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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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