however.
  When I was at Tulane, we had a fascinating debate about a proposed externship program. The ABA had just concluded an investigation of externships that found that most students were not supervised and were assigned tasks like copying documents or acting as messengers. Moreover, two student externs at a Florida law school had just been indicted for playing minor roles (basically bagmen) in extensive operations run by high-ranking state officials who were engaged in narcotics distribution.
  Our debate at Tulane focused on nice questions like: how could we explain a decision to refuse to provide externs to various important state agencies that we had reason to believe would use the externs to participate in criminal conduct? We concluded that we could not adequately explain such decisions, and we rejected the proposal to create an extern program.
I took a course on the development of the regulatory state in my very last semester of law school. It was fun because it tied together everything I had learned up to that point. It wouldn't have made any sense in the first year.

I may not be typical, though, because I actually enjoyed Trusts and Estates.
10.31.2007 4:21pm
Pliny, the Elder (mail):
I also enjoyed Trusts and Estates (though I never practiced in that area, not even drafted a relevant op. when clerking)
While learning to interpret statutes is admirable, I am unsure that teaching it in law school has much to recommend it, esp during first year.
Some of the changes recommended by Posner in The Problematics and Moral and Legal Theory might be good, particularly making 3d year optional.
Canada mandates articling (similar to externing), but I believe that occurs after law school.
The law school at which I taught had had a mandatory admin law/legislative analysis class in the first year, but it had bitten the dust long before I arrived, for reasons referred to in some of the statements from the articles.
Law school may be broken, but none of the ostensible fixes seem better than the current injury.
10.31.2007 4:34pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
There are a couple of kernels of good sense in those proposals: First-years are taught to parse cases but not to analyze statutes. But cases don't exist in a vacuum; cases interpret statutes, and statutes codify caselaw. A class that integrates reading cases and interpreting statutes would thus be valuable.

As a practical matter, graduates of schools below the top N are not going to automatically step into a law firm. Thus they need experience to make themselves employable. Earning a living is important to those who have run up $100K in debt for a job credential. Thus, insofar as externs learn lawyering skills, externships are valuable.
10.31.2007 4:45pm
I spent a semester busting my ass as an extern in an elderly law clinic when I could've been a bagman? Why wasn't that more prominently listed in the course catalog?
10.31.2007 5:12pm
Gabriel Malor (mail):
Tony Tutins, I agree. I learned things in my externships that were not even anticipated by my lawschool classes. I also made good connections that helped with job searching. It was useful and well-spent time.
10.31.2007 5:14pm
Bonnie N (mail):
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10.31.2007 5:24pm
I don't think Prof. Pierce was suggesting that externships are not valuable. To the contrary, he noted the successes that GW has had with externships (due in no small part to its location in DC.) I think he is troubled by the "mandatory" aspect of externship programs. By requiring students to participate, the school creates hazards for itself such as the Tulane example. Moreover, the extern positions will no longer remain for those students who are truly interested. Doubtlessly, certain students will end up externing in jobs in which they have no interest. This is not a desirable result.
10.31.2007 5:36pm
I admit my experience is limited to the top ten/biglaw world, but, within that world, I don't see the point in externships. Biglaw firms do that for summer associates, and the training they supply is much more relevant to what most top ten graduates will be doing (big deals and big cases) than advising people on how to apply for Social Security or whatever. Furthermore, biglaw firms actually have experience with using the skill set that newly-minted law graduates have, so that they don't end up making copies. (Though I admit that lease abstracts, research memos and authorizing resolutions are not much more exciting.) I suspect that law school sponsored externships are instituted in rather bad faith, to supply low-cost labor to left-wing causes with which the professors sympathize.
10.31.2007 5:40pm
My externship while at Georgetown Law (with OSD at the Pentagon) was by far the best law school experience I had. Making externships mandatory, though, is a horrible, horrible idea.

