Student-focused law degrees

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Mark Osler at the Law School Innovation blog points us towards the University of Dayton Law School, which offers students the option to complete the standard three-year degree in just two calendar years (including a summer off) through an earlier start date and a more intensive course load. The implications, as Mark observes, include less time and lower costs. The major downside would appear to be less time to fully absorb the law school experience.

But would that necessarily be a bad thing? I’m certainly not the only law school grad who found third-year largely unnecessary and mostly frustrating, from academic, career and even social points of view (two years is probably the maximum time you can keep future lawyers cooped up before nerves fray and friendships splinter). When you spend a year taking courses marked as “elective,” that’s a pretty good sign you’re going through the non-essential motions of a degree program.

What interests me even more than the two-year accelerated program, though, is the way Dayton arranges its curriculum. The “Lawyer as Problem Solver” program lets students choose from among three curricular tracks: advocacy and dispute resolution, personal and transactional law, and intellectual property, cyberlaw and creativity. As you might guess, the first is geared towards students who want to focus on litigation and mediation, the second is for those interested in transactional solicitor-type work, and the third is meant for those headed for the entrepreneurial new-media industries. In all three cases, this is a program designed for people who fully intend to practise law.

Now, we’re not looking at a fundamental reimagining of the law school degree here. The track courses constitute less than one-sixth of the total course load, and of the 31 courses required to graduate (30 for the personal/transactional law track), all but three are mandatory core offerings. It’s also too bad that only the personal/transactional law track offers a course in law practice management. The course looks brilliant and seems like it ought to be required for everyone, especially since the school states flat out that the track system is there to “help prepare students for practice in a particular area of law.”

But overall, this is a much more innovative approach to a law degree than you’ll find at a lot of other law schools. I like the fact it unabashedly admits to preparing students for a law practice career. But what I really like is that it empowers students: it gives them the freedom to choose the type of career they want to prepare for, and provides them with a headstart over other law schools’ graduates who didn’t get this kind of preparation.

It also allows students to hurry up and complete their degree in just two years, especially appealing for the growing number of older students with other careers behind them and little time to spend on the qualification process. These are factors that work in the students’ favour, not necessarily the school’s, which profits from lengthening its students’ sojourn as long as possible. That in turn suggests that Dayton is identifying a market niche, one that could come in handy as schools seek for competitive advantages beyond adding the biggest and most expensive names to the faculty.

The likeliest objection to this approach is that the program forces students to decide right from the start what track they want to enter, committing themselves to a certain career before they’ve spent one day in school. What if they change their mind, or they were wrong about their choice? The program might reply: “Then you’d better be sure what you want to do before you enroll here. If you want a garden-variety, buffet-style law degree that gives you a little of everything but a focus on nothing, you’d better choose a different school.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, let me hasten to add; but students deserve the opportunity to choose between these two approaches.

And since the garden-variety sort of degree is becoming an awfully expensive gamble in an ever-more specialized and competitive profession, I can see the attraction of Dayton’s approach. It differentiates the school in a crowded marketplace, and it assumes its students are focused, motivated, and ready to take responsibility for their choices. That’s a solid strategy, and I think other law schools might do well to consider rethinking how they brand themselves to increasingly sophisticated prospective law students.

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