Curriculum Matters: My Talk With A Law School Dean

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I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Catherine Carpenter, Vice Dean and Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School. One of the foremost authorities in the country on law school curricula and accreditation, she has served in several leadership posts within the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association (ABA), including her current seat on the Standards Review Committee. Her service in legal education leadership earned her recognition in 2013 and 2014 from National Jurist as among the “The Top 25 Influential People in Legal Education.” A graduate of UCLA (B.A., cum laude, English) and Southwestern (J.D., cum laude), she joined the Southwestern faculty in 1980 and teaches courses in criminal law.

Our wide-ranging conversation at her cozy office in the beautiful, Art Deco Bullocks Wilshire Building touched on everything from the shifting legal landscape to how to choose a law school. Today, in Part One of our interview, she talks about the importance of law school curriculum.

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Most Strongly Supported: You’re something of an authority on law school curricula, and law schools in general, thanks in part to your work on a couple of ABA studies, correct?

Catherine Carpenter: Yes, I chaired two empirical examinations of curricula across ABA law schools. We covered all aspects of the curriculum: first year curriculum, required courses, upper division electives, clinics, externships. We asked some pretty detailed questions, and got a pretty good response rate in terms of figuring out what the trends were. And so the books we produced actually have almost 20 years of curricular trends: 1992-2002, and then 2002-2010. It’s very exciting to fly at 30,000 feet, and look down and compare what law schools used to do to what they’re doing now.

MSS: So what are the primary changes that you’ve seen?

CC: Let’s start with the very basic: today curriculum matters. I think that’s both my opening line and my bottom line, which is interesting because it really didn’t matter until probably the 2000’s. We have information from 1975 through 1990, when almost every law school looked exactly the same. The same courses were offered, with the same kind of unit structure. Slowly what we started to see happening, intensified by the recent changes in the legal economy, were more curricular opportunities and changes. And the primary reason, I think, is because law schools are starting to understand that employers do not want to invest costly sums or long durations into training graduates. They want their graduates to come to them with practiced skills. They want their graduates to come to them with a sense of professionalism.

The first curricular change and probably the most noticeable, is the increase in practical skills: more trial advocacy, drafting courses, interviewing, counseling & negotiating. In the old days, a law school offered one practical course, Trial Advocacy. Now, law schools average ten course titles – not sections, but ten different courses. At Southwestern, we offer more than forty. So that just shows the huge change in mindset. Law schools are offering all kinds of courses, from advanced trial advocacy to many different kinds of drafting courses and counseling courses.

We’ve also seen lots more clinical opportunities. About 85% of law schools offer a clinical opportunity. So law students are able to work with real clients, as opposed to a simulation class of hypotheticals. Around the country we’re seeing landlord-tenant clinics, we’re seeing immigration clinics, plus kids who go out to prosecution clinics and defense clinics. That’s been a wonderful increase.

MSS: Have you seen it make a difference in the experiences alumni have once they leave school?

CC: Well, we are seeing employers hungry for students with experience, whether that experience was clerking, or volunteering, or working in a clinic, or an externship – in undergrad it’s called an internship. What our own students report is that they’re learning skills. And then when we hear from our alums, they say that those skills-based courses have really helped them.
So when I say that curriculum matters, when a college student is thinking about where to go to school they should really take a peek at that part of the curriculum. What kinds of courses are offered on the level of practical skills?

MSS: What do you think specifically they should be looking for?

CC: I think they should be looking for three kinds of opportunities: a rich set of simulation courses, a rich set of clinical opportunities, and diverse externships. Even if it’s not in-house, the ability to go work for the D.A.’s office or a US Attorney’s office, to work for a judge on a state or federal bench, is very important. Almost every school offers these, but look at the scale, too. At Southwestern, we have almost 400 slots per year.

Another thing to look at is how much emphasis is placed on legal writing. Everyone thinks about the courses we call doctrinal courses or elective opportunities, but it’s worthwhile for a student to think about how much time is devoted to legal writing, which is probably the most important skill – next to talking – that a student’s going to need. The average around the country is 4 units of legal writing, maybe 2 each semester. But a number of schools, Southwestern included, offer 5 or 6 units of legal writing.

MSS: You mentioned skills-based learning, and specifically writing as an important skill that young lawyers need. What are some of the other concrete skills that students should look to develop, both as they go into law school and during law school, as they prepare for their legal career?

CC: Great question. Writing is a skill in itself, but it’s also a part of many other skills. Problem solving. The ability to analyze in a coherent logical fashion. The ability to collaborate, which can develop in a legal writing course, when you’re paired to talk about ideas or concepts. The notion of researching a problem in-depth; not just that quick Wikipedia look that we’re used to, but really taking an issue and plumbing it to its depths.

So when one is choosing courses in undergrad, whether it’s a liberal arts or a science education, what kinds of courses are you taking to help develop these skills?

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We’ll return next week with Part Two, in which Dean Carpenter focuses on the factors a prelaw student should weigh when choosing a law school.

About Southwestern Law School
With a rich history of producing trailblazers in the judiciary and civic leadership since 1911, Southwestern is the second oldest ABA law school in Los Angeles. Full-time and part-time 2-, 3- and 4-year JD programs are offered, as well as 3- and 4-year concurrent JD/MBA programs in partnership with The Drucker Graduate School of Management (Claremont). Located in the center of LA, the campus includes the world-renowned Art Deco Bullocks Wilshire landmark, and the school has many successful alumni and close ties in the entertainment industry, public interest agencies, government and the private sector.

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