How one small California law school is reinventing legal education

Colleges of Law is poised to transform what it means to go to law school with the launch of a groundbreaking Hybrid J.D. Program. Dean Jackie Gardina, J.D., shares the story of how it happened.

When I left a tenured faculty position at an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school to lead a small California Accredited Law School (CALS), there were some who questioned my decision. But I had no hesitation. I wanted to be part of an institution that lived its mission to provide an affordable, accessible, and quality legal education. I wanted to be part of an institution where the sole focus was on improving student outcomes. I also wanted to be a part of an institution that embraced innovation.

Eighteen months later, I have no doubt that I made the right decision. In August 2018, the Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law (COL) will become the first accredited law school in California to launch a hybrid J.D program.

The next-generation J.D.

For more than 50 years, commentators have critiqued legal education and recommended changes to curriculum design and pedagogical approach. The critiques and recommendations echoed a common theme: The need to balance what has been the bedrock of legal education for generations—fundamental legal knowledge and analytical skills—with the practical skills and ethical values necessary to apply theory to practice in law. In 1967, Dean Phil Neal, from the University of Chicago Law School, articulated the rift:

“My proposition is that the aim of the law school, at any rate, of this law school, is not to train lawyers but to educate men for becoming lawyers. There is a vast difference.”

Because of this perceived “vast difference,” law schools have been slow to adopt wholesale changes to what or how they teach. Students today are provided with more opportunities to gain practical skills through clinical and externship programs as well as simulation-based classroom experiences. But even with these additions, recent studies have found that law schools are not preparing graduates for the practice of law.

Nearly 90 percent of new law school graduates surveyed say law schools must “undergo significant changes to better prepare future attorneys for the changing employment landscape and the legal profession.” Likewise, 95 percent of hiring partners and associates believe recently graduated law students lack key practical skills at the time of hiring. These findings are consistent with the American Bar Foundation’s “After the J.D.” study, in which 50 percent of lawyers after seven years of practice reported that law school did not adequately prepare them for practice.

In developing the groundbreaking hybrid J.D., we sought to design a program that responded to the critiques of legal education and addressed these deficiencies by employing modern teaching methods that provide graduates the knowledge needed to succeed on the bar and a foundation in the basic skills needed to enter the practice of law.

To aid our design process, we hosted a “Hack the JD” weekend with a lofty goal: Design the next-generation J.D. program.

Hacking the J.D.

Built in the tradition of a “hackathon,” this event invited participants to work in teams over a 36-hour period in an effort to transform legal education by designing a program that provides graduates the necessary knowledge, skills, and value to best serve future clients and the public good.

Oliver Goodenough, the Director of Center for Legal Innovation and Professor of Law at Vermont Law School,  traveled cross country to attend. “The Hack-the-J.D. process at Colleges of Law was an intense and productive process for re-imagining what legal education should look like,” he said. “The group mashed up their experience and their aspirations in classic hackathon fashion to create a new vision for the J.D. program.”

Joan Howarth, Dean Emerita, and Professor of Law at Michigan State University College of Law, was among the participants, which included those from within the Colleges of Law community as well as legal educators and thought leaders who traveled across the county to offer their insights and guidance.

“Legal education is ripe for improvement, but too often there’s talk without action,” she said. “Hack-the-J.D. was inspiring because national experts, some I knew and others I had wanted to know, worked with the equally impressive Colleges of Law faculty and students to design a law school curriculum that puts future clients first. It’s very exciting to see those ideas now being put into action.”

All who attended were asked to answer the following questions:

  1. “What should the next generation J.D. include?”
  2. “How should the next generation J.D. be built and delivered?”

Next, each team went to work building their version of the next-generation J.D. program. The designs contained common themes.

  • The need to weave professional development and skills into the core curriculum with two teams suggesting that students do “practice rotations.”
  • The need for frequent assessment with a focus on developing mastery rather than simply obtaining a grade.
  • The need to ensure the students start the program with a basic foundation in civics, the legal system, and writing skills before moving into the substantive legal courses.
  • The need to utilize digital teaching and learning into the program.
  • Frustration around the need to “teach to the bar” rather than the need to teach to practical realities.

