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New ABA law school standards require more hands-on learning

Ray and Kay Eckstein Hall gave Marquette University

Marquette University’s Ray and Kay Eckstein Hall. (Photo courtesy of The Opus Group)

Wisconsin’s law schools are reviewing new accreditation standards and looking at what changes, if any, they will have to make to their curricula.

The accreditation standards and rules recently were set by the American Bar Association and went into effect this month. A number of the new standards are expected to change the way some law schools operate.

Officials at Marquette and the University of Wisconsin law schools said the changes were anticipated, though, and that many of the new standards were being addressed before the ABA released them.

Two of the biggest standards both universities pointed to are ensuring that students receive more experience doing real-world work and making sure that the students — as well as all law schools — are properly measuring progress.

“Some schools are not that far along on assessments as we are,” Matt Parlow, Marquette Law’s associate dean for academic affairs, said. “They have pervaded law schools that are a little later on curve.”

Some standards, though, will be rolled out gradually, and will not affect law students until the 2016-17 school year.

For example, students will have to take six credit hours that incorporate some sort of real-world experience. According to the new standards, “an experiential course must be a simulation course, a law clinic, or a field placement.”

Kevin Kelly, UW Law School associate dean for student and academic affairs, said many classes and workshops already incorporate real-world experience. Now, it’s just a matter of measuring the number of credit hours that should be allotted for what task.

For some classes, he said, it could be based on how much time is spent listening to lectures and how much time is spent doing work, either as practice or for the real world. If a class such as that earns four credit hours, two of those credit hours could be allotted for experiential learning, he said.

“It’s not going to be a Herculean task to get us in compliance with that,” Kelly said.

Parlow also said Marquette offers internships and certain courses that involve more than lectures. The change for them, though, is the set amount of hours that each student will need.


He also pointed out that Marquette and UW are better positioned to accommodate these new standards than law schools in less-populated areas, since Milwaukee and Madison are larger cities with more opportunities.

“Think about law school in a small city somewhere. That’s a lot harder,” Parlow said. “Or at one of … six law schools in a city, competing (for opportunities).”

Another major part of the new standards include a more formal way to assess whether a school is teaching students properly and whether students are learning what they need to succeed. According to the ABA’s standards, “a law school shall utilize both formative and summative assessment methods in its curriculum to measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback to students.”

To Kelly, this sounds like tests; or, more specifically, a midterm and final exam.

He said that some classes give final exams, but there is other coursework — such as working on the student-run Wisconsin Law Review — in which progress can’t be easily measured. But he also said the ABA gives law schools discretion on what assessment methods to use.

“I think the ABA wants to make sure schools are doing this,” Kelly said. “They don’t prescribe any particular measure.”

Parlow said that Marquette already has a structure in place to assess students and their learning. It may vary from class to class, but he also viewed it as something the ABA implemented so that some law schools can catch up.

“We’ve been doing assessment for a while,” Parlow said. “We wouldn’t hold it as a model of perfection, but we’re doing a good job … I think it provides an opportunity to continue to reflect on what we need to accomplish.”

Still, both said their respective schools may have to do work on minor portions of the new standards. Kelly said he felt that some of the changes are important. He pointed to one change that requires students to take at least two credit hours devoted to professional responsibility, which was increased from one hour under the new standards.

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