Dean's Desk: A new curriculum at Valparaiso Law School

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Jay ConisonLaw schools have two natures. On the one hand, they are graduate academic programs, generally in universities. These programs are designed to impart knowledge and to teach graduates ways in which they can acquire and communicate knowledge – specifically knowledge about law. On the other hand, a law school is a path to a career. Through the educational program and other services, it develops professional skills in students and supports their entry into law or other professional practice.

Historically, law schools have emphasized their academic aspect. Thus, they have devoted most of their energies and resources to curricula that focus on knowledge acquisition by students and that are rich with courses in the many fields in which lawyers can practice. Increasingly, however, law schools have shifted their emphasis toward the career-preparation aspect. As part of this shift, law schools are devoting more resources to practice skills, career development and to services and forms of education that focus on what law school graduates do, rather than what they know. In some schools, this shift has led to very substantial changes in the curriculum.

Valparaiso is one of those schools. At Valparaiso, we have put aside small-scale tinkering with the curriculum and instead launched a complete restructuring. We started the process by asking fundamental questions about who our students are and what valuable knowledge, skills and resources we should provide them. After asking and answering these questions, we built the curriculum from ground up. We confirmed that our graduates pursue careers mainly in small- and medium-sized law firms, government and business. Confirming this enabled us to give important focus to our program. We also intensively studied how today’s students learn and what preparation they bring to law school. This allows us to adapt our pedagogy to today’s students, rather than to students at the time the professors were in law school. Finally, we worked with employers (and other experts) to identify the skills and capabilities students need to ensure they will be successful when they leave law school and pursue their careers.

The result is a very strategic curriculum with a distinctive purpose, focus and structure in each of the three years.

In the first year under the new curriculum, the focus is on developing core competencies, including problem-solving and client skills. The curriculum is presented in four seven-week sessions rather than in two fourteen week semesters to allow better staging of the program. There is tight integration of professors and instruction across each seven-week session and from one session to another. In the first year there is also an emphasis on developing problem-solving skills (through both an introductory course and a course on remedies). There is also an introduction to working with clients, a strong emphasis on writing and research, integration of practice skills with doctrinal instruction, and introduction to bar examination related skills. The new first-year curriculum will be implemented in fall 2013.

The second year will focus on core doctrinal courses, experiential education in the three areas where our students are likely to focus their practice and careers, intensive instruction in research and writing, and further instruction in bar examination related skills. The goal is for students, at the end of the second year, to be sufficiently well prepared to sit for the bar examination and provide basic legal representation – which they will be able to do in the third year.

The third year will consist of an immersion curriculum. It will provide students with enriched practice experience and focused, advanced substantive education. The goal is for the third year to facilitate a smooth transition from law school to career and practice. The third year will feature many clinical and externship offerings. It will also closely integrate the academic enterprise with the career planning enterprise, by having students develop (and begin to implement) personal career plans.

We believe that this new approach to law school education will better prepare our students for their careers and strongly support them in whatever path they choose after graduation. We also believe that it will increase the satisfaction of students and graduates. Finally, it is a collaborative product of our faculty, and as it is implemented will increase our faculty’s satisfaction with the education and mentoring they provide every day.•

Jay Conison has been dean of Valparaiso University Law School since 1998. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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  1. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.