ABA Journal

The New Normal

Adding value, managing costs, and participating in the conversation–a dean’s view

By Martin J. Katz

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Dean Martin J. Katz

A key part of my job as dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law is to improve value for our students. That means both improving the educational experience and making law school more affordable.

At Denver Law, we are addressing affordability by, among other things, increasing the amount of money we award in scholarships. We also recognize that one of the best ways we can save students money (and time, which is money) is to compress degree programs. Like many schools, we offer dual-degree programs that allow students to get multiple graduate degrees, such as a JD and an MBA, in a reduced time frame and for less money. But one of the strongest criticisms of legal education has been not just the length of the JD program itself (which has come under scrutiny), but the combined length of the undergraduate and JD program. Accordingly, we soon expect to offer a compressed, 6-year undergraduate and law degree, saving students a full year of tuition and time.

We are also working to “unbundle” the legal education we offer. Most law schools offer only (or primarily) a single, bundled product: the JD. The cost and time involved in getting a JD makes sense for many people. But others can benefit from legal training even if a JD might not make sense for them. For example, a human resources professional might take a course or series of courses in employment law. We plan to offer courses and certificates that will help professionals receive legal training to advance their careers without requiring the time or expense of a full-blown law degree.

We are addressing value by, among other things, building a curriculum that will allow any student who chooses to spend a full year of their legal education doing nothing but experiential learning—a combination of clinical experiences, field placements and rich course simulations that are often co-taught by expert practitioners. One of the strongest criticisms of Old Normal law schools is that they do not sufficiently prepare students for the practice of law, leaving that task to on-the-job training after graduation (which is harder for students to find in the New Normal). Students who participate in our experiential year option will have the equivalent of a full year of on-the-job training by the time they graduate.

Our approach to addressing cost and value is informed—as it must be in the New Normal—by participation in the ongoing dialogue about the future of legal education. Most of our initiatives were the product of feedback we received from clients, practitioners and judges on the ways in which legal education needs to adapt. We have joined and helped build a network of law schools called Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers that facilitates nationwide discussion and shared ideas among professors and schools dedicated to expanding experiential education to create more practice-ready lawyers. We regularly seek and receive feedback from our students, who tell us that they find value in our curriculum (and vote with their feet, creating strong demand for our experiential learning and specialization opportunities). And we regularly seek feedback from those who employ our students, who increasingly tell us how impressed they are by students who have had this kind of experience. Our success comes from our students’ success.

Because I am passionate about the changes we’re making, and because I believe the Denver legal market is uniquely attractive to potential students, I put together an analysis of students’ investment in law school that will hopefully let potential students dig a little deeper as they think about cost and value. I suggested that they look at a potential investment in law school by comparing that career path to other potential career paths, both in terms of relative employment rates and earnings. For example, I urged them to evaluate the economic return on an investment in law school—including the debt they might take on—by comparing projected earnings with a law degree to projected earnings with only an undergraduate degree over the course of their careers. I also urged prospective students to look at local employment markets rather than only looking at the national market, since so much of legal hiring is local. Law school may not be as good a deal as it once was, and it is not right for everyone, but it still makes good economic sense for many students. I hope this analysis helps prospective law students ask good questions about the investment they are considering.

There is now an impassioned debate about changes law schools should make, which is both enriched and occasionally inflamed by being online. The online debate lets us put ideas out there and lets people provide feedback on them immediately. Usually, this makes our ideas better. We certainly need all the good ideas we can get for improving legal education.

A great example of this process is going on now here with the New Normal discussion. Recently, Paul Lippe mentioned that he is going to be addressing a meeting of law deans in Arizona. In preparation, he asked you, his readers, for your thoughts. I understand from Paul that you had some excellent ideas that he will be sharing with us. He also noted that more than 90 percent of you think the current law school model is unsustainable, which is an important message to deans.

At Denver Law, we’re committed to making the changes necessary to improve value and create a sustainable model for producing the next generation of lawyers. Part of that process is engaging in the modern, multi-threaded conversation that helps us learn and refine our ideas. I look forward to continuing the conversation, and more importantly, building on our innovations to make Denver Law a great value for all students and a leader in the New Normal world of legal education.

Martin J. Katz is the dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and specializes in anti-discrimination law within both constitutional law and employment law. Before teaching full time, Katz was a partner in the employment law group at Davis, Graham & Stubbs and a law clerk to David M. Ebel on the U.S. Court of Appeals. In his spare time, he flies search-and-rescue missions for the Civil Air Patrol.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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