Curricular Reform:

Unless I'm missing something, these "new" curricular ideas (whether at Penn or Stanford) seem awfully similar to the system of tracks and specialized upper-year courses that we have had at George Mason since Henry Manne first implemented as Dean here 25 years ago. The idea, as Henry first conceived it, was to enable students to begin specializing in particular areas of law (corporations, IP, etc.) while still in law school, to ease the transition to practice but also to exploit the academic setting to create a more innovative model of lawyering, by enabling an interaction of theory and practice that cannot be done in a law firm practice setting.

Related to this, it appears that Henry also may have been ahead of his time in his innovation of revamping the First Year curriculum to include economics as a mandatory course, thereby providing an introduction to economics, finance, empirical analysis, and other related topics in order to provide the grounding for these upper-level theory/practice courses that would come later. This was based on Henry's recognition of the growing interaction between law and social sciences that everyone else is now catching up to.

So now that Stanford seems to be adopting some elements of the curricular system we've been road-testing at GMU for the past 25 years, I'll venture a few observations on how this has worked here. At GMU, this "new" model of law school education has been successful pedagogically, but a bit less so practically. As will become apparent, some of the practical problems in implementing this at George Mason result from resource constraints, so those will likely be less of a hurdle at more well-endowed institutions. But here's a few observations:

--Few students end up enrolling in and staying with tracks and concentrations: Those students who enroll in tracks generally seem to find them to be an extremely valuable educational experience. The problem is that in order to get through the sequencing of classes in any sort of specialization "pyramid," a student has to decide very early on to specialize. There is thus an important path-dependency that kicks in relatively early. This requires students to know early on in their law school careers what area of law they eventually want to practice. Few students have any idea about this early in their law school careers. I, for instance, didn't become interested in bankruptcy law until I was a second-year summer associate and, in fact, didn't even take the course until my third-year fall (once I found out I was interested in it).

--Generalization and Risk-Diversification: The downside of specializing in law school is the obvious opportunity cost of losing out on a more generalized legal education. Students may want to generalize for any number of reasons: to hedge against changes in the legal economy, to prepare for clerkships (such as by taking some criminal law or fed courts classes one otherwise might not take), to prepare for the bar, to take classes from particularly-gifted professors who teach outside your particular area of interest, or just to prepare for the bar. Many students find the opportunity cost of specialization to be excessive.

--Resource Constraints: Specialization is a highly resource-intensive scheme of legal education because it requires offering a substantial number of very small, specialized, professor-intensive courses. It quickly becomes very expensive and administrative difficulties in equitably allocatin teaching loads (among other issues).

--Classes in Other Disciplines ("Build or Buy"): Stanford's program seems to rely heavily on partnering with other disciplines in the university to provide the context for its 3-D program. I'm skeptical that this will work in any major way, for several reasons. First, there is simply the issue of transaction costs--the difficulties of enrolling in different programs and the inconvenience of simply transporting oneself around campus in time to get to different buildings for different classes. Students may be willing to undertake the transaction costs in order to get some sort of formal degree (MA or PhD) at the end. At UVA, which offered an MA in legal history when I was there, the motivation seemed to be primarily that history classes were easy "A" classes with no final exam, and it is my impression that in general university graduate programs offer much higher grades than law school classes for equal, or often less, work.

Moreover, there is the risk-diversification point mentioned above in spades here, especially for less practical non-legal concentrations (history, philosophy, etc.), although it may turn out to have some appeal for subjects like Finance or Accounting. So the upshot is that unless Stanford Law plans to build or vertically integrate into providing a lot of these courses in-house rather than buying most of them, my prediction would be that few students will take many courses in some sort of informal "concentration" outside the law school unless they are part of a formal degree program.

At GMU, we have brought our first-year economics course in-house, but we contract out for some of the instructors (i.e., we have some econ profs with expertise in law & economics who come to the law school to teach the courses). We also treat the course as a capital investment during the first-year of law school that we can then build on for the rest of the students' law school careers. At GMU, we've also had more flexibility in resolving the transaction costs issues because we have both day and night programs, which allow students and professors more flexibility in terms of scheduling and transporting themselves around.

