From the Managing Director: Optimizing the Law School Curriculum for the 21st Century

Barry Currier
Managing Director

J.D. programs are not likely to expand.[1] If anything, the discussion is about reducing the number of credits required for graduation and shortening the period of study. Yet, there is consistent and persistent conversation about courses or general topics that should be added to what the ABA Standards require. Within the framework of the J.D. degree, what courses or topics should be required by the ABA Standards? Beyond the Standards’ basic requirements, what more, and how much more should schools choose to require? What is the optimal curriculum for schools to require within an 83-90 credit program that stretches over 2+ years? If something new should be added and it is not likely that will be accomplished by increasing the number of units needed to graduate, what will be given up?

Currently, the ABA Standards require only ten credits.[2] Nothing in the Standards requires, specifically, courses in contracts, property, criminal law, torts, or civil procedure, though most schools require them in some form or fashion. Many law schools require more than 10 credits, including credits for some of these basic 1L courses. The more prescriptive the Standards are with respect to the curriculum, however, the less space there is for a law school to design a program that best suits its graduates and markets.

The ABA law school world is more than 200 law schools with widely varying missions, resources, and opportunities. That is a good thing – there are lots of different needs to be served. However, the accreditation standards, including the curricular requirements, apply across the board to all law schools. Requirements that might be appropriate for some schools are not appropriate or necessary for all. Limiting the curricular requirements of the Standards gives each school room to design a course of study that serves it and its students best. Outside of the standards directly related to curriculum, other standards[3] do the work of assuring that a school designs its curriculum to not only serve its mission, but also its students and the public. At the end of the day, the Council has resisted, wisely in my view, making the curricular standards more and more prescriptive, in the face of suggestions to the contrary. 

Beyond what the Standards should require of all law schools, questions remain about how a law school should best use the discretionary credits required for its J.D.[4] Law school today is a lot different (and better!) than it was decades ago. It is not the case that the parent or grandparent who went to law school back in the day would notice no differences in the course of study or student experience of that person’s child or grandchild attending law school today. That said, it remains the case that the course of study in most law schools continues to be dominated by the study of doctrine.

There is nothing wrong with learning a lot of law in law school; that is fundamental. The question is whether, given competing demands, the substantive law portion of a J.D. program, should recede or be reimagined to make room for other worthy matters, as the practice of law and law graduates’ opportunities evolve. While not an exhaustive list, other worthy matters would include more practice skills (e.g., litigation, negotiation, mediation, interviewing, and counseling); professional skills (e.g., law office management, professional identity, working collaboratively, and understanding the legal services marketplace); technology skills (e.g., how technology is changing the way in which legal services will be delivered to clients and the public, what those legal tech businesses are, and how to work with them); and the increasingly urgent matter of wellness for the individual and the profession.

There is more law to learn, but the law school envelope is not likely to expand to provide more time to learn it. And, there are lots of other matters that a J.D. program needs to address these days. From the Section’s perspective, we need to consider the following questions.  How shall we reorganize what we require of every law school’s program in the Standards, given the differences among the schools? If minimizing what the Standards require maximizes flexibility for law schools with varying missions, resources, and opportunities for their graduates, what more should the Standards include to assure the Council and, thereby, courts and the public, that law schools are using that flexibility in appropriate ways that merit a school’s continuing accreditation? For law schools, how should they revise and restructure their J.D. program to most wisely use the limited amount of time they have to prepare their particular students for meaningful and satisfying careers, as lawyers or otherwise.

[1] The ABA Standards require a minimum of 83 credits and 24 months of study. See Standard 311. Schools may require more credits, and most do. Only 6 law schools require the minimum, and more than two-thirds of the ABA-approved law schools require 88 or more credits.

[2] See ABA Standard 303(a). They are two writing experiences, two credits of professional responsibility, and six credits of experiential learning. Standard 303(a)(2) requires no particular number of credits for the writing experiences, so it could be as few as 1 credit each.

[3] These include but are not limited to Standards 315 (program assessment) and 316 (bar passage).

[4] The difference between the units required for the J.D. graduation and the 10 units the Standards specifically require. Some of those discretionary units will be required by the school, leaving space for “electives” chosen by the students.