Foundations for Teaching: A Data-Driven Model to Help Legal Educators Build Learning Outcomes into Their Instruction

Zack DeMeola
Director of Legal Education and the Legal Profession, IAALS

Logan Cornett
Director of Research, IAALS

In 2011, IAALS—the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver—launched Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers (ETL), a unique, national initiative to change the way law schools educate students. ETL provided a platform to encourage law schools to showcase innovative teaching to produce more practice-ready lawyers who can better meet the needs of an evolving profession. One of the primary concerns IAALS hoped to address was the perceived skills gap between the abilities new lawyers have when they graduate law school and the abilities they need for practice. Of course, this gap has serious implications for educators and employers, but it has even greater implications for the profession. Not only do under-prepared lawyers undermine public trust in our legal system, but they also struggle longer and harder than they should as they try to gain footing in the legal profession. The ETL initiative has since ended, but from that work emerged Foundations for Practice, a first-of-its-kind effort to develop an evidence-based understanding of the competencies, skills, and characteristics new lawyers need to develop to be ready for practice and understand how law schools and employers can best instill these qualities in future lawyers.

Through a national survey, to which more than 24,000 lawyers from all 50 states representing a diverse array of practice settings and specialties, IAALS identified 76 characteristics, professional competencies, and legal skills that are necessary immediately out of law school—these are the 76 foundations a new lawyer needs to be successful. But uncovering this information was just the first step. We understood that the comprehensive data that came from Foundations would have more impact if we could better organize and harness it in a practical way. The goal is to offer educators and employers a framework to create more objective, transparent, and accountable practices for assessing competencies in students and new lawyers.

Learning outcomes, the bedrock of standards-based instruction, provided an obvious framework for this next phase. Learning outcomes are academic standards and methodologies used in instruction, assessment, grading, and reporting to ensure students learn, practice, and master the requisite skills and content. Learning outcomes are more than the recitation of specific skills and abilities—they operate through applying research- and evidence-based instructional practices, including rigorous assessment, to ensure student needs are being met, and are thus also used as defendable criteria for program, course and curriculum content value and effectiveness. The process emphasizes transparency, accountability, flexibility, and clarity. Thus, learning outcomes better assist educators to:

  • Structure and identify key concepts for coursework;
  • Assess student performance and whether students understand and can apply those concepts;
  • Map the relative strengths and places for improvement in programs and curriculum;
  • Set shared expectations between students and educators;
  • Collect the information needed to continually improve instruction; and
  • Collect the information needed to show evidence of effective learning for accreditors.

Learning outcomes are not a fringe concept, but they are new to legal education. Although learning outcomes are a primary feature of education in just about every other context—from kindergarten to graduate school (medical schools had an early form of learning outcomes in the 1930s, which have been modernized over time) it wasn’t until 2016 that the American Bar Association (ABA) required law schools to “establish and measure other important outcomes for those who enroll” in legal education program” by developing learning outcome measures and assessment methodologies to “improve their legal education programs and better serve the needs of students during their legal education and in their professional careers.”

While this new accreditation standard was an important development for legal education, the ABA provided precious little guidance on how learning outcomes should be implemented or evaluated. Understandably, many law schools and law school faculty, when faced with the prospect of a wholly new way to frame instruction and curriculum, have been slow to develop effective learning outcomes. In our work on this project, we learned that law school faculty, staff, and administrators are all grappling with how to structure, design, and incorporate learning outcomes and assessments into their educational programs. But we also learned that they are genuinely motivated to better prepare students for their careers after law school. In our view, a Foundations-based approach using a data-driven process to design learning outcomes and implement corresponding assessments is the best way to accomplish that goal.

The need for guidance and for a relevant, empirically validated, and effective outcomes-based framework for education spurred IAALS to design Foundations-based model learning outcomes. The five broad learning outcomes categories—Communicator, Practitioner, Professional, Problem Solver, and Self Starter—organize the 76 foundations entry-level lawyers need to succeed in the practice of law and make it easier for educators to hone their teaching methods around them. 

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