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Reforming Our Nation's Law Schools

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The outstanding record compiled by the trial advocacy teams of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover(MSLAW) in recent years is directly attributable to the school's innovative teaching methods, the team's coaches believe. Otherwise, how explain the law school's moot court victories over so many formidable law school opponents, including the best of the Ivy League?

Founded in 1988, the law school has rejected the teaching methods of the American Bar Association(ABA) to stress courses that prepare graduates to function in the everyday world of law---and that seems to be paying off in advocacy competitions. The primary innovative teaching approach used by the law school is one long used successfully by medical schools nationally but ignored by law school educators. "The medical school model is 'see one, do one, teach one,'" says Michael Coyne, associate dean of MSLAW and director of the trial advocacy program."Students see a surgery, do a surgery, and teach a surgery. Our students don't just read about the law."

In 2008, MSLAW swept all four top places in the Thurgood Marshall Mock Trial Northeast Regional competition at Newark. "I do not know of any other law school that has ever done that," says Coyne. (In the finals, MSLAW teams faced other MSLAW teams.) Last March, MSLAW won the New England competition of the American Association of Justice, (formerly the American Trial Lawyers Assn.), considered the most prestigious of the competitions. In the last five years in the Thurgood Marshall competition, MSLAW teams have finished nationally in third place three times, second place twice, and first place once. There are more than 200 law schools in the country.

Coyne attributes the success of MSLAW's students to using teaching techniques borrowed from U.S. medical schools, to law professors who spend more time in the classroom with students than in working on their own scholarly research, to early advocacy training that continues throughout the academic year, and also to hard work.

"We start advocacy training the first day students arrive, preparing them for the time they will be advocates in trial procedures in the court room or advocates for their clients in the conference room," Coyne says. To begin with, he explains, "We devote more time to actually teaching students than at a law school where professors spend a lot of time doing scholarly research that no one else is ever going to read. There's no doubt about it: our professors are in the classroom more and they teach more because we are a student-centered institution."

In 1995, the Justice Department formally charged the ABA with fixing law professors' salaries, among other Sherman Anti-Trust Act violations. Justice asserted the ABA acted to further "the self-interest of professors instead of improving education."  In 1996 the ABA entered into a consent judgment agreeing to reform its practices and to stop dictating a number of dubious, costly and illegal regulations to schools.  Yet, in 2006, the Justice Department charged the ABA with violating provisions of the decree and called for it to take remedial action as well as to pay Justice $185,000 for its enforcement troubles.

Velvel points out that MSLAW relies on a small core of full-time professors supported by many lawyers who teach in their specialties and judges who bring the years of their experience on the bench into the classroom. Relying on adjunct professors contrasted to full-time research professors saves the law school money and enables it to reduce tuition to about half that of the typical New England law school.

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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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