Southwestern Law School Los Angeles, CA

Traditional First-Year Curriculum Enhancements

Cutting-edge program features more study time, electives and professional focus

The members of the fall 2007 entering class arrived at Southwestern following in the footsteps of others, but at the same time blazing a new trail: They began their legal studies with a new innovative first-year curriculum tailored to the academic and professional needs of Southwestern students.

Southwestern faculty and administrators extensively reworked the course requirements for first-year students in the traditional full and part-time programs.* Guided by faculty recommendations, student and alumni input, academic research, and a comprehensive study of nationwide law school curricula directed by Professor Catherine Carpenter for the American Bar Association (ABA), the new curriculum was created with several goals in mind:

  • to provide students more time to master their courses;
  • to place a greater emphasis on the realities of legal practice, the construction of legal careers,  and the ethical and social responsibilities of lawyers;
  • to expand the instruction of legal research and writing to include more development of basic lawyering skills as well as earlier exposure to litigation, interviewing and counseling skills;
  • to facilitate students' ability to study specialized areas in the first year; and
  • to provide increased academic support that helps students improve their learning skills.

Southwestern's new curriculum incorporates - and goes beyond - best practices at law schools around the country. "The new curriculum is a terrific mix of what we can do well as a law school and what the students can use to build the skills and professional identities appropriate for effective transitions into the legal profession," explains Dean Bryant Garth.

Fewer classes, more study time

Students take fewer courses during the first two semesters than in past years. Under the new curriculum, the number of doctrinal courses per semester have been reduced from five to four in the law school's traditional day program, and from three to two in the evening and PLEAS (Part-Time Legal Education Alternative) programs. Torts and Property are now each one-semester, four-unit courses.

According to Associate Dean Christopher Cameron, chair of the Curriculum Committee, "We wanted to take away some of the pressure that first-year students already impose upon themselves, and that we impose upon them with our rigorous academic program, and give them an opportunity to absorb the material at their own pace." 

Professor Carpenter, a member of the Curriculum Committee and principal drafter of the ABA's recent Survey of Law School Curricula, says the new curriculum enables students to more fully integrate and digest the material. "Having five different substantive classes made it more difficult," she points out. "Students were jumping from one subject to another. This way, students have more time to immerse themselves in fewer subjects."

Bridging the gap from theory to practice

Most everyone agrees that the legal profession is bursting with complexities and constantly evolving demands. But two recent studies on legal education - the ABA's Survey of Law School Curricula and the Carnegie Foundation's forthcoming book entitled Educating Lawyers - suggest that law schools respond by adopting a more practice-oriented approach. The latter study argues that the first-year curriculum is a particularly opportune time to begin guiding students' transition from theory to practice.

With this in mind, Southwestern created a newly expanded version of its first-year legal research and writing program. Dubbed LAWS (Legal Analysis, Writing and Skills), the new program aims to provide students with a wider variety of practical skills.

Students receive more detailed instruction in such areas as legal methods and legal reasoning, client and witness interviewing, and appellate advocacy.

In addition, consistent with another basic tenet of the Carnegie Foundation study, LAWS addresses various issues pertaining to professionalism and the practice of law, culled from empirical studies of lawyer careers such as the groundbreaking After the J.D. project (Dean Garth serves on the project's Executive Coordinating Committee) located at the American Bar Foundation. Topics include how lawyers make their careers and the role of professional values in career success and personal satisfaction.    

"Business schools have done well with case studies of how businesses succeed or fail. We  use lawyer careers as a springboard to examine just what makes professional success," says Dean Garth, who teaches a component of the course.

LAWS fulfills six units (three in fall, three in spring), which is twice as many as Southwestern's previous legal research and writing program.

First-year electives

Recognizing that many students attend Southwestern to pursue specialized areas of study, a number of electives are now offered during the first year. Day students have the option of taking a three-unit elective course during the spring semester from one of the following: Constitutional Criminal Procedure, Copyright, History of American Law, Legal Profession, Public International Law, or an academic support course titled Defenses in the Law. In selected years, other courses may be rotated into the elective slot. The electives are available to second-year evening and PLEAS students during the spring semester.

By offering electives earlier, "we allow students with clear career goals to move more quickly into upper level classes that will build expertise consistent with those goals," says Dean Garth.

Enhanced Academic Support

The new curriculum also incorporates methods and instruction to provide the greatest possible academic support to struggling first-year students. Ensuring the success of all students has always been the top priority among Southwestern faculty and staff. The law school offers a series of activities that provide assistance and guidance to those who find themselves grappling to stay afloat as they seek to master a new way of thinking. These include a general academic support program; exam writing workshops; and the Student Success Program, which is open to students during the summer following their first year.

Now, Southwestern has created a new program to be offered for students whose Fall exam scores indicate they might benefit from additional academic support. A three-unit, full semester Academic Support course is open by invitation to first-year day students, as well as second-year evening and PLEAS students. Taught by full-time faculty, the course instructs students in critical thinking, writing, listening, case-briefing, client-interviewing and test-taking skills in the context of new doctrinal material. This year's course is titled "Defenses in the Law."

The idea, Professor Carpenter explains, is that integrating new material with new skills is the best way to ensure long-term improvement, since the skills will be translatable to future academic experiences. "We are confident that students will see an improvement in their performance in all of their courses," she says. "Even while they're in the middle of this course, we expect they will see growth fairly quickly."

As a whole, Dean Garth says that the new curriculum provides Southwestern's first-year students with a truly unparalleled learning experience. "I am confident that we enacted a first-year curriculum that truly takes advantage of the experience of other schools, the best scholarship about legal education, the talents of our faculty, and the careers that our graduates ultimately will pursue."

*The SCALE program operates under a different curricular structure.