The blogosphere is abuzz with the announcement of NWU's 2-Year JD (Paul Caron collects relevant links here; the W$J Law Blog also has a post; and Gordon Smith (BYU Law, Conglomerate) just endorsed the move). There is a lot of reaction to the program, especially in the comments at Above the Law, but not much analysis. So I thought I would fill the void. Moreover, this bold movement by NWU Law illustrates the power of empirical methods for institution building, so it falls nicely within the scope of the ELS Blog.
Is the 2-Year JD a good idea?
It is easy for me (or anyone) to snap off an opinion on this topic, but the question itself is incomplete. The relevant question is whether the 2-Year JD makes NWU Law better off as an institution, particularly through gains in its relevant labor markets--i.e. recruitment and placement. What is the likelihood that the school is making a foolish, ill-informed decision? As a long time observer of law school market trends, I would discourage readers from underestimating NWU Law.
Consider this background information. A few years ago, Andy Morriss and I wrote an empirical study on the market for high LSAT students. See Student Quality as Measured by LSAT Scores, 81 Ind. L. J. 163 (2006). Our primary dependent variable was change in median LSAT score between 1993 and 2004. We were looking for factors that influenced this key US News rankings variable. During this twelve year period, Northwestern Law had the largest gain of any school in the sample (164 to 169).
Based on other information we had regarding Northwestern, this gain seemed like a paradox. During this same period, NWU Law implemented a policy that strongly encourages interviews and gave extra weight for work experience. Aggressively pursuing these goals seemed like it would undercut the objective of higher LSAT scores. So how did Northwestern get a larger gain than 190 other schools? We asked this question to several people at NWU Law.
It turns out that human nature was working in its favor. Although the interview process is ostensibly about learning more about the students, the applicants themselves can learn quite a bit about NWU Law--e.g., its business curriculum, placement record, alumni network--which can (and probably did) alter preferences in favor of the school. Further, because some of the interviews were in person, prospective students got tours of NWU facilities, which are on Lake Michigan, very modern, and in a swanky, attractive location in downtown Chicago. So the school's yield among business-minded law school applicants with work experience started to go up. This self-selection process then gained more momentum and fundamentally changed the profile of the student body, including higher LSAT scores.
During this time period, all other law schools--most moving to a "pure numbers" approach--had smaller gains (or losses) on LSAT scores. Moreover, Northwestern was simultaneously developing a truly distinctive profile that could be showcased to employers. Folks, this is true Moneyball/Moneylaw.
More after the jump.
Conventional Wisdom versus Market Forces
To understand the difference between conventional wisdom and market forces, a good place to start is the observation of Geoffrey Stone, professor and former dean at crosstown rival Chicago Law. In a story in the Chicago Tribune, Stone called the 2-year JD "irresponsible" because it risked producing inferior lawyers who haven't had time to develop intellectual and analytical skills. Stone continued, "My sense is that compressing the educational process is likely to seriously derogate from the quality. ... What is lost is likely to be much more than anything that is gained by hustling the students through more quickly."
There are a lot of problems with Stone's assessment. Foremost, in terms of "quality", how are we going to measure what is "lost" against what is "gained"? As a liberal Democrat, it always strikes me as odd when I am the one who broaches this issue: What about relying on the market to answer this question? Specifically, how will students and employers react--i.e., the people investing their own time and money? And if we want an accurate answer to this question, taking a poll in the faculty lounge is the wrong approach.
Here is a fact that is sure to be overlooked in the blogosphere: The NWU 2-year program was carefully vetted by focus groups populated by decisions makers at major legal employers. Most critics of the NWU program will focus on reduced time to graduation, but the focus groups evaluated all the moving parts:
- To be admitted, students must have at least two years of full-time substantive work experience--which, believe it or not, has value to employers;
- Required courses in quantitative reasoning (accounting, finance and statistics) and the dynamics of legal services behavior (social networks, teamwork, leadership and project management);
- The 24 month program is an acceleration, not a diminution, in coursework--and a feature with a desirable self-selection effect. See Chron. of Higher Educ. ("By compressing the curriculum for highly motivated students, the law school could attract people with several years of work experience who don't want to lose three years of earnings, [Van Zandt] said. Successful candidates 'would be people who are very focused and have great time-management skills.'").
The Chicago Tribune corroborates that NWU did its homework--and its footwork. Terri Mascherin, who is NWU alum, a partner at Jenner & Block, VP at the Chicago Bar Association, and a participant in the NWU focus groups on the proposed 2-year JD, told the Chicago Tribune that elite law school graduates too often arrive on the job without the ability to write a two-page memo, make a presentation, or work with others. According to Mascherin, "We [i.e. NWU alums] 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. ... Clients don't like lawyers who can spout legal analysis but can't do strategic analysis."
So let's get this straight: NWU Law is going to attract applications from all the experienced, motivated students who want their elite JD degrees in two years versus three. Then it is going to give them, through mandatory coursework, business training that will bridge the traditional gap between lawyers and their MBA clientèle. Sorting plus training. Why would an employer prefer a 25 year-old fresh out of another elite law school? Because the education was stretched over 32 months rather than 24 months--that trumps work experience and mandatory business training?
At the recent "Future of the Global Law Firms" symposium at Georgetown Law, the managing partners from Clifford Chance and Hale Dorr were imploring law schools to improve their business and management training. The NWU Law 2-year graduates could be their ideal candidates--moreover, NWU Law is actively making that case. What is the strategy of other elite law schools?
Another piece of market evidence: Last year Vault published its list of Underrated Law Schools based on a survey of legal recruiters. (I blogged on it here.) No Top 15 law school made the list; no surprise, Top 15 schools are, by definition, highly rated. But one Top 15 school, Northwestern Law, was included in the recruiter comments, including this observation: "Northwestern--should be Top 5--best prepared graduates, curriculum, business focus, leadership development." Perhaps a coincidence; but maybe not.
Against this background of market forces--students and employers carefully weighing their options--the opinions of law professors don't matter very much. The NWU Law press release actually lays out the research and strategy that produced the proposal. In my opinion, NWU Law is trying send their message to prospective students and employers, though other law schools could take note. Quoting Dean Van Zandt:
"We now are in a better position than ever to select students [emphasis added] for competencies that legal leaders told us are necessary for success and to develop those traits in ways that will mimic how our graduates will work throughout their careers."
The proposals of “Plan 2008: Preparing Great Leaders for the Changing World” [which includes the 2-year program] were developed by a working group, consisting of faculty, students, alumni and staff and assisted by Blaqwell, Inc., a prominent legal consulting firm, before they were submitted to industry leaders in focus groups.
The plan builds upon the law school’s 1998 strategic plan to basically provide students with an understanding of the nature of today’s global law and business environment and the wherewithal to manage their careers. The model begins with an admissions process that seeks substantial post-college work experience and relies on an interviewing program to recruit mature students whose communication and interpersonal skills are as excellent as their LSAT scores.
“We have been fine-tuning our model for the last 10 years,” said Van Zandt. “And now following our deep look at industry trends and frank talks with industry leaders, we are confident that we have a plan to maximize our graduates’ success in an environment in which law penetrates businesses and other organizations in unprecedented ways and law operates like a business as never before.”
Finally, it is pretty clear that Northwestern choreographed today's press coverage. The press release, dated today, June 20, 2008, coincided with stories in the Chicago Tribune, National Law Journal, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Associated Press. And then the blogs took over. And to top it all off, after months of market research and years of experimenting with the interview/work experience requirement--i.e., evaluating actual data--two prominent professors at the other Illinois Tier 1 schools offer their "sense" and "gut instinct" on the record in the Chicago Tribune that it is all a very bad idea. I am sure that made Dean Van Zandt's day.