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.