Experiential Education and the First-Year Curriculum

Eduardo R.C. Capulong

One way to describe today’s law school curriculum is in terms of détente—a truce in which law schools have decided that experiential work can happen in the third year so long as the case method reigns supreme in the first.  Students can take clinics or externships later but their first preoccupation would be dissecting appellate opinions for doctrine and reading supplemental materials for context.  Allison Korn’s and Laila Hlass’ survey of experiential courses post-revised ABA Standards 303 and 304 provides us a fresh glimpse of this pedagogical battleground—and, as Tony Amsterdam observed nearly four decades ago—equips reformers with more “political dynamite” to throw at this ossified state of affairs.

Korn and Hlass report that 19 schools expanded and 20% of respondents changed their first-year experiential curricula post-revised Standards.  “Labs” and “practicums” have proliferated, as have deans for experiential education—many former clinic directors now overseeing the entire experiential arc.  These developments, they prescribe, should “ensure not only compliance with the new ABA Standards, but also advancement of a diverse and comprehensive experiential curriculum that bolsters faculty expertise, develops students’ substantive and contextual knowledge and practical skills, and expands access to justice.”  To these ends, they call for ensuring the long-term viability of experiential deans; rigor in the approval, development, and assessment of experiential courses; and diversity of and security of tenure for experiential faculty.  The survey reveals what should be easily correctible oversights, as well, such as including simulation courses in Standard 303(b): since such courses are experiential under its definition, there’s no reason why law schools shouldn’t “provide substantial opportunities” for them just as they must for clinics and field placements/externships.  (Indeed, best practices should call for students taking a clinic and anexternship and a simulation course.)

Above all, Korn and Hlass surface the need for theory—i.e., pedagogical theory, or what my colleague, Julia Hernandez, calls an “antidisciplinary lens.”  The law school is, of course, a key pillar of the American establishment, hence the durability of how things are done.  The reason the formalist cast has endured is that it has served racial capitalism exceptionally well: it abstracts, objectifies, normalizes, and obscures raw, violent power in a set of purportedly neutral rules equally applicable to all.  Reformers have mounted successive challenges against the case method for more than a century.  Yet none has been successful in supplanting it.  That’s the story of social movements fighting hegemony, coinciding with historical forces in ebb and flow.  It’s also the story of reformism: piecemeal changes not quite striking at the heart of their target.  What we need, as Jerry Lopez recently argued, is an “alternative vision.”

Labs and practica in the first year may seem quaint from this perspective.  But like any movement with a visionary goal and immediate realities to confront, they’re promising next steps.  They can form the backbone for the faculty collaboration Korn and Hlass rightfully note as key to an effective experiential curriculum.  They can be tied, for example, to lawyering or legal methods courses that can then form the hub of a reimagined curriculum.  They can be vehicles for developing simulation pedagogy and professional identity, which remain undertheorized.  (I’m not disinterested here: I direct one such program in a school founded on such a model and helped convene a network of Lawyering professors promoting these ideas.)  With the rise of the information economy—including rapid technological changes and the ready availability of legal materials whose use as asynchronous instruction has been hastened by the pandemic—law faculty should be less purveyors than curators of knowledge, less lecturers than coaches or sources of skillful and ethical guidance—i.e., less doctrinal teachers than clinicians. 

I’m hopeful.  The developments Korn and Hlass surveyed coincide with five others that should make us optimistic.  The first is the racial reckoning that many law schools have undertaken in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.  The second are the redoubled efforts by critical race scholars to reform the first-year curriculum, including recent work on the white supremacist foundations of legal rhetoric and ongoing work to forge what my colleague Yasmin Sokkar-Harker calls “critical legal information literacy.”  The third is a professional identity movement seeking to systematize instruction.  The fourth are professional competency studies that confirm the soundness of the experiential project—the latest of which, led by Deborah Merritt, was published two months ago.  And the fifth are potential changes to the bar exam recently recommended by the NCBE and summarized in these pages, which call for the “assessment of lawyering skills to better reflect real-world practice and the types of activities newly licensed lawyers perform” and the expansion of those “foundational skills … to include more than just legal analysis and writing [but also] legal research, factual investigation and evaluation (including fact gathering), client counseling and advising, client relationship and management, and negotiation and dispute resolution.”  Taken together, these parallel movements form at least part of our curricular terrain.  Détente or no, they are the leading edges of change and I’m thankful for Korn and Hlass for their important contribution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: