GREENSBORO — It’s tough out there for law schools.
Applications have sagged. Enrollment is down. And many new law school graduates have struggled to find jobs that require them to have a law degree.
Facing similar pressures, the Elon University School of Law announced last fall that it would revise the traditional law school playbook. It says its new approach, which claims a couple of national firsts, is faster, cheaper and better than before.
The early response to the overhaul seems positive. Applications rose, and the first-year class that reported to the downtown Greensboro campus last Monday is Elon’s largest in six years.
“We’re not like every other law school,” law school Dean Luke Bierman said in an interview last week. “We want a different kind of law student — a pioneer, someone with a pioneering spirit who can come into a new program and succeed.”
Is this revamped program the future of legal education? Elon Law is betting that it is.
Whitney Baker probably isn’t your typical first-year law school student. Baker, 24, a Georgia native, already has a master’s degree. She also holds a security clearance from the Department of Homeland Security because she has worked off and on since high school at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center complex in Georgia.
Baker said she turned down two law schools in Georgia to come to Elon.
“I wasn’t interested in the normal,” Baker said. “This program is taking a chance and stepping out there. I like that, and I admire that.”
Elon’s difference starts with its schedule. Most law schools operate on a semester schedule, and students need three years to graduate. This year, Elon converted to a trimester schedule and lengthened the school year by about six weeks.
Under this trimester plan, students who arrived last week will graduate in December 2017. Though other law schools offer options that let students finish in less than three years, Elon says it is the nation’s first law school where all students finish in two-and-a-half years.
Elon also slashed the price of its law program. The class of December 2017 will pay $100,000 in tuition and fees for their legal education — about $14,000 less than what Elon Law charged earlier classes.
Though Elon already had gained national recognition for its innovative approach to teaching the law, the law school doubled down on its creative efforts to prepare students for careers as an attorney.
The emphasis on experience starts as soon as students step foot on campus.
Though classes don’t start until September, first-year Elon Law students spend the month of August learning about legal writing, legal methods and leadership skills. In short, Bierman said, they’re learning how to be law students.
The old-school approach is to throw law students into first-year classes in contracts, criminal law and civil procedure.
“It’s not the way it should be done,” Bierman said. “Maybe it worked in 1890 or 1922. But that’s not what we’re trying to do to our students. We’re not trying to scare them.”
Once classes start, working attorneys will lead first-year students through new exercises that simulate real-world activities — things like preparing indictments or drafting articles of incorporation.
Elon extended its preceptor, or mentor, program to last for a student’s entire law school career. These working attorneys will take students into their law offices and let them see how hearings, depositions and other legal tasks are carried out.
And each first-year student is assigned to a four-person team that includes a faculty member, a working attorney and Elon staff members. This team — like an adviser “on steroids,” as Bierman likes to say — will guide each student through law school and eventually into a career.
Elon leaders are most excited about the law school’s new second-year residency program. For one trimester, Elon Law students will work full-time under faculty supervision with lawyers, judges or prosecutors. For nearly three months, students will get a close-up look at how the law actually works. These students will hold what’s called a practice certificate, which lets them appear in court and act as an attorney if a licensed lawyer is present.
Though many law schools offer externships, many are optional, and some are only a few hours each week after class. Elon Law says it’s the nation’s first law school that requires every student to hold a full-time residency.
“They’ll learn what it’s like to be a lawyer,” Bierman said. “It’s not an academic exercise.”
Does getting experience outside the classroom matter? The American Bar Association thinks so. Shortly before Elon Law announced its new program, the ABA voted to require law to take experiential courses — that is, classes that combine traditional legal theory with real-world, hands-on experience.
Andreas Mosby, a first-year Elon Law student from Sanford, knows first-hand how valuable real-world experience can be.
Mosby got a B+ in his constitutional law class at Greensboro College, where in May he earned his degree in criminal justice. He thought that would prepare him well for a summer internship at the Lee County district attorney’s office.
It didn’t. Mosby said he used his mobile phone to look up the Latin terms uttered by judges and lawyers. After sitting in on traffic court, depositions and a three-week murder trial, Mosby said he realized that reading landmark court cases and writing legal briefs shed little light on what attorneys actually do.
“I appreciated the class a lot,” Mosby said. “But once you practice (law), it’s the complete opposite of the classroom.”
So why make such a dramatic change?
Like a lot of law schools, Elon has struggled in recent years. Applications had declined in the past three years by nearly a third. The last three first-year classes averaged just 106 students. Overall enrollment had fallen below 300.
Worse, Elon’s 2014 graduating class had the highest unemployment rate among the state’s seven law schools. Fewer than half of Elon Law’s 2014 graduates got jobs that required a law degree.
Bierman, meanwhile, said he is a big proponent of experiential law education. Before coming to Elon last summer, he led the experiential education efforts at Northeastern University in Boston.
Bierman said this approach will better prepare law school graduates for a changing legal environment. Because Elon Law students will graduate six months earlier than their peers at other schools, they’ll have a leg up on their job searches. And because Elon Law students will be in constant contact with professional attorneys, they’ll have plenty of face time with prospective employers.
Bierman is encouraged by the early reaction to the changes.
Applications were up 14 percent this year. Elon Law is one of just 24 law schools in the country to see double-digit increases, according to the Law School Admission Council.
Even better, Elon’s incoming class has 132 students — its school’s largest first-year class since 2010. Bierman said the school hopes to recruit similar-sized classes each year to increase total enrollment to close to 400.
“I think we’re on to something that legal education needs,” Bierman said. “I think you’re going to see more and more successes at Elon Law as we develop and refine our program.”
Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.