Joint Conference on the Future of the Law School Curriculum

Document Type


Publication Date


Conference / Event Title

Association of American Law Schools (AALS) 2011 Conference on Clinical Legal Education

Conference / Event Location

Seattle, WA


Every so often, there is a conference that leaves its mark on legal education for years to come. What sets these conferences apart is that they address a critical topic at a critical time. We are at a pivotal moment in the history of legal education. Forces from outside and inside the academy have generated a powerful impetus for legal educators to reconsider the law school curriculum. Outside the academy, changes in the legal profession driven by the economy, technology, and the law, are unsettling long-held views about the types of intellectual tools and skills our graduates require. We can no longer comfortably assume that students will receive apprenticeships in practice or that their professional endeavors will be confined to a single legal system and culture. Moreover, reformist initiatives fashioned outside the academy, such as the Carnegie Report, are calling on law schools to improve the way they prepare students for professional roles, offering their own distinctive vision of the law school curriculum and pedagogy. Simultaneously, new developments within the academy are generating momentum for curricular change as well. These developments include advances in learning theory, growth of experiential learning opportunities, new understandings of how the law operates, cost considerations associated with increased tuition, and a proliferation of faculty with advanced degrees in other fields relating to law. Among the ranks of both established law schools and recently-founded institutions can be found instances of significant innovation in response to these forces.

As legal educators, our responsibility is to assess the need for change in light of core values of legal education, and to fashion a worthy law school curriculum. This Conference will provide attendees with knowledge and ideas that can inform curricular initiatives at their own schools. Day One will focus on challenges confronting legal education from without and within, drawing on social scientists and leaders in the legal profession as well as knowledgeable law faculty and university administrators. Days Two and Three, held jointly with the Clinical Conference, will concentrate first on core values, and then on particular responses to the forces pressing for curricular change, such as greater incorporation of experiential and multi-disciplinary learning and a more “globalized” curriculum. Surveys of law school practices as well as exemplary law school programs and experiences will be included in these sessions. Challenges of achieving institutional change given the dynamics of law school governance and decision-making will also be addressed, both by experts in organizational behavior and thoughtful veterans of the process.

Throughout the three days, a mix of presentations and small group discussions will be livened by the ongoing role-play of a law school curriculum committee, which will be consulting regularly with its “faculty,” consisting of the Conference participants. This “faux” curriculum committee will be assessing the ideas put forward at the Conference, modeling faculty decision-making processes, and ultimately presenting a curriculum proposal for the attendees to consider in an interactive process. Participants will leave the Conference with concrete ideas and strategies for action at their own institutions.


We are at a pivotal moment in the history of legal education. Forces outside and within the academy are creating a powerful impetus for legal educators to reconsider the law school curriculum. Clinical educators have a critical role to play in this process. As AALS President Reese Hansen said in his letter to the ABA Standards Review Committee dated June 1, 2010, clinical courses are the culminations of the substantive courses in the curriculum, reinforcing and extending the learning in substantive courses. Through clinical courses, Hansen said, “students typically develop problem-solving skills, learn to exercise critical judgment, and enhance analytical thinking as they bring substantive law to bear on practice experience. They represent some of the kinds of integrative education that are highly praised in the Carnegie Report.” As clinical legal educators, we owe it to our students, our law schools, our non-clinical colleagues, and ourselves to review and reconsider what we do in clinical teaching, what we can teach our non-clinical colleagues, and what they can teach us, all with a view to improving the law school curriculum.

The conference this year will take place over four days in mid-June. We will spend the first two days of the conference (June 13 and 14) with non-clinical faculty and deans in a joint curriculum and clinical conference designed to give us an opportunity to interact and exchange ideas about the law school curriculum on a macro level. During this phase of the conference we will use plenary sessions and facilitated small groups to examine five topics: what are the core values of a 21st century legal education; how can we understand and teach about practicing law across borders and cultures; how can we use experiential learning to enrich the curriculum; how can we prepare students to be ready for the profession; and how can we achieve institutional change. The sessions will be designed to explore both competencies (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving, professional judgment) and methods for achieving them (e.g., opportunities for students to merge doctrine, skills, and professional identity, to deal with situations in which client problems, facts, legal rules, and ethical principles are fluid and ill-defined, and to see how law and theory function in practice). An overall goal of this part of the conference is to identify and explore how to achieve the curricular changes that will promote learning for transfer – learning that will maximize students’ ability to function as effective and ethical professionals in unfamiliar settings and under circumstances that we cannot now predict.

Throughout these first days of the conference, the plenary presentations and small group discussions will take place against the backdrop of an ongoing role-play of a law school curriculum committee. This committee will be consulting regularly with its faculty (i.e., the conference participants), and will be discussing and assessing the ideas put forward at the conference, modeling faculty decision-making processes, and ultimately presenting a curriculum proposal for the attendees to consider. All presentations and small group discussions, including the meetings and presentations of the “curriculum committee,” will include a mix of clinical and non-clinical perspectives.

We will spend the next two days of the conference (June 15 and 16) on our own as clinical faculty, reflecting on what we learned during the first two days, and drilling down into one of the core components of clinical legal education: problem solving. Through plenary sessions, concurrent sessions, and small group meetings, we will examine four areas of problem-solving: (1) understanding the content and context of legal problems; (2) diagnosing or defining legal problems; (3) making decisions in the context of developing client-centered solutions; and finally, (4) integrating what students have learned in law school and transferring that learning into practice. On June 17, there will be a Clinic Directors’ Workshop addressing three main topics: (1) the status of proposed changes to the ABA accreditation standards with respect to security of position, and strategies for responding effectively to the proposed changes; (2) the recommendation made by the AALS Section on Clinical Legal Education’s Task Force on the Status of Clinicians and the Legal Academy for a unitary tenure track that includes clinical faculty, in light of the proposed changes to the accreditation standards, and (3) effective strategies for enabling junior and senior clinical faculty to engage in scholarship, share their work, and receive helpful critique from both clinic and non-clinic colleagues.