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NU Law School to Offer 2-Year Program

June 20, 2008

By Jodi S. Cohen, Chicago Tribune

Jun. 20–In a move that could shake up legal education, Northwestern University School of Law plans to announce Friday that it will begin offering students a chance to get a law degree in two years instead of the traditional three.

Becoming the first top-tier law school–and the third in the country–to offer an accelerated program is the latest change at a school that is departing from the traditional focus on legal reasoning and case-law analysis to also teach skills such as accounting, teamwork and project management.

Law dean David Van Zandt has been considered a maverick as he reshapes the law school to more closely resemble a business school model. He encourages applicant interviews, relies on focus-group feedback from employers when rethinking the curriculum, and has praised consumer rankings as other deans have shunned them.

During Van Zandt’s 13-year tenure, Northwestern’s law school has climbed to No. 9 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Van Zandt’s decision to add a two-year program could give the school an additional competitive advantage by attracting students who want a quicker path to a law salary.

In a profession that thrives on argument, the Northwestern change is already inspiring intense debate.

University of Chicago professor and former dean Geoffrey Stone called the two-year program “irresponsible” and said it risked producing inferior lawyers who haven’t had time to develop intellectual and analytical skills.

“My sense is that compressing the educational process is likely to seriously derogate from the quality,” he said. “What is lost is likely to be much more than anything that is gained by hustling the students through more quickly.”

University of Illinois associate dean Lawrence Solum said students in a two-year program would have less time to explore career opportunities during the summer.

“Law school is already an extraordinarily intense experience and my gut instinct is that cramming it into fewer weeks and months is not likely to improve the quality of the education,” he said. “If anything, law students already are doing too much in too few hours.”

Van Zandt said he expected some criticism. “Any time you innovate, you are always going to have people who pooh-pooh it or look down their nose,” he said. “Law and legal education is tremendously conservative.”

The debate notwithstanding, other law schools are now likely to reconsider their programs. While the University of Dayton and Southwestern Law School already offer some version of a two-year degree, neither has the prestige nor trend-setting promise of Northwestern.

“Other schools are likely to follow,” said Daniel Polsby, the George Mason University law school dean and a former Northwestern faculty member for 23 years.

“What they are doing in effect is trying to recognize where they are in the market and what kind of lives they need to be preparing their student body for,” he said.

Dayton law dean Lisa Kloppenberg said her school’s program, launched in 2006, already has drawn students who otherwise would not have considered the Ohio school.

The American Bar Association, which accredits the nation’s 200 law schools, requires that students be enrolled for at least 24 months and take no more than 20 credits per semester.

The 25 to 60 students expected in Northwestern’s accelerated program will take the same number of credits as the traditional students, which typically total 240 per class. They will squeeze the credits into five semesters by starting in the summer, taking extra courses each semester and picking up one or two credits through mini-courses between semesters.

To enter the program, the students will be required to have at least two years of work experience, already the norm for the majority of Northwestern law students. Officials have not decided whether tuition, at $42,672 for the 2007-08 academic year, will be the same for students in the two-year program, Van Zandt said.

The students will be the first to test two new required courses: quantitative reasoning, including accounting, finance and statistics; and the dynamics of legal services behavior, including skills such as teamwork, leadership and project management.

Other law schools have added elective classes focused on business and other practical knowledge, with the idea that lawyers should understand better what their clients do. But by requiring such classes, Northwestern may be able to market itself as going even further in graduating business-savvy lawyers.

“For us to be successful, we have to be producing students that the rest of the world wants. Just producing people who are great at legal analysis, they are a dime a dozen out there now,” Van Zandt said. “We are trying to differentiate our students in a way that is positive.”

Terri Mascherin, a partner at Jenner & Block and second vice president of the Chicago Bar Association, said lawyers in today’s marketplace need a better understanding of how businesses function. She said graduates of the elite law schools can arrive unprepared to write a two-page memo, make a presentation, or work with others.

“We don’t intend to put out a generation of accountants or business analysts, but we do hope to put into the workplace alumni who have a better grounding in the kinds of issues that they will face from their client’s perspective,” said Mascherin, a Northwestern alumna and member of one of the focus groups that helped shape the new curriculum. “Clients don’t like lawyers who can spout legal analysis but can’t do strategic analysis.”

jscohen@tribune.com

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