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American University Washington College of Law is hoping to change American legal education with an “integrated curriculum” for first-year law students. In its program, begun several years ago, students can investigate a variety of areas of the law in a way that demonstrates how any case can span a number of legal problems. The 2005-06 school year is the third one in which the entire first-year class will use an integrated curriculum. In traditional legal education, the typical first-year curriculum includes contracts, property, civil procedure, torts, criminal law, and constitutional law, each a separate discipline. There are, however, themes and perspectives that infuse all of these fields. Moreover, when clients seek assistance from lawyers, they rarely have a package of needs that fits neatly into one of the first-year subjects. They arrive, instead, with a complex set of issues that can span a range of areas. With the integrated curriculum, WCL is preparing its students to enter this complex legal world from their first year of law school. Students may find they are discussing the different aspects of the same case in several of their first-year classes. And they are being exposed to other aspects of law and its underlying theories that most students experience only in the second or third years. To accomplish this integration, professors team-teach classes, work together to draft syllabi, hold sessions on topics that bridge their specialties, and invite guest speakers. Professors meet together weekly throughout the semester to share what’s happening in their classrooms. An example of a case used in the integrated curriculum is the case commonly known as Baby M, a custody dispute between a biological father and a surrogate mother that he and his wife hired to carry their baby. Baby M began when Mary Beth Whitehead agreed to be surrogate mother for William and Elizabeth Stern, residents of New Jersey. Whitehead gave birth in 1986 but soon changed her mind. She informed the Sterns that she was going to refuse the $10,000 payment and keep the baby. William Stern, whose sperm was used to conceive the child, filed suit to have the baby returned. The case wound through the legal system and, in 1988, the New Jersey Supreme Court nullified the contract. Although it granted Whitehead “unsupervised, uninterrupted, liberal visitation,” it granted primary custody to the Sterns. Baby M is excellent material for WCL’s integrated curriculum, involving a complex scenario touching on civil procedure, contracts, property, child custody, criminal law, and constitutional law. Students learn how an array of legal issues can come together to resolve a single legal dispute. Students are also exposed to the way international law, traditionally reserved for the second and third years, permeates their first-year subjects. For instance, the curriculum considers international components of tort law. Students review a U.S. Supreme Court case decided on the basis of customary international law and study disputes brought by foreign nationals in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Claims Statute. The integrated curriculum also introduces first-year students to upper-level topics, such as administrative law and legal history, which intersect with the traditional first-year subjects. To complement these innovations, WCL will reduce the number of required credit hours to free space for students to take an elective course during their first year. This approach to legal education is a work in progress that requires faculty and students working together. WCL is redefining law school to create lawyers who are better rounded when they enter the profession.
Claudio Grossman is dean of American University Washington College of Law and Raymond I. Geraldson Scholar of Law. He is an expert in international human rights law and legal education.

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