Let the people who want these jobs and are actually interested in them have them, not some uninterested kid who's doing it to cross of a graduation requirement off his list. I sincerely doubt that flooding the extern market would be a good thing for either employers or law students.
10.31.2007 5:52pm
Ahem. That should be "to cross a graduation requirement off his list." In fact, my whole comment was poorly written. Time for another Red Bull.
10.31.2007 6:05pm
Dick Pierce's #1 Fan:
This is tangential at best, but Prof. Pierce is a fantastic professor. I had him for Admin and Antitrust. Great storyteller and, even more importantly, great at cutting through the b.s. -- just like he is doing here.
10.31.2007 6:16pm
Houston Lawyer:
They re-arranged the first year requirements my first semester of law school. Instead of criminal law, we took ethics and professional responsibilty. Since we didn't know anything about the law or the practice of law, it was a complete waste of time. All the criminal law I know, I learned from Bar Bri.
10.31.2007 6:35pm
Vandy 1L:
I'm in the Regulatory State class, mandatory for 1Ls this year (and possibly successive years). I can't really say how much the it has helped me, and the course seems to lack a structure that Contracts and Civil Procedure have.

Even so, the material supplements supplements what we learn in other courses (for instance, noting where textualist concerns while interpreting statutes mirror arguments made for enforcing a strict four-corners parol evidence rule).
10.31.2007 6:43pm
Law Dawg:
UGA requires that students complete a "skills" class before graduating. Skills classes include things like trial practice or document drafting which provide some real world training. I think it is good to have these before you graduate. However, it would not be a good idea to have them in the first year because of basic foundation that you need to get from contracts, civ pro and torts.
10.31.2007 6:59pm
DC Lawyer (mail):
I went to Northeastern law school in Boston, which utilizes an externship program far more advanced and extensive than any other. The first year is structured the same as any other law school; afterwards, the school year is broken into quarters, and students alternate each quarter between full-time classes and a full-time legal position.

My experience, and I think the experience of the vast majority of Northeastern students, was overwhelmingly positive. I graduated with a full year of on-the-job legal experience in varying legal settings (working for a federal judge, a civil rights organization, and a private law firm). The work I received was almost always substantive in nature (extern employers are cautioned by the school's extern office not to hire law students for administrative duties), and I felt ably supervised during each of my externships (and, again, if you polled Northeastern students, I think you'd find considerable agreement). In all, I graduated with a huge edge on students from other schools with little to no "real world" experience.

It's amazing to me that, particularly given the oft-quoted complaint that "law students know nothing of the practice of law," externship programs are not more extensively employed (and that Northeastern does not get the recognition it deserves for designing a unique and successful curriculum).
10.31.2007 7:06pm
Adam J:
wm13- every externship includes providing low-cost labor- and generally the student is the one picking the cause, let's try not to make everything about a left-wing conspiracy.
10.31.2007 7:44pm
Dave N (mail):
I agree with Professor Pierce. If a law school wants to teach statutory as well as case law in the first year, then perhaps Criminal Law could be structured in that way--using the Model Penal Code along with cases.

As for externships. They are wonderful if you care. If you don't care, they are a waste of time. Worse, the sponsor is less likely to want externs who merely go through the motions and will likely decide to no longer participate. I agree that mandataory externship will foist the various agencies with students who don't care.
10.31.2007 8:07pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
"...required first year course in foundations of the regulatory state."

Sheesh, that's so close to Statism 101 that it's comical.

DC Lawyer-

My experience, and I think the experience of the vast majority of Northeastern students, was overwhelmingly positive.

Do they still have a 70+% female student body? I really should have considered going there more strongly.
10.31.2007 8:20pm
New Pseudonym (mail):
Yea for Trusts and Estates. I got to use the Rule against Perpetuities that I learned as a 1L in Property, so it was good for something.

While I was glad to see the externship at the Pentagon mentioned, I wonder if this idea is not slanted politically. My "equivalent" was as a junior associate at a biglawfirm, where we were "encouraged" to participate in the local Bar Association run clinic to get experience in actually managing cases. Never saw a small business defending itself against a frivolous suit at the clinic.
10.31.2007 8:20pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Sheesh, that's so close to Statism 101 that it's comical.

