Future Ed 3 Conference Preaches to the Choir

By Rachel Littman
Asst. Dean, Career Development and External Relations
Pace Law School, White Plains, NY

New York, NY – April 16, 2011

The third iteration of the New York Law School-Harvard Law School sponsored Future Ed conference ended in as enthusiastic a dispersal as its original assemblage one year ago.  The take away?  In the words of David Thompson, Director of the Lawyering Process Program at University of Denver Sturm College of Law and author of Law School 2.0 (using a very cool Prezi visual presentation), “go Evangelize!”  Even with the simulated angel fund investment pitches and solicitations for critique and feedback, the speakers and participants generally supported everyone who was there.  From using a Cal-Berkley study on incorporating lawyering effectiveness predictors into the law school admissions process (and hopefully into legal hiring),[i] to creating online programs to increase access to justice,[ii] and enabling synchronous online distance learning for a consortium of law schools,[iii] the more than dozen presentations all demonstrated what innovative and creative legal professionals are doing to make the law school experience more aligned with the realities of practice, technology and learning styles.  We all knew that. 

Let this blog post serve as my way of evangelizing.  Let the substance of the work behind the conference proposals proselytize those in legal education who think we can keep doing things the way we have always done them.

Ahead of the Curve

Of course, the elephant in the room that surfaced on several occasions was the pending revisions to the ABA Standards.  Learning outcomes was the most discussed.  Bill Henderson, Professor of Law at Indiana University and Principal at Lawyer Metrics, LLC, has been looking at outcomes based assessment for a long time.  Bill seemed to be involved in almost every creative and forward-thinking proposal at Future Ed.  Washington & Lee School of Law is now in its third year of a completely revamped 3L curriculum and hopes to have enough data in a few years to assess whether their system is really improving practice readiness, Bar passage and their system of legal education.  Outcomes assessment is already underway.

Inevitably, the fate and role of tenure also drew lively commentary.  The room was filled with law faculty and administrators – some tenured and some not – but the tone did not rise to a level of dismay and outrage inherent in some of the comments posted to the ABA Standards Review Committee website.  This was not because the old, storied institutions were not represented; indeed the conference was co-sponsored by Harvard Law School and its Program on the Legal Profession (could there be a nicer guy than Program Director, David Wilkinson?) and Mitt Regan from the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession was noticeably present (though made few public comments that I can recall).  Everyone in the room was ready and indeed well ahead of the ABA in efforts to incorporate technology in and outside the classroom, to tackle matters like learning outcomes, and focus on how to reduce the cost of legal education and make it better. With or without tenure.

Do Traditional Tenure Criteria Stifle Innovation?

If tenure for law faculty is at risk, what does that mean for teaching innovation and re-thinking legal education?  Are those with job security more or less likely to take innovative risks and move from the Langdellian lecture model to styles that incorporate simulations, small work groups, and independent projects (I’m talking more than the traditional clinical setting)?  What do readers think? The room at Future Ed 3 was generally split on this point.  Some thought that tenure gives faculty members the security to take risks and others saw the path to tenure as an ingrained culture focusing on scholarship (much of which, one presenter claimed, is never cited by anyone) that has little to do with student service and much to do with the overbearing cost of legal education.  Sometimes innovation works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Some are better at innovating than others.  Hopefully market pressure – in our case, law school admissions applications, student outcomes and employer satisfaction – and the innovators will prevail.  With our without tenure.

Re-Thinking Legal Education

The most inspiring presentation at the Future Ed 3 Conference had nothing to do with law, but its potential application to legal education was apparent.  Dr. Richard Miller, probably the funniest engineer any of us had ever heard, the current President of the young Olin College of Engineering, walked the conference attendees through the school’s focused mission and related application process, training methods and campus layout and purpose (you could hear the cogs whirling in every law school Dean’s head – “How do I get us some buildings like those?!”).  Yes, they re-created the engineering school model with several hundred million dollars in foundation grant money, but if they can do to engineering what Chris Whittle and Benno Schmidt did with K-12 education [see the Edison Schools, now known as EdisonLearning and the not-yet-opened Avenues], who’s to say we can’t re-think legal education?  New York Law School Dean Rick Matasar, who himself has been evangelizing about the cost of legal education for years, ended Future Ed with an invitation to explore many futures in legal education.  Todah Rabbah, Dean Matasar.  Great conference. 

[i] See Shultz, Marjorie M. and Zedeck, Sheldon, Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness: A New Assessment for Use in Law School Admission Decisions (July 31, 2009), CELS 2009 4th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1442118.

[ii] http://dotank.nyls.edu/futureed/2011proposals/11llcs.pdf.

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