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New Study Examines Innovation in Law School Education

May 7, 2014, Press releases

Chicago, IL – A new study by American Bar Foundation Research Professor Stephen Daniels, with Martin Katz and William Sullivan of the University of Denver, concluded that declining opportunities for graduates because of the economic downturn and criticisms of the current state of legal education contributed to an uptick in new law school initiatives, but did not alone drive these changes.

In “Analyzing Carnegie’s Reach: The Contingent Nature of Innovation” (Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 63: No. 4), the authors surveyed deans at American Bar Association-accredited law schools about new initiatives in curriculum, faculty development, and faculty incentive structure that occurred between 2001 and 2010. These years were chosen to capture a longer time period that predates the recent economic downturn and the 2007 release of the Carnegie Foundation’s oft-cited report, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, which exposed weaknesses in the current state of legal education and advised that law schools pursue a curriculum that better integrates legal analysis with practical lawyering skills and professionalism.

Daniels, Katz, and Sullivan offer that the integrative approach suggested in Educating Lawyers could produce “meaningful change.” The authors tested how law schools have implemented the report’s recommendations by focusing the survey on new initiatives that integrated practical applications of the law and professionalism into traditional law school coursework.

The survey also examined new initiatives involving faculty development and faculty incentive structures. As the authors put it: “Ultimately, it is about putting your money where your mouth is. There must be a significant institutional investment in innovation. Among other things, this means a commitment to faculty development – investing in a school’s human capital. Related, and perhaps even more important, is a commitment to developing appropriate incentive structures for faculty that recognize and encourage professional activity that supports innovation.” Also especially important, the authors say, are coordinated efforts to implement curricular initiatives for both the second and third year curricula occurring together with an initiative on professionalism.

The results left the authors cautiously optimistic. The survey revealed that all responding schools started at least one major curricular initiative since 2001. Most prominent were initiatives involving lawyering skills and new clinics (96% and 81% of responding schools, respectively). While fewer schools reported initiatives involving professionalism or integrative approaches, a substantial proportion did (64% and 74%, respectively).

At least for some schools, the survey revealed patterns that suggest the possibility of a strategy focusing on integrating professionalism in the second and third years through an investment in either targeted workshops or grants. Workshops and grants devoted to teaching and learning generally were the most prominent activities. The survey also found significant relationships involving workshops and grants focusing on integration on the one hand, and curricular initiatives involving the second and third years and professionalism on the other hand.

But the real investment in innovation, “Analyzing Carnegie’s Reach” claims, lies in the incentive structure shaping what faculty need to prosper within the school. The most important areas, they argue, are hiring and tenure – who gets in and what is important in determining who gets to stay. Only 24% of responding schools reported a new initiative related to hiring criteria supporting innovation, and just 19% of schools reported an initiative related to the criteria for tenure.

Even though the amount of activity in the area of incentive structure is relatively low, the authors found evidence that legal education may be changing for the better. The schools active in this area are more likely to also invest in faculty development supporting the integration of legal analysis, skills, and professionalism. These same schools were also more likely to implement curricular initiatives involving the second and third years along with professionalism.

With regard to the timing of changes, the patterns uncovered were not simply an immediate reaction to the economic recession. The beginnings of innovation in each of the three broad areas predated the economic downturn, suggesting that law schools were not simply responding to the decline in the law market. For both curricular reforms and faculty development efforts, a majority of the initiatives started before 2008 (55% and 57%, respectively). For incentive structure, 78% of the initiatives started before 2008.  At the same time, the survey results suggest that pressures on the law market may have also hastened innovation after 2008 – what Daniels, Katz, and Sullivan called a “window of opportunity.” Law schools administered a substantial proportion of the changes in two of the areas after 2008.

Two questions are next, say Daniels, Katz, and Sullivan. The first asks what is it about those schools that do exhibit a coordinated approach to innovation that may have made them fertile ground for innovation. The second asks what difference those innovations make in an increasingly challenging environment for law schools and for their graduates.

The American Bar Foundation is the nation's leading research institute for the empirical study of law. An independent, nonprofit organization for more than 60 years, ABF seeks to advance the understanding and improvement of law through research projects of unmatched scale and quality on the most pressing issues facing the legal system in the United States and the world. The ABF’s primary funding is provided by the American Bar Endowment.

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