I can't wait to see the 300-level courses: Agricultural Collectivization, Black Market Eradication, and Gulag and Re-education Camp Administration. (Yes, I answered my own post, one has to find intelligent discussion where one can.)
10.31.2007 8:37pm
Adam J, you may be right, although when I was a student, I would have tried to suck up to professors by choosing some cause that they supported.
10.31.2007 9:32pm
Stephen M (Ethesis) (mail) (www):

I suspect that law school sponsored externships are instituted in rather bad faith, to supply low-cost labor to left-wing causes with which the professors sympathize.

I really would not characterize BYU's externship program that way ...
10.31.2007 9:56pm
Dave N (mail):
I would have tried to suck up to professors by choosing some cause that they supported
My ConLaw Professor was so dogmatic that if you knew his views you had no excuse for not doing well in his class. I ended up with an A because I had fun with "spot the issues and expound the liberal position" on the final.

As a separate aside, I, too, greatly enjoyed Trusts and Estates and am surprised that it was ranked as one of the 4 least popular classes.
10.31.2007 10:00pm
Bleepless (mail):
George Will: "Most new ideas are bad ideas."
10.31.2007 10:36pm
Peter Robison (mail) (www):
Alas, my law school (Vanderbilt) just began a 1L course called "The Regulatory State" that appears to fit all of Professor Pierce's criteria for a bad idea. I recently spoke with a 1L taking the class (from Vanderbilt Dean Ed Rubin, no less) and I got the feeling he wasn't grasping the big picture. Better, I think to stick with the basics and then take Ad Law or similar courses during the second or third year.
10.31.2007 10:43pm
Real world experience may be important, but why do we need mandatory externships to get that? Last I checked, most law students end up working during law school at some point, often even managing to get paid!
11.1.2007 12:35am
theobromophile (www):
Our first semester is common law (albeit with a bit of Model Penal Code thrown in with criminal law; second semester is statutes (FRCP, Fed. Rules Crim. Pro., APA). We have mandatory administrative law during our second semester; con law is 2L year. I was probably one of the few people who liked admin. law, although it makes little sense to teach it before con law.

The idea of mandatory, free service is a little absurd - there is no incentive for employers to assign good work. They know that there will always be a high demand for their services, because law students want to eventually graduate. ;)

Law is the only professional school that refuses to train its students to perform the trade. Personally, I would love to see lab-type work alongside some of the classes; contracts students could actually analyse contracts (whether for sale of puppies or mega-deals between two firms), IP students could draft a patent, property students could write up a lease for a corporation. Wills students here are required to draft a will.

I've heard a few business guys complain that lawyers are all risk-adverse killjoys. It would be nice if we could study something in law school about how to actually push deals forward, instead of this exclusive focus on the way things can go wrong. Three years of studying the end products of litigation - while entirely ignoring the vast majority of ways that lawyers help their clients be productive and do deals - is overkill, IMHO.
11.1.2007 1:13am
Cornellian (mail):
First year students are wholly unequipped to understand Administrative law. Call me a traditionalist but I see no reason not to stick with the old standbys of Contracts, Torts, Property, Crim and Civ Pro. By all means make Admin law mandatory (and Evidence) but in second year.
11.1.2007 2:45am
Another concern about mandatory externships -- some law schools aren't in big cities. Students in Washington have a lot of places to work without relocating for a semester, but what about students in Ithaca?

I also have a problem with externships for credit. If students are placed with actual employers, rather than in clinics organized to provide an academic experience, they should not have to pay tuition for those credit hours. An unpaid internship is hard enough to sustain for many students, but paying for the privilege of working?
11.1.2007 9:33am
Rodger Lodger (mail):
You want curriculum reform? Why not rouse Civil Procedure professors from their dream that they're actually teaching anything to 1Ls, and move the course to the 3rd year (or 2d year, if that's too "radical")? And why not repeat -- or offer an advanced version of -- the basic Legal Methods/Elements course in the 3d year? Is there any reasonable chance that professors will admit that students don't understand the fundamentals by the time they graduate?
11.1.2007 9:40am
Rhode Island Lawyer:
I, like DC Lawyer, also attended Northeastern in Boston, graduating in 1982. At all 4 of my externships (known as Co-ops) I was given real substantive work with real clients and real deadlines. In every case I received more than adequate supervision and feedback and when I was done at NULS I had both practical skills and a real sense of what it was like to practice law in different substantive areas and firm settings.

