Professor Bill Henderson of Indiana University Maurer School of Law
Professor Bill Henderson of Indiana University Maurer School of Law (Ann Schertz)

Something she didn’t expect happened when Melissa Hart, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, started experimenting with how she teaches her classes. Her evaluation scores from students began to decline.

“It’s painful on a semester basis,” Hart said during a recent panel discussion hosted by Colorado. “Is it because the changes didn’t work, or because students weren’t expecting it?”

Colorado Law’s Silicon Flatirons Center, which focuses on technology and entrepreneurship in the law, convened a daylong conference on April 17 aimed at helping identify how law schools can successfully innovate.

The widely held view is that innovation in legal education is hampered by aversion to change both within the legal profession as a whole and by entrenched faculties. But declining enrollment and related pressures have given schools no choice but to embrace change.

Colorado professor Scott Peppet observed that legal educators become obsessed with the causes of the problems they face—and less so about finding solutions.

But some law schools and professors deserve credit for innovation, said Bill Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law–Bloomington. For instance, he said, Washington and Lee University School of Law in 2008 eliminated the traditional third-year curriculum and adopted a practice-oriented program.

But reform efforts and success are two different things, Henderson said. “It’s one thing to have a theory and get some good press clippings,” he said. “It’s another thing to get it to work. The biggest hurdle, I think, is students. It’s hard to get this stuff to work [with students].”

Rather than trying to convince an entire faculty to embrace major change, Henderson suggested schools allow a few highly motivated professors to engage in small-scale experimentation. “You have to start small and not say, ‘We’re going to change legal education,’ ” Henderson said. “Let’s start with a few classes.”

The three-year structure of law school creates a disincentive to change, University of Oregon School of Law dean Michael Moffitt said. If a school decides to change its curriculum and it doesn’t work, those students don’t get a second opportunity to learn that material, he said.

And there’s a reluctance to move too far ahead of the herd. “The common question at law schools is, ‘Is anyone else doing that?’ ” Washington and Lee law dean Nora Demleitner said.

At Oregon, the faculty looks beyond the law school itself for places to apply its teaching expertise, Moffitt said. For instance, law professors teach a variety of courses to undergraduate students eager to learn from graduate-level instructors.

Panelists also zeroed in on what they called an outsized emphasis on faculty scholarship. Many law schools expect professors to spend 40 percent of their time on scholarship, 40 percent on teaching and 20 percent on public service. That leaves less time to develop innovating teaching methods, especially for the younger, untenured professors—those most likely to embrace innovation and change.

“The rewards system for legal academics makes it hard,” Hart said.

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