Students in Roberto Corrada’s labor-relations course at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law don’t spend all their class time listening to lectures and furiously taking notes.

Instead, they assume the role of union members and union-side lawyers: deciding whether to organize, drafting collective-bargaining agreements, filing briefs and motions before a fictional National Labor Relations Board. Corrada plays management and negotiates with the students over everything, including grades.

Corrada used to teach the class in the traditional lecture format, but found his students weren’t understanding the power dynamics between unions and employers. Acting and strategizing as union organizers and their lawyers gives students a far more comprehensive perspective than reading cases alone, he said. “The students learn the material much more deeply,” he said. “Anecdotally, their questions are deeper and more probing. I’d never go back to teaching it the traditional way.”

Corrada’s simulation-based course constitutes precisely the training in practical skills that legal education reformers have spent years pushing for. Despite those efforts, the curricula at most U.S. law schools remain dominated by traditional courses based on reading case law and classroom lectures.

A consortium of reformers hopes to turn the tide with a $250,000 initiative aimed at helping law schools and professors share their classroom innovations and course designs. The idea behind the project, called Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, is that providing real-world examples and templates for new teaching methods — and proof of their success — will embolden more law professors to rethink how they teach. They plan to harness the Internet and annual conferences to push teaching reform beyond talk and into action.

“Academics and lawyers are, by nature, conservative,” said Douglas Scrivner, former general counsel of Accenture PLC and a member of the initiative’s board of advisers. “The traditional, big-class, Socratic method is the way they learned, so they think that’s the way others should learn. There’s a lot of work to be done on how we teach.”

THE CARNEGIE REPORT

The initiative is spearheaded by the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System and counts 15 law schools as initial consortium members. The University of Denver is providing much of the funding, with the law school members contributing $5,000 each. The institute will provide staff support.

The genesis for the initiative was the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s influential 2007 report, which concluded law schools did a poor job of preparing students for the practice of law and developing ethics and professional identity. The foundation called for a better-integrated curriculum that marries traditional analytical courses with practical training.

Legal educators had a range of responses to the report. Some professors, mostly at elite schools, saw little reason to tamper with a successful model, said University of Denver law dean Martin Katz. However, that position has largely faded since the economic downturn forced law schools to focus on producing graduates who can secure jobs, said Katz. There is no organized movement among law faculty to oppose the reform movement.

On the other end of the spectrum, 10 law schools responded to the Carnegie report by forming the Legal Education Analysis and Reform Network to examine and encourage innovation in legal education. That effort stalled several years later because of fundraising difficulties and the need for full-time staff, Katz said. He and Rebecca Love Kourlis, executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, decided about a year ago that the timing was right to reboot the network. The result was Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. The idea was to put money and staff behind legal education reform — and to focus on the execution of new teaching methods, moving beyond the debate over whether law schools need to change at all. “There’s a fear factor whenever you are looking at something that’s new and different,” Katz said. “There are a lot of law professors who are on the bench — they would like to teach courses according to the Carnegie model but they need a little support. Our goal is to provide a support system for professors and deans who might be interested in expanding their curriculum into a more Carnegie-like model.”

WEB SITE FEATURES EXAMPLES

The focal point of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is a Web site that lists detailed information about law courses that incorporate the Carnegie report’s recommendations. Corrada’s labor law class is among three course portfolios discussed on the site. Visitors get a description of the class, the teaching methods used, information about how students are assessed, materials used in the course and videos of students in action. A comment board allows law professors to discuss the curriculum and swap ideas.

Also featured is an advanced contracts class taught by Gillian Hadfield at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Her course pairs students in teams that work through eight real-world case studies as though they were lawyers and clients. The goal is less to demonstrate that they have learned the course material than that they can apply that material to solve legal problems, Hadfield said.

The course portfolios aren’t intended to be “a course in a box,” Katz said, but rather a starting point for law faculty who need examples of how practical training can be incorporated into their classes. Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers centers on classroom-based learning, not on clinical programs, which comprise a separate important component in the push for improved skills training.

The courses included on the Web site are vetted by the leaders of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers to ensure they fulfill the teaching principles laid out in the Carnegie report. Law professors are given a $2,500 stipend if their course is included.

William Sullivan, the lead author of the Carnegie report and director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, said the group plans to add two courses per month to the Web site. The initiative will serve as a platform for law schools to communicate and share ideas about legal education in an organized way, which has been lacking, Sullivan said.

Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is more than a Web-based clearinghouse for innovative law classes, however. The group is conducting a national survey of the approaches law schools are taking to curricula and faculty and student assessments. Preliminary findings indicate that interdisciplinary teaching and classroom simulations are on the rise, and that more second- and third-year students have the opportunity to take clinics.

A second phase of the research will examine how to assess students in ways that don’t follow the traditional final-exam model, Katz said. The American Bar Association is expected to require law schools to lay out what they want students to learn, then develop assessments to measure their success, when it unveils its updated accreditation standards next year. The willingness of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers to test the effectiveness of new teaching methods and help develop assessment models is one factor that led the University of Dayton School of Law to join the consortium, said Dean Paul McGreal.

“Let’s do some empirical testing of whether this new pedagogy is effective,” he said. “A lot of these teaching methods require more resources from law schools and teachers. Let’s make sure they work.”

Corrada confirmed that teaching his simulation-based labor-relations course is far more time consuming than a traditional lecture class. The additional work, coupled with the emphasis at law schools on producing scholarship, are several reasons most law professors have been reluctant to abandon the traditional teaching model, he said.

But law schools can no longer afford to operate as they always have at the expense of students who graduate into an unforgiving legal job market, Katz said. “I believe the time is right for this. We’re seeing a confluence of changes both in the legal practice and in legal education that give this traction now. I’m amazed at the number of professors who have been teaching the courses the same way for 20 years who are suddenly interested in doing things differently.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.

 

AGENTS OF CHANGE
Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is a $250,000 initiative spearheaded by the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. It is a consortium of law schools that pay $5,000 a year to be members. The consortium includes:
Cornell Law School
University of Dayton School of Law
University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Indiana University Maurer School of Law — Bloomington
University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
University of New Hampshire School of Law
University of New Mexico School of Law
City University of New York School of Law
Seattle University School of Law
University of Southern California Gould School of Law
Southwestern Law School
Stanford Law School
Suffolk University Law School
Vanderbilt University Law School
Washington and Lee University School of Law