Law School Curriculum Review & Reform: Lessons Learned

In 2012, my dean asked me to chair a review our curriculum at the University of Tennessee College of Law. He asked our committee to consider the current three-year curriculum in light of our learning outcomes. It sounded like an overwhelming job.

During the first year of our curriculum review, I remember reading the book Reforming Legal Education: Law Schools at the Crossroads. Michael Hunter Schwartz and Jeremiah Ho wrote a great chapter titled Curriculum Reforms at Washburn University School of Law.

I would describe Schwartz and Ho’s chapter in two ways: (1) full of practical suggestions about the process for reviewing curriculum and considering reform; and (2) terrifying.

I stole many of the practical, process-related suggestions from their chapter. We had a committee retreat where we spent an uninterrupted day discussing the curriculum. Committee members went door-to-door and talked to each faculty member about the curriculum and possible changes. The committee developed two proposals for curriculum reform and discussed these proposals with the full faculty. I am sure there are other ideas we borrowed from Schwartz and Ho.

The terrifying part of Schwartz and Ho’s chapter was this line: “[O]ne might conclude that, after nearly three years of work, Washburn’s curriculum reform efforts have been unsuccessful.”

Three years? We may do this for three years and feel it wasn’t a success?

Of course, Schwartz and Ho go on to explain that there were successes in the three-year process. (The Washburn faculty reached a consensus on key issues and made progress toward some important goals detailed in the chapter). But it was daunting for me to think that the process would be difficult and might take three years.

In 2015, the University of Tennessee College of Law faculty adopted a package of significant changes to the 1L curriculum. While the substance of those changes is important, I think it is also important to contribute to Schwartz and Ho’s discussion about the process. So here are a few of the lessons I learned about the process of curriculum review and reform over the past three years.

1) Three Years is a Good Start. When we started, three years sounded like a long time to work on a curriculum review. I now know that three years of curriculum review passes in the blink of an eye. We needed that much time to understand our curriculum, talk to faculty, alumni and students, research what was happening elsewhere, create proposals for change, seek more input, and generate new proposals.

2) Less is More. Our committee accomplished something in three years because we narrowed the focus. Even though our original committee charge was to review the entire curriculum, we ended up focusing on the first year curriculum. That was a more manageable project. Also related to “less is more,” after two years we realized the committee was spread too thin. Our dean originally gave the curriculum review charge to the Academic Standards & Curriculum Committee. For two years that committee juggled the curriculum review and the regular business of Academic Standards. In the third year, our dean created a separate task force to focus solely on the curriculum review. That change made us much more efficient in year three and allowed us to reach a faculty vote on a package of proposals.

3) Seek Input from Faculty, Alumni, and Students Multiple Times, in Multiple Settings. Throughout the three years of our curriculum review, we talked to faculty, alumni, and students. When we met with alumni and students, we gave them the chance to address the room, answer questions anonymously (with clickers), and respond in writing to questions. We often continued these discussions on the phone, by email, and in person. We were able to compile all of this input and share it with the faculty. The committee spent even more time gathering ideas from the faculty in one-on-one meetings, in multiple forums, in small group sessions, and in many informal conversations over the course of three years. Seeking input in all of these settings helped us learn from all of our stakeholders and resulted in a variety of suggestions.

4) Compromise Can Lead to Something Better. Near the end of our second year of the curriculum review, the committee presented the faculty with two packages of possible reforms to the 1L curriculum. Discussing and debating the merits of these proposals helped the committee see potential problems we had missed and opportunities for meaningful change. With that information, we met with small groups of faculty to generate ideas about new classes and other innovations. In these meetings, members of the faculty often suggested they wanted to take the lead in making a change or teaching something new. As the third year came to a close, the faculty approved a package of 1L curriculum changes that was substantially better than what the committee had suggested at the end of year two.

5) Curriculum Review “Success.” Three years ago, it was unnerving to read that Schwartz and Ho thought we might not find curriculum reform “success” in three years. But I now know that is a good thing. Curriculum review and reform does not have to be perfect, because we are never done. Curriculum review should be an ongoing process. This allows us to identify what is working and determine what we will do next as we prepare students for practice.

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3 Responses

  1. Paula,

    The Carnegie Report, Best Practices, and numerous other analyses of legal education have led me to think that the second and third years of law school are most in need of reform. Why did Washburn start with the first year? Was that the most problematic year or was it the easiest to start with?

  2. We started with the 1L curriculum at Tennessee because it had not been reviewed – or revised – for some time. We have a strong tradition of clinical education and offer numerous innovative upper level classes that combine doctrine and skills. So our 2L and 3L curriculum was already ahead of the curve, but the 1L curriculum was more traditional. And there was room for improvement. I’ll blog in the near future about the changes we are making in the 1L curriculum, but some of the big ones are integrating more experiential learning and feedback throughout the year, coordinating legal writing with a doctrinal class, and providing students with a transactional lawyering experience.

  3. […] Ultimately, Schaefer and the committee’s work resulted in the College of Law faculty adopting a package of significant changes to the 1L curriculum in 2015. Read more. […]

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