Valuing education over selection. What if a law school was measured by the exception rather than the rule? Much of the heated discussion about the value of a legal education and the ranking of law schools is centered around issues of selection. Selectivity in UGPA and LSAT is considered a measurement of student quality. Selectivity reflected in first year attrition is considered a measurement of academic quality. Selectivity in bar exam scores is considered a measurement of professional quality. Selectivity in employment statistics of recent graduates is considered a measurement of institutional quality.
What if we are measuring the wrong things . . . and what if those measurements have misinformed us about who, what, and how we should be teaching in law school?
As a small community law school, Monterey College of Law has the relatively unique opportunity to consider these questions. Of course, it certainly helps that we have the luxury of being far removed from the klieg lights of national rankings, NALP reporting, and ABA regulations [MCL is accredited through the State Bar of California, not the ABA].
What is most interesting is that as we have changed our focus away from prioritizing selection and more towards emphasizing education . . . the objective results that can be measured, such as diversity, attrition, bar pass rates, and employment statistics . . . have all improved.
As we considered how to re-emphasize educational outcomes, MCL has implemented the following changes.
De-emphasis of the LSAT – Better mousetrap: a two-unit summer course that both instructs students on effective study skills and includes five graded exercises to better evaluate student's readiness for law school. Students must pass the summer course to be eligible to enroll in additional 1L fall semester classes.
Emphasis on Academic Support and Reduced Attrition – Added a new full-time position of Asst. Dean of Academic Support who coordinates 10-12 tutors, 4 teaching fellows, provides one-on-one academic counseling, teaches small group workshops on study skills, subject-specific learning strategies, and exam writing, and coordinates an extended bar review program (utilizing BarBri course content).
Expanded legal writing faculty and curriculum – Students take nine required units of Legal Writing, Legal Research, and Legal Analysis. Each course has a primary faculty member and at least one grader to facilitate more writing assignments and additional feedback. The self-guided program Core Grammar for Lawyers has also been added as a required part of the curriculum.
"No fault" repeat policy on bar-tested subjects – Students who earn a sub-standard grade in a bar tested subject are provided the opportunity (and sometimes are required) to re-take the course. No additional tuition is charged for the repeated course and the (hopefully) improved grade replaces the lower grade in GPA calculation.
Bar review program included as (non-credit) part of curriculum and included in tuition – Upon completion of the regular curriculum, students are provided both an extended bar review program and/or the regular 10-week crash course. There is no additional cost, because it is included as part of regular tuition. The law school facilitates additional full-day practice exams and grading for practice exams beyond the services included in the regular bar review program.
(Note: The law school has also initiated changes in how we are teaching individual courses to better reflect the practical skills component of subject matter. However that will be a subject of a future post.)
Although anecdotal, consider some of the recent results that we have seen. We accepted a small group of students as second-year transfers who had a poor experience and marginal grades from their previous law school. After completing our semester-long writing workshop and receiving supplemental substantive tutoring, 75% increased their next set of exam grades (from 5 to 15 grade points). Out of the group, only one student did not improve and one student dropped slightly in performance. In a recent tutorial program, the lowest 20% of the first and second year classes (based on mid-term grades) were required to participate in either small group substantive and writing workshops or individual tutoring. The average grade point increase for the group was 10 points and individual grade point improvements ranged from 6 points to 16 points.
Given these results, it is not hard to see why MCL’s attrition rate has significantly dropped over the past several years and our bar pass rates have improved.
Once an institution commits to educating individual students rather than group cohorts . . . teaching to the “exceptions” as well as to the “rules” . . . surprising results can be achieved. Of course it is much easier to achieve and maintain academic elitism if you systematically screen out the high (or even medium) risk student populations.
Selection over education . . . an interesting question about whether the legal academy is measuring the right values.