Southwestern Law School Los Angeles, CA

News Release

Professor Carpenter Spearheads Influential Study on Legal Education July 17, 2012
Professor Carpenter Spearheads Influential Study on Legal Education

One of the country's leading experts on law school curricula, Professor Catherine Carpenter is co-drafter and editor of the ABA's newly-released comprehensive report, A Survey of Law School Curricula: 2002-2010. The new survey, which has garnered extensive media coverage, documents the changes law schools have made to meet the significant challenges and demands of the evolving legal landscape. The new survey is an update of A Survey of Law School Curricula 1992-2002, the most comprehensive national examination ever conducted on law schools, for which Professor Carpenter also served as principal drafter and editor.

"For the second time in ten years, Professor Carpenter (with the help of a dedicated Committee) has produced an important and fact-filled report on curricular change among ABA-approved law schools," said Hulett "Bucky" Askew, who serves as the ABA's Consultant on Legal Education. "The amount of time and energy she has devoted to this effort, with the support of Southwestern Law School, is truly remarkable. The report comes at a time when the debate about the cost and effectiveness of the US legal education system is driven often by anecdote and outdated assumptions. This report provides facts and analysis that will greatly inform and affect that debate."

A Survey of Law School Curricula: 2002-2010According to the Executive Summary of the Survey: "Results of the 2010 Survey - the objective data combined with the narrative responses - reveal that law school faculties are engaged in efforts to review and revise their curriculum to produce practice ready professionals. Survey respondents frequently cited the changing job market and the three publications (The MacCrate Report, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, and Best Practices for Legal Education: A Vision and a Roadmap) as influential in their decision making processes.

"In the 2002 Survey, we observed that law schools had begun to retool aspects of their programs with two commitments guiding them: an increased commitment to clinical legal education and an increased commitment to professionalism. The 2010 data suggests that these goals remain firmly in place as law schools attempt to respond to the critiques and external influences of recent years. But there is more. Engaging in wholesale curricular review has produced experimentation and change at all levels of the curriculum, resulting in new programs and courses, new and enhanced experiential learning, and greater emphasis on various kinds of writing across the curriculum."

Southwestern Dean Austen Parrish said, "The 2010 ABA Curriculum Survey is an important document. Not only does it help the broader legal community better understand recent changes in legal education, it will shape how law students are taught. Catherine Carpenter is a master teacher who cares deeply about her students, her influential scholarship in the criminal law area has changed how judges make decisions, and with the publication of the Survey she continues to cement her reputation as one of a select few leading experts in the country on law school curricula and accreditation. We're so proud that Catherine calls Southwestern home."

Professor Carpenter, who is the Irving D. and Florence Rosenberg Professor of Law at Southwestern, has served in several leadership posts within the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the ABA. She was a member of the Section's Accreditation Committee from 2004 to 2010, serving as its chair from 2008 to 2010. She previously chaired the Curriculum Committee from 2002 to 2004, when she oversaw the first national law school curriculum survey, and led the committee once again from 2010 to 2012 in conducting and analyzing the most recent survey. She currently serves on the Standards Review and Foreign Programs Committees. Professor Carpenter has also chaired many law school site evaluation teams for the ABA and has presented numerous workshops for deans and associate deans regarding accreditation issues.

In the following interview, Professor Carpenter discusses the key findings in each major area of the 2010 survey as well as how Southwestern has made innovative changes that are on the cutting edge of legal education in effectively preparing students for the legal profession.

Q: What are the themes that come out of the 2010 Survey of Law School Curricula?

A: I think several messages come out of the 2010 Survey. First, I think that the 2010 Survey will prove to be a valuable resource for law schools and external communities interested in legal education, and specifically in seeing comparative curricular data over the last twenty years. The data that we continue to collect is quite rich because the 2010 Survey not only offers a snapshot of law school curricula in 2010, but also uses data from the 2002 Survey to compare that snapshot with data from 1992-2002. And because of our ability to track trend lines over a 20 year period, we can all observe what is stable and what is changing in law school curricula. It appears that over the last few years, we are entering a period of greater experimentation in law school curriculum, with law schools trying to infuse into their curricula an emphasis on practice-ready skills. Which programs or courses will survive in 10 years is difficult to predict. We will leave that to the next Survey to track!

Q: What surprised you the most about the results of the new survey?

A: In compiling data for the 2010 Survey, I expected to see predictable growth and decline in courses and programs based on earlier data that we gathered for the 2002 Survey, but what surprised me was the reports by law schools that they were conducting full reviews of their curriculum to respond to the need to introduce more professional skills and professionalism into their curriculum.