From this perspective Vanderbilt's law & econ program may turn out to be more successful because most of the program apparently is going to be built in-house, thereby reducing the transaction costs for students and faculty of contracting for these courses.

So my overall impression, drawing on our 25 years of experience at GMU with similar programs, is that these curricular innovations will probably turn out to be more successful pedagogically than practically.

I'm sure there are readers out there who are GMU students and alumni who could provide a useful perspective on all of this as well. We also have some curricular innovations of our own in the works that we will announce sometime in the near future.

Stuart M. (mail):
Specializing in law school is a pretty bad idea. In law practice - even when practicing a specialty - lots and lots of general questions come up that you need to be able to recognize when you see them, and if you concentrate your education too narrowly you will never spot the issues.
12.1.2006 9:09am
M (mail):
The most popular joint program at Penn now, I believe, is the "Whaton Certificate". It's not a degree, as you can see from the name, but a certification is 'business law' or the like issued from Wharton. It takes no extra time or money as one can do it with the electives avaliable to all the law students and one's normal tuition covers the cost. Wharton students have the first pick of the Wharton classes (as of course law students do of the law classes) so come classes can sometimes be hard to get in to. But, other than that the 'transactions costs' are low since the Wharton buildings are only 2 or 3 blocks away and the actual act of registration isn't hard. The 'Wharton curve' is feared all around the university so doubt people take these classes for easy grades. Perhaps they can be taken pass/fail, but then, so can any number of classes. (In my own discipline it's certainly not the case that the grad classes are easier than law, though the grading also isn't on a curve. But again, that's true of most all seminars at Penn law, so there's not much of a difference. The intelectual rigor is certainly higher in the academic disciplines.) The big question is whether this certificate will be worth anything or not. The firt group of students to get it only graduated this year so it's too soon to say. But, it's popular and since it involves a famous brand-name I'd guess there's a good chance it will be of some use for people who want to work in business.
12.1.2006 10:00am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Students may want to generalize for any number of reasons: to hedge against changes in the legal economy, to prepare for clerkships (such as by taking some criminal law or fed courts classes one otherwise might not take), to prepare for the bar, to take classes from particularly-gifted professors who teach outside your particular area of interest, or just to prepare for the bar.

Do any of them just want to learn stuff, even from less-gifted professors, for its own sake?
12.1.2006 11:05am
Justin (mail):
DB: They're awfully like the opportunities at a *lot* of schools, including Columbia.

Stuart M: While I tend to agree with you at "better" schools, I can understand the desire to specialize outside of, say, the top 14. At that point, law students (particularly those not on law review) are competing at a disadvantage in an awfully heirarchial hiring system, and showing a strong concentration in one field (particularly highly specialized fields such as IP), can have pretty important benefits, regardless of the *merits* of the heirarchial system.

For instance, in recent years Penn and (most notably) George Washington, both of who put an emphasis on IP, have done better at putting clerks on the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit than Harvard, Columbia, and (particularly, and also notably) Chicago.
12.1.2006 11:32am
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
Requiring economics and finance courses for law students with undegraduate degrees in business, especially accounting, finance, and economics seems like it would be a huge waste of time for these students. Now, if you allowed law students with these kinds of undergraduate degrees to opt out of these requirements in favor of other law courses that wouldn't waste their time, then these required courses could be limited to those who desperately need them like poly sci, art history, women's studies, teacher's ed, and afro american studies undergraduate majors.

Says the "Dog"
12.1.2006 11:56am
The problem with many finance and accounting classes at a top law school (with the usual B+ mean) is that many of the students who take these classes are the people who were finance or accounting majors in undergrad who are looking for an easy A because they already know the subject matter. Its not particularlarly rational to take such classes if you were a poli sci major. Its far better (grade wise) to take a regular law school class where you don't start behind. These course should be limited to humanities majors in order to encourage people to take them.
12.3.2006 5:56pm