Chemerinsky and Menkel-Meadow on curricular reform

April 15

In the New York Times, Erwin Chemerinsky and Carrie Menkel-Meadow offer a very sunny perspective on the current state of legal education. At the end, they argue that what law schools really need these days is curricular innovation:

Law school faculties, in their teaching and their scholarship, must deal with the emerging problems of the 21st century. Law schools need to develop new courses to provide students with the expertise to deal with the crucial problems of our time in fields like banking law, national security, conflict resolution, food safety, Internet law and migration policy. There should be “problem-based” seminars in fields such as public health, homelessness, environmental habitat regulation and world peace.

I don’t find these suggestions very useful. First, don’t most schools already have these “new” courses? I’m most familiar with the curriculum where I teach, but we already have one or several courses in each of those named fields.

Second, I don’t see how the listed “problem-based” seminars are supposed to help. What legal issues do students study in their Word Peace class, and how does expertise in World Peace help students get jobs? Presumably students aren’t expected to practice World Peace law. And I assume no one expects that two-credit seminars will actually create world peace.

Third, if the problem with law schools is that students need these courses but don’t take them now, then the answer is to mandate these courses rather than simply offer them. At most schools, almost everything after the first year is an elective. Merely adding new electives that most students won’t take is at best a symbolic answer to the alleged problem.

Finally, even if some students would benefit from taking these courses in their third year, that doesn’t answer whether all students should have to take them. Chemerinsky and Menkel-Meadow offer these suggestions in part to make the case for a third year of law school. But a lot of students are looking to practice in areas that don’t deal with the crucial issues of our time and don’t aim to solve global social problems. If those students would prefer not to pay another $50k in tuition to take those classes, why should the law schools mandate a third year of school just to give students an opportunity they don’t want?

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law. Kerr is a former law clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy at the U.S. Supreme Court. From 1998 to 2001, he was a Trial Attorney in the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2013, Chief Justice Roberts appointed Kerr to a 3-year term on the Advisory Committee for the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. You can follow him on Twitter @orinkerr.
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Orin Kerr | April 15