Q: In the 2010 Survey, are there key findings in each of the following areas that you consider most significant? And if so, why?

A: Required Curriculum - There are two items that stood out for me in the Required Curriculum: required units for graduation and which courses are required. First, there was an interesting difference in required units for graduation depending on the law school's size of enrollment. Law schools with 500 students or fewer averaged 90 units for graduation, while larger enrollment law schools of 1,000 or more averaged between 86-87 units. (ABA Standards only require roughly 83 units to graduate). Second, law schools continue to require fewer courses after the proscribed courses of the first year and those mandated by ABA Standards. Constitutional Law and Evidence are the only two courses that a number of law schools require. Yet, even there, only 50% of law school respondents reported that they required Evidence. Beyond Constitutional Law and Evidence, no other upper division course garnered more than 25% of support as a required course for graduation. And the disconnect between required courses for graduation and what is on the bar examination continues in most law schools around the country. What the Survey calls "The Bar Factor," shows that law schools do not require courses for graduation simply because the subject is tested on the state bar examination. It appears that the decision to require a course for graduation may be based as much pedagogical beliefs, specializations in the law school, or strong faculty voice as they do because the subject is on the bar examination. However, just because a course is not required does not mean that students do not take it (in what has been described as ‘the informal bar curriculum").

First-Year Curriculum - The first-year line-up of courses has generally remained the same over the past 20 years, but a few trends are worth noting. First, more law schools than in 2002 offer Property and Torts as one semester courses. Second, more law schools are providing more units to first-year Legal Research and Writing, with over 40% of law schools requiring 5 and 6 units for the course. Finally, law schools are experimenting with additional courses and course components including a first-year elective opportunity, subjects such as professionalism and professional responsibility, and other required courses traditionally offered in the upper division.

Upper Division Curriculum - Elective opportunities continue to flourish at all law schools, with schools reporting an average of 131 course titles, which is 41 titles more than in 2002. Growth is noted in clinical and externship opportunities and in professional skills offerings in general where law schools reported an average of 10 different professional skills courses, and in particular, the Survey notes spikes in drafting courses and upper division legal writing courses. Although the percentage of law schools that offer certificates or specialization programs has not increased significantly since 2002, the number of specializations at each law school has grown considerably.  

Academic Support and Bar Readiness - Nearly all law schools offer academic support programs, with 70% offering a voluntary and mandatory academic support course to first-year students. And by 2010, 49% of law school respondents were offering bar preparation courses for credit, with 66% of those law schools having bar prep courses reporting that full-time faculty were involved in the course, either teaching alone or in conjunction with adjuncts.

Q: Which data gathered for the survey indicated that law schools were involved in efforts to review and revise curricula to produce "practice-ready professionals"?

A: The observation that law schools were involved in efforts to review their curricula with the goal to produce "practice-ready professionals" derives from three sets of data that was gathered for the 2010 Curriculum Survey. First, Section Seven, which was sent as a follow-up to the Survey, specifically asked law schools to report on the influences that impelled any changes. In their responses, law schools reported on their reviews and revisions to the curriculum. Second, in short answer responses contained inside the actual Survey, law school respondents wrote about the changes to their curriculum, and third, the objective data between 2002 and 2010 shows changes by law schools that attempt to emphasis professionalism and professional identity. These include new courses and course components in the first year, upper division courses on these topics, more drafting and other professional skills courses than observed in 2002, and more emphasis on legal writing in both the first-year and the upper division curricula.  

Q: What has Southwestern's role been in enacting significant changes to its curriculum and course offerings?

A: What a difference a few years makes! When A Survey of Law School Curricula: 1992-2002 was published in 2004, Southwestern's curriculum, especially its first-year curriculum, was quite dated and very traditional. The first-year line-up of courses including their units and whether they were year-long or one semester had been the same since the early 1970s. Upon the faculty's review of the 2002 Survey findings, and with the support of Dean Garth who was in his first year as dean of Southwestern, the faculty made sweeping changes to the first-year curriculum in 2005 and 2006. These included instituting a first-year elective at a time when only 10% of law schools offered this opportunity to their first-year students, "beefing up" Legal Writing to 6 units and including wide-ranging topics of professional skills and professionalism in that course, and moving Property and Torts to one semester each . And the desire to innovate the curriculum continues. Recent changes include establishing on-site legal clinics, starting the highly successful and innovative three-track LAWS program, strengthening our Academic Support and Bar readiness programs and courses with courses throughout the curriculum, and enriching our elective curriculum. At this point, on many indices, Southwestern leads in innovative curriculum.