Making the Law School Better

By Don Smythe, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs

I’ve been inundated with warm messages since my appointment as our Vice Dean for Academic Affairs. Many colleagues, students, and alumni have congratulated me on my “promotion.” Truthfully, leaving the best job on the planet – law professor – to become an administrator doesn’t feel like a promotion. In fact, the reason I accepted the job was less to advance my career than to help tackle some of the challenges facing the law school.

Law schools are under significant new pressures. Law school applications are down, competition for students is greater, the American Bar Association has established new regulations, and the U.S. Department of Education seems to be lurking in the background waiting to pounce. In the long-run, the new pressures will probably make the legal academy better. They should improve the quality of legal education and make it more affordable for most law students. But in the short-run, they’re causing a shake-down. A few law schools have already closed, and plans to open some other law schools have been postponed. California Western is fortunate to have the resources to weather the storm in good standing, but it can’t afford to become complacent. In the face of all the pressures, we have to make California Western a better law school. We need to improve our students’ learning, bar passage rates, and employment prospects, and we need to provide our education at lower costs.

In many ways, we’re already ahead of the pack. Over the last ten years we’ve developed one of the most distinctive, practice-oriented educational programs in the country. Our JD program now unfolds in three distinct stages: the first stage emphasizes basic legal skills and legal rules and doctrines primarily in traditional law school courses; the second stage introduces students to more advanced legal skills in simulated applications of the law in the STEPPS program; and the third phase revolves around clinical internships, which engage students in the use of their skills and knowledge in real law offices. Students learn both skills and doctrines as well as how to apply them throughout law school, but the three stages in our educational program correspond quite strongly with the three years of our JD curriculum.

We’ve got a great program, but we’ve got to make it work. And to compete in this new environment, we’ve got to engage in ongoing efforts to make it work better. As it happens, accreditors are increasingly emphasizing innovations and improvements too. The ABA has recently mandated that law schools develop learning outcomes for their students and adopt measures to assess whether their students are achieving them. We are also now seeking accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). WASC emphasizes learning outcomes and institutional assessments even more strongly than the ABA.

One of the most important challenges for me this year, therefore, is to initiate an ongoing series of institutional assessments at our school. To that end, we now have an Institutional Assessment Committee. This year the Committee is undertaking three particularly important assessments.

First, we are undertaking an assessment of our 3L students’ readiness for the practice of law. To that end, we are surveying all of our Clinical Internship students as well as their supervisor attorneys to determine how well our 3L students in general have achieved the learning outcomes we had hoped for when they began law school. Those assessments are going to help us determine how well our JD program is serving our students overall. They are centrally important to our efforts to make the law school better, since they will help us focus our energies and resources on those parts of our curriculum that the surveys reveal to have weaknesses.

Those assessments will be complemented by two other assessments. One of these will focus on assessing the development of our 1L students’ legal writing skills. Another will focus on assessing whether our 1L students are learning the legal rules and doctrines they will need to know to pass the bar exam and begin their careers.

All of these assessments will help to make the law school better. And they are all necessary to ensure that the law school remains ABA accredited and earns WASC accreditation, so every member of the law school community has an important stake in their success.

If you receive any requests from me to complete surveys or to provide any other information over the next several months, please respond. If you have any doubts about the source or the legitimacy of the requests, please email me directly. Our assessments are important to our future. Please do everything you can to help.

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