Minow on law school curricular reforms

by on April 25, 2010  •  In Uncategorized

From a Harvard Law Record article on Dean Martha Minow's "state of the school" speech earlier this month:

…Until HLS’ curricular reform effort was launched in 2003, Minow said, refinements to Langdell’s curriculum followed shifting temporal interests and did not fundamentally alter its character. The focus on private law classes taught using the case method remained paramount. But at the turn of the millennium, debates over the effects of globalization, the growing clout of interdisciplinary research, and an increasing focus on alternative dispute resolution techniques begged inclusion in an ossifying law school curriculum.

These debates ultimately helped launch the Harvard effort at curricular reform… The review process … took the novel step of looking at approaches used by other professional schools – and discovered that law school curricula were relatively static by comparison to disciplines like medicine, which had introduced much more hands on learning techniques.

In 2005, the effort paid off: the new curriculum was approved. It not only added new classes to the largely unchanged core curriculum developed for first year students by Langdell – a change considered so revolutionary at the time that, according to Minow, “people said they would leave the school,” acting as if “God created the contracts class as it is” – but allowed students, for the first time, to take different course options in their first year. But because of contention that students required guidance, the school developed an alternative to an undergraduate major system – sequences of recommended classes known as programs of study.

Substantively, the new curriculum included not only the popular new class in legislation and regulation, but an elective in international law – one which had the desired effect, according to Minow, of unsettling students’ assumptions about law. The problem solving course designed for 1Ls’ January term was finally introduced early this year as the final piece of the reform, and has drawn the most attention from practicing lawyers.

Minow’s suggestions for the school’s pedagogical future echo emerging global trends. The financial crisis, she observed, accentuated the importance of establishing the notion that lawyers were independent actors with their own set of professional standards that operate independent of their interest in representing clients, as well as a need to develop long term analytical thinking about institutional design. Other trends, including new psychological evidence about how older students learn, the influence of new technology, and questions about financing education and driving down the high cost of tuition should also be taken into account.

The experiences of other schools should continue to be taken into account, Minow said, noting the recently founded University of California, Irvine law school’s central focus on problem solving as one example. Harvard Business School could serve as a model for educational financing; it does not depend on tuition as its primary source of income, she said, but on executive education and publishing. And the tension between public and private purposes that persisted throughout the law school’s history might be addressed by moving decisively to plug the gap in public interest law work by using student clinical talent in a way similar to journalism schools’ deployment of students to cover local issues.

“How can law school feel more like a lab?” Minow asked, pushing further the possibilities of comparative methodology.

She returned to the notion that major transformations made continuing reform of the law school curriculum not just a possibility, but a necessity. Worldwide shifts resulting from the growth in biotechnology, the revolution in information technology, increasing global economic ties, and the downsides of these trends, including resource scarcity, climate change, mass population growth, and human migration, she said, generated fundamental questions, begging answers regarding “common institutions and values that can help [people] deal with [those] of different traditions”.

This was an “inflection point in world history,” she concluded. “More than any time in recent memory, lawyers need to lead in creating solutions to problems."


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