This is my last report about the Harvard Law School/New York Law School Future of Education Conference. If you read the previous installments, you’ll note that assembled law school deans, professors, and other educators spent a lot of time talking about the past. Towards the end of the day however, the conference turned forward looking with a panel about “Possible Alternative Models” to legal education.

The future, it seems, is in a holding pattern until law school professors can figure out how to get tenure under alternative models of legal education.

The “New Models” Panel featured deans and other educators from schools that are taking some non-standard approaches to legal education. The panelists were:

Lisa Kloppenberg — Dean of Dayton School of Law.
Barry Currier — Dean of Concord Law School
Robert Danforth — Associate Dean at Washington & Lee University School of Law
Emily Spieler — Dean of Northeastern Law.
James Faulconbridge — Lecturer at Lancaster University

That’s a big panel. And the represented schools were all doing different things, on the surface. But at the core … well, here are my top line notes from each speaker’s opening presentation:

*Kloppenberg is talking about Dayton’s accelerated J.D. program. I’d be more interested if it was cheaper than the regular program, but it’s not.

* Currier’s Concord Law specializes in “distance learning.” Wait … he’s basically talking about an online law school! … OMG IT COSTS THE SAME as real law schools. [In the comments to this post, Currier explained that Concord costs $10,000/year for a 4 year part time program. So it actually does cost less than many ABA accredited schools. Whew.]. Must make Concord jokes when referencing New Hampshire [Later I learned that Concord Law School is based in California/Everywhere.]

* W&L, “experiential” 3L curriculum. Cost = Same.

* Ask [Spieler] how she can sleep at night charging people that much to go to Northeastern? … No, don’t be the HLS dick in the room. She looks tough/might cut me.

* British guy points out the English system is CHEAPER than many U.S. law schools. All-in [undergraduate degree and law degree] you can do it for just over 20,000 pounds. Audible murmur in the room. Dismissal of cost effective education has already begun.

Did you notice the pattern? The educators had great things to say about their programs, but not one of them were focused on the cost to students. It’s like there was this big blind spot when it came to charging anything less than full price to students that are struggling to turn these new educational models into marketable skills.

Struggling is my euphemism. The deans on the panels had a different one. They noted that one issue with their new approaches was “market acceptability.” Yeah, that was their code for “we’re not at all sure that anyone will actually hire graduates trained in this manner.” Only Dean Kloppenberg had hard employment stats to back up her school’s new course offerings — but of course Dayton isn’t really doing anything new. The school is just letting people bust their ass over the summer to graduate earlier and stop paying the opportunity cost of legal education as soon as possible.

When the panel opened up for questions, I thought the audience would slam the panel for their incremental changes and full price demands. I totally misread the room on that one. There was only one thing an audience of professors cared about when assessing new educational models.

Tenure.

Can you get tenure doing this? Will you be up for tenure more quickly doing that? Will tenure requirements be softened for professors that teach over the summer? How do I get tenure?

Have you ever seen a pack of hyenas wrench a meal from a leopard? That’s what the Q&A reminded me of. The panel was trying to keep the focus on educational opportunities for students, but the audience just wouldn’t let them stay on point. Instead, we got waves and waves of tenure questions.

In response to all these questions, the panel held their ground. The tenure process remains unchanged at most of the schools represented on the panel. The Washington & Lee guy looked honestly ashamed to admit that. But none of the schools were considering moving away from the publishing focus that is the life of all tenure-track professors.

Except for Concord — which doesn’t have “traditional” tenure track professors (“no s***,” was my note for Concord’s revelation).

And after learning that academic scholarship was still going to trump educating students when it came time for tenure consideration, the audience kind of physically sank back in their chairs. I almost felt bad for them. It was clear that many of these educators want to come up with a new approach that better prepares their students to become marketable members of the profession. But it is unreasonable to expect these people to risk their careers by going outside the norm. Not when the big prize of tenure is going to be determined based their academic success instead of their teaching prowess.

These people want a new model, but you can’t build one under the old system of career advancement.

If you are heading off to one of these “alternative” law schools this fall, know this: the incentives for your professors haven’t changed, and the cost won’t be coming down any time soon.

Earlier: Just How Crappy Is Legal Education Today?
Corporate General Counsel Puts Fear of God into Legal Educators (And You Should Be Worried Too)


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