Following in the footsteps of law schools such as Stanford and Washington and Lee, New York University Law School announced this week that it is “overhauling” its third year curriculum, with a focus on international study and practical experience. N.Y.U. is introducing a series of new programs for third-year law students based on the advice of alumni (including Cravath’s Evan Chesler). Possibilities include: study abroad options in Shanghai, Paris and Buenos Aires; internships with federal agencies; and the chance to concentrate in a specialty like intellectual property or environmental law. The school is also introducing changes to the full curriculum designed to provide students with better business and financial literacy.
According to the New York Times DealBook, the announcement is being met with cautious optimism from some frequent critics of the current legal education system. Professor Brian Tamanaha of Washington University (and author of the book Failing Law Schools) believes N.Y.U. is helping to “set the model for the rest of legal academia.” William Henderson of Indiana University is less effusive. While he describes the N.Y.U. development in positive terms, he also believes that “the greater sense of urgency lies with lower-tier schools.” Change must start somewhere, however, and perhaps a trickle-down effect will occur.
It is important to note that N.Y.U.’s new third-year programs are optional, and students may still choose a traditional course mix. For many students, the decision to participate will likely depend on whether the program will improve their employment prospects. Although only time will tell, the federal internships which are part of a semester in Washington, D.C., likely have the best chance of improving employment odds by placing students in working offices with potential employers. The subject concentrations, which N.Y.U. is calling “pathways,” also sound promising if they succeed in better preparing students for practice in competitive specialties.
One key question about the study-abroad opportunities is whether they will cause students to incur additional costs in the form of travel and temporary housing. When I was in law school, students used to joke about “tossing a few grand” more on top of their already huge piles of debt. These days, I wonder if anyone jokes about student loans with anything other than gallows humor. Unless they know a semester in Paris will make a substantive difference in their career prospects, students sensitive to their rising debt may be unwilling to take out more loans to fund such an excursion.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see N.Y.U. and other schools making efforts to bring legal education in line with the demands of the market. In particular, the initiative to improve the business and financial literacy of N.Y.U. law school graduates should be welcomed by law firms and their clients. As we discussed this time last year, increased price sensitivity has led some corporate clients to resist paying for the work of first year associates because they lack the knowledge and experience to complete work efficiently. By tweaking its curriculum, N.Y.U. is hoping to alter that perception.
Posted by Emily Fisher