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.
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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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?
"I think it's important to go to a startup school where the faculty has either been at startups before or they're very familiar with the ABA accreditation requirements," says Alexander.
Limited student support: The first group of students at a law school can't turn to 2Ls or 3Ls – the common names for second- and third-year law students – to ask how a professor typically grades or what exams are like.
"At the time it seemed like a challenge," says Lowthert. But in the long run, not having upperclassmen ended up being a benefit, she says. It forces students to really do their work themselves.
Small network: After graduation though, students may face another hurdle.
"You may kind of feel like there's not an alumni network," Lowthert says. Drexel now focuses on having alumnae mentor current students, she says.
Indiana Tech plans to match each student with a member of the local bar as well as a faculty adviser to expand a student's network in the law community. Lasher says she was in a preceptor program at Elon, which paired her with a member of the local bar.
Lasher enjoyed her experience at Elon, but being a member of the school's first law class put her in a peculiar position: The future of the institution was in the hands of the students.
"There is a lot of pressure on you," she says. "A lot does ride on your bar passage rate."
During job interviews, employers would ask why she chose to be in a school's first class. She used these experiences as opportunities to present herself as a go-getter and a leader. She now works in civil defense and civil litigation at a North Carolina law firm.
Some law students at new schools will have their choice questioned even before school starts. The negative feedback toward Indiana Tech highlights a need for more civility in the law profession, Alexander says. It also serves as a warning to students.
"They have to have a thick skin," he says. "It's unfortunate, but it is part of coming to a new school."
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