Tuesday, July 1, 2008
UPDATE: Comments are now actually open, sorry about that!
Northwestern University Law School is now the first of the top law schools to offer a so-called "two-year" JD--it's 24 months, but it's 2 1/2 semesters, including one summer, of coursework, with a slightly higher course load each term than the norm. The WSJ Law blog has a short article here, while InsideHigherEd reports on the program here. The anonymous folks at Above the Law don't seem impressed, but they are, admittedly, an odd lot (with a few too many spillovers from the Autoadmit cesspool). Bill Henderson (Indiana) has a rather generous appraisal of the proposal here, making the best case for its merits. (Professor Henderson notes the increase in Northwestern's median LSAT over the last dozen years or so, though omits one explanation I have heard most often from former Northwestern faculty: namely, the use of "merit aid" money not for the top students in the applicant pool, but those with a marginally better LSAT than whatever the existing median LSAT had been. Professor Henderson is no doubt correct to emphasize other factors as well, but I was surprised by the omission of this likely influence.)
Some readers will recall that five years ago, I remarked on the dramatic faculty exodus from Northwestern during the initial period of Dean Van Zandt's tenure; as I noted more recently, that seems to have ended, and the faculty has stabilized around a distinct institutional identity (broadly, law and empirical social science, as well as a quite conservative public law group, with some notable exceptions [e.g., Andrew Koppelman]). But the other part of the institutional identity promoted by Van Zandt has been emulation of the Business School model of education (e.g., teamwork learning experiences, interviews prior to admission, work experience prior to law school strongly preferred, and so on), which the new so-called "two year" program further embeds.
One aspect of this plan which others have not remarked on may deserve some notice. For one thing this move does is to differentiate even more firmly Northwestern from its downtown rival the University of Chicago. We have seen such a local battle before, in the Columbia/NYU rivalry that unfolded over the last thirty years. Until the early 1990s, Columbia clearly dominated NYU in almost every respect: numerical credentials of students, their placement success at all levels (elite firms, clerkships, academia, etc.), faculty hiring and retention, academic reputation, and so on. Over the last fifteen years that has changed, but it has changed because NYU chose to compete, successfully, with Columbia on the same turf, not because NYU was an innovator in legal education. NYU "out-bid," in one way or another, Columbia for faculty, even recruiting faculty from Columbia in increasing numbers in recent years. NYU recruited students with comparable numerical credentials, and has seen a steady increase in their professional success to the point that on many fronts, especially academia, NYU grads are doing about as well as the alumni of their uptown rival.
University of Chicago has been in a similarly dominant situation vis-a-vis Northwestern for at least the last fifty years (there was a time mid-20th-century when Northwestern--the Northwestern of John Wigmore and Leon Green, among others--was actually the dominant player). The rise of law-and-economics in the 1970s--spearheaded by Chicago faculty--solidifed that hierarchy, and Chicago's famously intense intellectual culture and its dominance in national placement in clerkships, academia, and elite law firms have all enhanced and confirmed that position. (Chicago's distance from the Rush Street bars may also be playing an important role in student self-selection!)
Northwestern, unlike NYU, has not chosen to compete head-to-head with its local competitor: the numerical credentials of its students still trail Chicago's, it has won no head-to-head faculty hiring battles, and the only Chicago faculty it has hired have been those retiring from the Chicago faculty. By pursuing a very different model of legal education, however, perhaps Northwestern has adopted the better strategy? For both prospective students and faculty, the choice between Chicago and Northwestern may seem increasingly stark. As Professor Henderson sums up the Northwestern plan:
NWU Law is going to attract applications from all the experienced, motivated students who want their elite JD degrees in two years versus three. Then it is going to give them, through mandatory coursework, business training that will bridge the traditional gap between lawyers and their MBA clientèle. Sorting plus training. Why would an employer prefer a 25 year-old fresh out of another elite law school?
Well, maybe because of smarts and analytical rigor? Assuming Northwestern can deliver on the kind of "training" described, there's still the question of intellectual caliber, which, at least at the most elite levels of the profession, goes a long way. And this may be the riskiest aspect of the Northwestern plan: that the emphasis on the Business School model, on more mandatory B-School style coursework, on work experience, and so on, is going to scare off the more intellectually inclined students that make a law school an attractive place for faculty. One of the senior professors (a leading scholar in his fields) who left Northwestern a few years back made a telling comment to me at the time: "I feel like Northwestern is no longer the place that would admit nerds like me." A law school that increasingly bills itself as a business school may be less likely to attract those going to law school not only for professional training but for an intellectual and academic experience. In any case, that seems to me the biggest question mark about what is otherwise a distinctive and perhaps prescient initiative.
Thoughts from readers? No anonymous comments will be approved.