Law school announces sweeping curriculum updates to prepare students for changing legal industry

CWRU law students in law libraryProfessors at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law have approved sweeping curriculum changes designed to give graduates the essential skills employers value most.

The new academic model dramatically increases students’ writing requirements and opportunities for direct legal experience. It calls for entering students to serve in the role of attorneys within their first semester and also includes a full-time, third-year capstone externship or clinical engagement that lasts at least a semester. The new curriculum also includes a required series of courses on leadership taught by faculty members from the Weatherhead School of Management.

“We have constructed a model that does what is best for our students,” said Professor Jonathan H. Adler, one of the program’s lead architects, “and can serve as a model for legal education, nationwide.”

Faculty members still will cover traditional doctrinal subjects, such as contracts, property, civil procedure and torts. But the new curriculum also will enhance students’ chances to apply such knowledge immediately—and in settings more akin to those they would experience in practice. The goal is to graduate lawyers who are “client ready”—that is, able to take on substantial responsibilities with clients right away, rather than spend their initial post-graduate years in a much more limited or background role.

“We are preparing our graduates to get the jobs that are available and to excel in every aspect of their work,” Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell explained. “This combination of theory, practical experience and advanced interpersonal skills will make Case Western Reserve students stand out in the hiring marketplace.”

According to the National Association for Law Placement, just under 85 percent of 2012 law graduates nationwide found jobs last year, a drop of nearly seven percentage points since 2009. That said, annual median salaries climbed about $1,200 over the previous year, to $61,245. While improved, the 2012 figure remains well behind the median of $72,000 for the Class of 2008.

The changes Case Western Reserve’s law faculty endorsed last week build largely on the school’s existing strengths. Students participating in the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic, for example, have enjoyed such successes as a $1.1 million jury verdict in 2011. The previous integrated skills program long has been considered a leading example within legal education. And faculty members have expanded externship programs dramatically in recent years.

The one entirely new element involves a four-semester course sequence in leadership. Professors Diana Bilimoria and Richard Boyatzis, faculty members in the Weatherhead School’s internationally renowned organizational behavior department, developed the program.

“To explicitly develop emotional and social intelligence and the relationship-building capabilities that lawyers need with clients and to lead their firms is a bold move for legal education,” said Boyatzis, co-author of The New York Times’ bestseller Primal Leadership. “We are excited to be a part of a dramatic innovation with our law school—using classroom and time outside of the classroom to develop graduate students to be better people as well as lawyers.”

Bilimoria, Boyatzis and Mitchell have agreed to make rigorous outcome assessment an integral part of the leadership sequence, and law faculty members also are exploring ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the other reforms.

“We’re getting smart about our curriculum,” said Professor Michael Scharf, the associate dean of Global Legal Studies. “We want to make sure that everything we offer has value.”

Many of the concepts within the curriculum emerged from conversations Mitchell had with roughly six-dozen law firm hiring partners, chief executive officers and other employers about qualities they sought in candidates. The school already had been amid a traditional strategic planning process during the past academic year, but rapid changes within the national legal market prompted the faculty to abbreviate its timeframe and aim for more ambitious changes.

“We had the input from employers and students about what they valued,” said Professor Jessica Berg, who helped lead the planning process with Mitchell and Adler, “and then took this chance to think deeply about exactly what we should be teaching these future professionals—and how best to do it.”

Many of the changes had been discussed informally for years among individual faculty members. As the national conversation about legal education grew, bold ideas gained new, significant traction. Over the summer, faculty members engaged in intensive planning sessions to flesh out the concepts before last week’s voting deadline. The final tally was 35 for, three against, with one abstention.

The conversations with employers also yielded a new initiative within the school’s career services office: an online portfolio system that will include students’ résumés, writing samples and even video clips of their work in negotiation exercises or actual courtrooms. The school also plans to offer summer courses—at no extra tuition charge—for students who want greater flexibility to gain additional professional experience during the fall or spring semester.

The total required credits for graduation will not change under the plan, but faculty members’ teaching loads will increase. Meanwhile, professors will spend much of this year aligning and coordinating material covered in direct subject-matter courses to align with the activities students pursue in their experiential classes.

“We have an obligation to make sure what we are doing serves our institution and serves our students,” Adler said.

For a list of frequently asked questions about the curriculum and the law school, visit blog.case.edu/think/2013/08/19/cwru_law_school_faqs.

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