February 16, 2007

Law Schools Change Focus

Print More

With the exponential rate of technological innovation either directly or indirectly infiltrating all aspects of civil society, one must question whether the proverb “the more things change, the more they stay the same” actually offers a timeless piece of commentary regarding the continual development human civilization.

As computer-mediated communication gradually replaces our need for face-to-face human interaction, and our knowledge of the world is based as much on our ability to navigate an internet search engine as it is on our ability to travel or read words on a page, there are few aspects of today’s culture that have remained relatively static throughout time. But the institution of law, as an academic discipline, topic of philosophical debate and organized set of regulations that explains the processes of nature has emerged as a rare consistency throughout societal structure since 2050 B.C.

In recent years, however, even the field of law has undergone a series of changes, many of which are reflected in the shifting curriculums of law schools across the country.

“There is a real split in the curriculum reform that is taking place now,” said Prof. Kevin Clermont, law. “Some schools like Stanford and Harvard are making a shift towards a more globalized, theoretical law, and other schools like California Western School of Law and Detroit Mercy School of Law are beginning to emphasize practical, clinical aspects of the profession,” such as creating simulated trial environments and emphasizing research techniques utilized by professional attorneys, he said.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard’s new curriculum, which was implemented this year, focuses on “skills that are needed to practice law in the 21st century.” Students take courses to develop advanced problem-solving technique, and acquire knowledge of global legal systems.

Similarly, Stanford University is planning to introduce a new approach to law education which, according to the Chronicle, enables students to “work in teams with students from other professional schools.” This is intended to prepare the students for their future experiences working with clients and other professionals with varying backgrounds.

Cornell Law School, as of now, does not have any set plans for an overhaul of its curriculum.

“We are still pretty traditional,” Clermont said. “We teach practical subjects in a more theoretical way.”

“We are not ready to reform our curriculum. It is hard to get people to reform,” he continued.

The structure of Cornell’s law curriculum includes series of required courses that all students take during their first year. These emphasize crucial topics of law like contracts, civil procedures, and constitutional law. During their second and third years, students are able to take elective classes that reflect their own interests in different aspects of law.

Many students also choose to participate in an externship or semester exchange program, enabling them to study or work at a firm in one of many locations around the world.

“Students are exposed to a lot of resources during their first year, and a lot of our faculty teach first-year students. It is an intense, but very valuable experience,” said Law School Dean Stewart Schwab.

According to Schwab, it is the successful first-year curriculum that puts Cornell Law in a competitive position with other top-tier law schools.

“Although Harvard did some things of substance in their curricular change, some of the changes came about because of a problem they had on the teaching side. Not enough attention was given to teaching. Our students see we pay a great deal of attention to teaching,” he said.

First-year students have the opportunity to participate in small classes, a factor which differentiates the Law School from the University as a whole, and from other law schools.

“Our law school is distinct because we have so many talented faculty members teaching the first year courses,” Schwab said. “Most of the changes in law curriculums take place during the first year, and for us, that year is most successful.”

Schwab does not anticipate an immediate revamping of the curriculum in a way similar to its peer institutions as he feels Cornell Law offers students an effective blend of theory and practical skills already.

“We teach people how to do a job,” he said.

“Part of the training has to be practical, and part of it involves initiating students on a life-long learning process, which is where the theory comes in. We want students to learn the purpose of law, their own values in regards to law, and how law and the world interact. We do this by emphasizing the theoretical aspects of law, and we have been doing that for a while,” he continued.

Such a blend, however, evokes mixed responses from law students. Lindsay Smith, a second year student, said that she “wishes more school were more like med school, where students receive a lot of practical experience. Law school is a waste of three years,” she said.

“Many law school graduates have no idea how to be a lawyer,” Smith said. “About 90 percent of what I know about law I learned from working for a law firm over the summer. Cornell should really make its externships mandatory as opposed to optional.”

Jamie Rogers, a second year law student, disagrees. He feels that the academic aspect of law has been extremely helpful for him as he prepares to begin his career as an attorney.

“Law education is not really about what you learn as it is about how it is taught. The intensity of the Cornell courses has been great preparation for the pressure and dynamic of working as a lawyer,” he said.