It seems to me that the value of the externship depends to a great degree on the level of committment that the employer is willing to make. We at Northeastern were fortunate that, by and large, the cooperative employers took the process seriously. Now that I am in a position to hire Northeastern law students I try to do the same.
11.1.2007 10:26am
Rhode Island Lawyer:
One more comment - when I took Trusts and Estates it was also known as "Gilberts on Wills". Enough said.
11.1.2007 10:28am
Whatever you want it to be:
I think A.C. makes a good point--some law schools just don't have enough externship opportunities available. I go to Iowa and my externship is in the Quad Cities--which requires a 2-hour round trip three days a week. Some students manage to land things in Iowa City or Cedar Rapids, but just as many end up in Des Moines (2 hours away) or somewhere in Illinois. And that's when clinic/externship work is optional. I can only imagine what would happen if it was required--some students would have to move to the Twin Cities for a semester or something.

I think the Northeastern model outlined above is perhaps a good idea, but it's pretty unfeasible for any law school not in a reasonably sized (750k+?) metropolitan area or a state capital.
11.1.2007 10:46am
alkali (mail):
I agree that Northeastern's program is terrific, but it wouldn't work if Harvard, BU, BC, Suffolk and New England School of Law also all had mandatory externships. There is a lot of law going on in Boston, but there's still only room for about one Northeastern.
11.1.2007 11:36am
Adam J:
Dave N- Sure, there's some professors like that, but on the other hand, I found that most separate their ideology from their grading. I took relatively conservative positions (I ruled nearly everything admissible) in my crim pro final and got an A+, and the teacher was a career public defender before being a teacher. Of course, maybe in his experience as a career public defender, he found that nearly everything was admissible.
11.1.2007 12:03pm
Doug B. (mail):
As I said in this post at LSI, it is comical and telling that a law school working group on innovation expects to need three years produce a report on possible curriculum innovations.
11.1.2007 1:59pm
theobromophile (www):

Another concern about mandatory externships -- some law schools aren't in big cities. Students in Washington have a lot of places to work without relocating for a semester, but what about students in Ithaca?

Ditto that. We're about 35 miles from the nearest Starbucks, and I don't want to have to think about how tough it would be to drive to civilisation every week for mandatory credit.
11.1.2007 2:18pm
abu hamza:
my take on externships, clinical rotations, or whatever the academia calls them, is that it is a revenue source for the universities. they don't have to pay for faculty or otherwise support the program except for an evaluation at theend, yet they collect tuition money just the same. sometimes the most likely connection is the most obvious connection, and I think that is why externships, mandatory or otherwise, are encouraged and on the rise. this is just one person's opinion though. same thing could be said for study abroad programs I think.
11.1.2007 4:01pm
Ditto that. We're about 35 miles from the nearest Starbucks, and I don't want to have to think about how tough it would be to drive to civilisation every week for mandatory credit.

Are you also 35 miles north of the U.S./Canadian border?
11.1.2007 4:05pm
theobromophile (www):
No, just about 35 years from the 19th century. ;)
11.1.2007 10:15pm
Fat Man (mail):
I started law school 30 years ago. My school (Ohio State) wanted to tech a course based on statutes and administrative rules to freshmen, so we were required to take Income Tax I. It was a good idea as it is fairly simple material and it is unfailingly useful. I believe they later abandoned the course.

I personally think that most of the problems with law school could be solved by making it 2 years instead of three. Most students who have been through the sausage factory will agree that third year is mostly a waste of time. And eliminating it would cut costs by a third, plus you would not have to figure out how to keep kids busy for the 3rd year.
11.2.2007 3:39pm