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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Chronicle: "Customizable" J.D. Degrees

Three Chronicle of Higher Education articles by Peter Schmidt on "customizable" law school degrees, with excerpts below the fold:

Law Schools Customize Degrees to Students' Taste:

Going to law school to get a law degree has become a little like going to an ice-cream parlor for a scoop of vanilla. Plenty of people still do it, but many schools' brochures — like the elaborate flavor-and-topping menus on ice-cream parlor walls — now tempt them with something different, something more.

Law students can have their juris doctor credential flavored with a concentration in a specialty like environmental or intellectual-property law. Or they can go for a double, mixing their J.D. with a master's degree in some other field like business administration, clinical psychology, or the geosciences. If they wish, they can top their selection off with a master of laws (LL.M.) degree, signifying expertise in some subfield like alternative dispute resolution.

The curriculum at law schools has undergone a major transformation in recent years, as many have set up niche programs to attract students. A few critics, however, are beginning to speak out against the trend, arguing that it is driven largely by marketing considerations and hurts legal education.

Specialization "has become almost the norm," says Edward L. Rubin, dean of Vanderbilt University Law School and a former chairman of the Association of American Law Schools' curriculum committee. He says he welcomes the trend out of a belief that it helps provide law students "with a more intense educational experience" than they might get through a traditional legal education. It is also a way to train students for the real world, where law firms increasingly focus on distinct practice areas.

But in an article published this summer in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review [Majors” in Law? A Dissenting View, 43 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 625 (2008)], Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston, argued that specialized J.D. programs "are generally poorly organized and shallow." And Brian R. Leiter, a professor of law at the University of Chicago who edits a widely read blog on legal education, Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, regards much specialization as "faddish" and "not necessarily based on careful research about the actual needs of the job market or careful examination of the academic merits of the programs."

A sampling of law school specialties:

  • Connecticut:  Seven joint-degree programs, including a J.D./M.A. in public-policy studies in conjunction with Trinity College, and a J.D./master of library science in conjunction with the library-sciences department at Southern Connecticut State University. Connecticut also offers a master's of laws in insurance law and four J.D. concentrations, leading to certificates in intellectual property, tax studies, law and public policy, and human rights.
  • Dayton:  The "Lawyer as Problem Solver" curriculum requires students to choose one of three tracks: advocacy and dispute resolution, personal and transactional law, or intellectual property, cyberlaw and creativity. Students must complete four or five track courses, including a track-specific course in dispute resolution, in addition to general course work.
  • Stanford:  Twenty-five joint-degree programs, most of which began as part of a major curriculum overhaul announced in 2006. J.D./Ph.D. programs offer doctorates in fields such as economics, philosophy, and psychology. The school also offers four-year joint J.D./master's degrees in business administration, public policy, and international policy, and three-year joint J.D./master's degrees in conjunction with one-year master's programs in fields such as education, engineering, and various area-studies programs.
  • William Mitchell:  Students are invited to chart their own course through the curriculum after completing a requirement-loaded first year. Most of the possible pathways are quite general — one is simply labelled "bar preparation." But students have the option of venturing down much more specialized roads by, for example, taking courses offering them expertise in intellectual property or tax law.

Boldly Go Where No Law Student Has Gone Before:

In an effort to draw students from around the world, the University of Nebraska College of Law has decided to reach, literally, for the stars. In what it bills as the world's only master-of-laws program in space and telecommunications law, the college offers a credential that, it says, can launch people into careers dealing with legal issues associated with commercial space travel, satellite placement, and the transmission of information into our homes.

New Niches Mean More Power for Vanderbilt's Law Faculty:

At Vanderbilt University Law School, an effort to offer students an array of distinct academic programs has led not just to curriculum changes, but also to a transformation in how the school is governed.

As part of a reorganization begun in 2005, the law school has established distinct faculty groups to oversee each of its eight academic concentrations: in litigation and dispute resolution, constitutional law and theory, environmental law, international legal studies, law and human behavior, regulatory law, social justice, and technology and entertainment law.

The school has given each faculty group a substantial amount of control over the budget for its academic program, its course offerings, and the hiring of adjunct faculty members to teach the courses its program offers. To ensure that faculty members have time for such activities, the school has abolished several standing faculty committees that had handled administrative functions — including admissions, student relations, and the renovation of the physical plant — and transferred responsibility for such matters to its administrative staff.

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