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Dean's Desk: Educating, supporting those called to the law

December 3, 2014

DeansDeskLyon.jpgThe legal system plays a foundational role in a free society, and those who are called to this profession have an exciting opportunity to demonstrate their humanity while serving others.

This sense of calling is embedded in everything we do at Valparaiso University Law School. It begins with our commitment to evolve our legal system by creating opportunities for those traditionally underrepresented in the law. It’s evident in the value our community places on diverse opinions and experiences. It’s expressed in our faculty’s dedication to helping students discover their passions and achieve their highest potential. And it’s on display inside and outside the classroom, as fellow students give back to the community and help one another meet the challenge of our uniquely rigorous and progressive curriculum.

I know that my predecessor has written about our new curriculum before, but now that we are in its second year, I want to tell you what it is and how well it is working. Because the legal education market changed at both ends, the academic/social/professional aptitudes of students entering law school shifted, and the legal profession was in the midst of a period of re-engineering, the Valparaiso faculty made fundamental changes to the 1L year. These changes include seven-week sessions, more courses worth fewer credits, and completely new courses on the foundations of legal analysis and professional communications. Valparaiso students engage in live-client contact in their first semester and have a course on legal problem-solving taught by a senior member of the faculty. Guiding principles for the new curriculum are the development of professional identity and the explicit teaching and learning of key skills that the traditional 1L curriculum includes only implicitly, if at all. The second year is a more traditional-looking curriculum both in structure and course offerings. The seven-week “mini-mester” structure of the first year reverts to the regular semester-long course model.

The primary goal of the second year is to substantively prepare students for practice and the bar exam. The concept for the third year is to mimic the medical residency model. This is the year that students are to become fully practice-ready. Entirely elective (other than the graduation-required courses remaining after the second year), the new feature of the third year is the offering of what has been dubbed “practicums” – coordinated, intensive and immersive offerings.

It is in the third year that students will begin to tailor their academic choices based on practice area interest. In addition to the extensive range of elective courses offered, students will be able to enroll in a practicum.

We are now in our second year of the curriculum, and it appears to be making a significant difference for our students – and is in fact even better than we originally conceptualized.

Many law schools are responding to the seismic shifts in the legal market, both in terms of employers and students, by offering more experiential learning. This is terrific. It is our belief here at Valparaiso that we are doing more than that; we are integrating doctrinal and experiential learning and rigorous writing into everything we do.

When I say that Valparaiso students are called to the law, I do mean that there is something important going on here that is a part of the changed curriculum … but is not only that. Every member of this community believes that the practice of law is more than a job and more than even just a life’s work – it is a calling. It is our intent to foster that sense of mission with our course of study, our support for pro bono activity and that most important of intangibles: the desire to serve.•

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Andrea D. Lyon is dean and professor of law at Valparaiso University Law School. She joined the school in July 2014. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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