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Weigh the Benefits, Risks of Attending a New Law School

Students at a new law school should expect others to doubt the value of their education.

Some new law schools are experimenting with new curriculums that allow students to have concentrations.
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Peter Alexander has spent about a dozen years evaluating law schools as part of the American Bar Association's accreditation process. Now, as dean of the law school at Indiana Institute of Technology, his school will be one that is reviewed.

At the end of the month, Indiana Tech will welcome its inaugural class of about 30 law students.

A number of blogs have ridiculed the school for opening during a weak job market for lawyers, but Alexander says the school has a plan to help students get employed.

"Nationwide there's a movement away from the traditional law school model where students sit in classrooms for three years and read cases and discuss theory and history. Our effort is to introduce practice skills from the very first class of the very first semester," he says. "Having a greater attention to the practical aspects of law will make our students more practice-ready and more marketable."

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Indiana Tech is only one of many new law schools that have opened in recent years. Belmont University College of Law welcomed its inaugural class in fall of 2011. Elon University School of Law and the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University graduated its first classes in 2009.

More new schools can be expected to open in the future. The University of North Texas—Dallas College of Law, for example, is slated to welcome its first class in fall of 2014.

New schools offer an opportunity for students and faculty to cover new ground in terms of how law is taught, a change that legal experts say is thoroughly needed. They offer a number of appealing programs and resources for students, but they also have some drawbacks. Prospective students should weigh both factors before submitting an application.

Benefits

New curriculum: Without decades-long traditions in classroom structure and curriculum holding them back, new schools are using the opportunity to take on a new approach to learning.

UNT—Dallas won't let one exam determine a student's grade, for example – a departure from typical practice in law classes.

"In every class we have, from day one to the day they graduate, students will be given multiple assessments," says Ellen Pryor, a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at UNT's law school. "There's feedback along the way."

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At Indiana Tech students will have the option of narrowing their focus in a way that's not offered by many traditional law schools.

"We have concentrations which are like majors, and law schools typically do not have majors," says Alexander. Concentrations include global law and leadership, advocacy-dispute resolution and transactional law.

Faculty interaction: For Jackie Lowthert, being in Drexel's inaugural law class in 2006 allowed her to have a close relationship with her teachers.

"You had a lot of one-on-one interaction with your professors," she says. Students and faculty were able to work together to shape how the school moved forward.

"It was nice to be able to have that kind of input," she says, noting that students may not have that kind of power at an older institution.

The opportunity to be a leader and create something new with her teachers was a draw for Leslie Lasher when she decided to attend Elon University in 2006.

"They knew that they needed support of the students in creating the law school," says Lasher, who is a member of the school's inaugural class.

A new school would only be as good as its first graduates, she says. "I feel like I got a lot more individual attention because of that."

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Drawbacks

Accreditation uncertainty: Lasher and Lowthert's schools received accreditation in 2008 – two years after they started as law students.

A school may operate without having full accreditation from the ABA, but new students should realize that accreditation is not guaranteed, experts say.

Lowthert encourages prospective students to ask: What are the plans for accreditation? What's the process like? What's the timeline like?