Putting the doctor back in Juris Doctor

The ideas generated during the Hack the J.D. weekend provided a solid foundation on which to build the hybrid J.D. as well as to improve the student experience in our traditional ground program. We were committed to designing a program that integrated skill development into the core curriculum rather than leaving it to the whims of individual professors or in elective courses. We wanted, as one team put it, “to put the doctor back in Juris Doctor.”

So we did.

To create opportunities for more practical skills development, the program incorporates four lawyering skill tracks:

  1. Practical skills
  2. Litigation
  3. Transactional
  4. Professional development and leadership

It utilizes the “flipped classroom” approach, calling on students to absorb knowledge and content outside of the classroom so that in class they can engage in active learning.

Students travel to campus once per month for an intensive residency component where they will synthesize the material they learned outside of class through in-depth discussions, active problem solving, and collaborative simulations.

Legal research and legal writing problems and assignments are interwoven directly into at least one course each semester, seeking to create an integrated curriculum where students experience how legal writing and legal research, along with other practical skills, connect directly to their other courses.

One weekend each semester is dedicated to exposing students to the skills identified as necessary for new attorneys and practicing attorneys will develop the courses so that they reflect the realities of practice.

Finally, the program ends with a capstone course, requiring students to demonstrate that they have mastered the basic knowledge, skills, and values necessary for a first-year associate.

Through this design, students have the opportunity to build a solid foundation of necessary skills that will make them immediately valuable to an employer. These courses also allow the curriculum to adapt to the changing legal services market. While certain skills, such as writing and research, remain constant, other skills, such as those related to emerging technologies, are constantly evolving.

Both the lawyering tracks and Capstone course allow the curriculum to evolve with these changes, creating needed flexibility within the curriculum and, most importantly, putting the doctor back in Juris Doctor.

Affordable legal education

Legal education and the legal profession continue to grapple with the high cost of law school and staggering student debt. In 2016, four of the top 10 schools with graduates with the highest average indebtedness were in California.

Students at Colleges of Law currently pay $67,620 for their entire J.D. degree. In some cases, that is far less than it costs to attend one year at other law schools and it is nearly half of the average student debt of many California law schools. Not only does a new attorney’s debt burden have a significant personal cost, it is also detrimental to the public’s ability to access quality legal services. New attorneys with significant debt are less likely to provide services in a number of key areas, such as:

  • Public interest jobs
  • Affordable legal services to poor and middle-class families
  • Pro bono work
  • Representation in underserved areas, such as rural communities.

With lower costs and lower student debt, our graduates have more options available to them. They can also help close the yawning access-to-justice gap in California.

Opening doors

This new program allows us to further our mission of opening doors to an affordable, quality legal education for individuals who might otherwise be unable to earn a law degree.

There is little debate that the legal profession needs to reflect the diversity of the community it serves. In a 2010 report, the ABA stated the rationale succinctly: “a diverse legal profession is more just, productive and intelligent because diversity, both cognitive and cultural, often leads to better questions, analyses, solutions, and processes.” Unfortunately, the legal profession continues to be one of the least diverse professions in our country. But we have always been committed to creating a pathway to the legal profession for non-traditional students.

There was a time when those living in Santa Barbara or Ventura faced limited options for attending law school. One could relocate to northern California or look down the coast, to Los Angeles or Orange County, thus enduring a significant commute. This changed in 1969 with the founding of Colleges of Law. Because of its part-time, night school format, the school filled a need and the students followed. Our demographics data shows significant diversity across age, gender, and race. The student population is approximately 50 percent men and 50 percent women with an average age of 35. Nearly 50 percent identify as students of color and a growing number are first-generation college and graduate students.

The new hybrid program allows COL to open its doors and that of the legal profession even wider. By adding the hybrid J.D. to the already existing J.D. program, it increases options for individuals who cannot commit to the three-nights-a-week format. Students can choose between a full-time schedule, which allows them to complete the program in 32 months, on par with traditional law schools, or a part-time schedule, which also creates opportunities for more non-traditional students to enter the profession.

Interested in pursuing your J.D.?  Explore our Traditional J.D. Program or our Hybrid J.D. Program. You can also request more information by filling out the form below.