Changes to the 1L Curriculum in Retrospect

Matt Howe (3L) and Alex Redinger (2L) 

Two years ago, the Faculty of Law’s decisions to “semesterize” the 1L curriculum and introduce the Legal Methods Intensive course were the subject of much debate. Now that it has been a full year since these changes were implemented, Ultra Vires thought it would be worthwhile to explore what the new curriculum meant for those who experienced it. Did taking fewer courses each term reduce stress? Did the Legal Methods Intensive adequately prepare students for the rigours of 1L? Did students perform better overall because of one, or both, of the curriculum changes? To find out, we spoke to students (many of whom prefer to remain anonymous) and faculty affected by the changes.

Disclosure: One of the authors of this piece, Matt Howe, worked as a Casebook Research Assistant during the summer of 2014. In that role, he provided approximately three weeks’ worth of research assistance to the instructors designing the Legal Methods Intensive course.

Legal Methods Intensive

Scheduled in the last weeks of August, this two-week intensive course was designed to introduce foundational concepts and key legal skills to incoming 1Ls before they began their core classes. While the course was intended to level the playing field amongst students, some questioned its usefulness. “I feel it did not help at all once we got into substantive courses”, wrote one 2L student, who felt that the course’s heavy focus on the IRAC model was unduly formalistic. “I never used IRAC or any variant of it after Legal Methods, and I ended up with 5 HHs.  For those who did find IRAC to be a useful tool, we could have learned it in 1 day rather than 2 weeks.”

1L Jeff Wyngaarden also had concerns about the over-emphasis on the IRAC model. “Despite promises to teach us to “think like lawyers,” it did a better job at training us to think like law students. Over-obsession with IRAC as the “right” way to brief cases is already creeping in and being able to brief cases won’t be the most useful tool when we graduate.” Wyngaarden also had more general criticisms, noting that “anyone who googled ‘top 10 books to read before law school’ and skimmed at least one of the myriad options was probably over-prepared for the course and underwhelmed when it ended.” Still, Wyngaarden thinks the course probably helped most students “get a grip on briefing in your own style, taking notes using your own methods, and balancing study time with social time.”

Students also leveled criticism at the course’s use of “cold-calling”, for causing more stress than it was worth. “We spent every day in Legal Methods going painfully through the cases, page by page, wondering who would be cold-called next and drilled about the most minute aspects of the case…. [Come September,] only one of my profs cold-called and even then it was totally different so I don’t think it was helpful for us to spend 2 weeks learning about one single professor’s cold-calling style.” Wyngaarden was, however, less concerned about the stress caused by the course, noting that “those who watched The Paper Chase as preparation [likely] found some reassurance in discovering that Niblett is kinder and better looking than Kingsfield.”

Other students wished that the course had focused more on introducing foundational concepts, and less on legal reasoning. “I felt I had a poor background understanding of the common law by the time I wrote my December exams…on subjects like courts of equity, legal process, constitutional provisions, etc.”, wrote 2L Adam Schoenborn.

One anonymous 1L found the course useful, but wished that there had been more coordination between the professors who taught the intensive course and those teaching the core 1L classes. “My Legal Research and Writing prof spent most of our four hours of class time so far covering material that we already covered thoroughly in Legal Methods, including…how to write a case brief. It’s a waste of law students’ valuable time.”

Several students spoke positively about the course. One 1L, having entered law school knowing very little about the law, found that it was “extremely worthwhile” to be introduced to basic concepts before diving into more specific coursework. Another 1L commented that while it was “inconvenient when planning summer employment”, Legal Methods was a “great addition to the 1L curriculum”, which provided “a helpful introduction to reading and approaching cases.” 1L Jeremy Ungerman-Sears enjoyed the course and felt it gave him “the confidence of walking into the first class having already been exposed to some core concepts.” Several students appreciated the opportunity to write a practice exam. While some wished that more feedback had been given, others felt that “Niblett’s feedback was great.”

Professor Anthony Niblett, who took part in designing and teaching Legal Methods for the last two years, has seen the positive results of the class. “Before the Legal Methods course was introduced, many of my students didn’t really understand fundamental legal concepts until January or February”, Niblett said in an interview with Ultra Vires. “My students who took Legal Methods have performed consistently better than in past years. It is really heartwarming.”

Professor Niblett also addressed some of the criticisms of the course, explaining that while not all professors choose to “cold-call” in their classes, having to answer questions on your feet is nonetheless a worthwhile exercise and a good way of receiving feedback. He explained that the instructors of the Legal Methods course met with instructors of the core 1L courses in an effort to coordinate their teaching, and will continue to do so in the future. Niblett also strives to give substantial feedback on each student’s practice exam, noting that he is still going through his classes’ practice exams and making comments.

Semesterization

Criticisms of the move to a semester-based 1L curriculum were relatively muted. Several students we spoke to wished that they could have had more opportunities to practice exam-writing. One 2L described the argument that having fewer exams would make life less stressful as “illusory”, given that students worked harder (and had more work to do) to prepare for fewer exams. In general, though, students had few complaints about the move to a semesterized 1L, stating that they did not feel strongly about it because they had nothing to compare it to.

The Results?

While it is impossible tease out the effects of Legal Methods and semesterization on academic performance, especially given that it has only been one year since the change, we were curious to know what 1L instructors thought of students’ performance last year when compared to previous years.

Professor Niblett, as mentioned above, saw a clear improvement in student performance after having taken Legal Methods. Professor Larissa Katz was impressed with students’ performance last year, but was not ready to attribute their success to the new curriculum, noting that “it was too soon to offer an informed opinion about the changes.”

Professor Bruce Chapman felt that there were fewer students last year who “just didn’t get it” compared to years before, which he thought “could well reflect the fact that each student…has more time to focus on each particular course within the term” as a result of semesterization. Professor Chapman also mentioned what he perceived to be a “more focused student engagement” amongst 1Ls in the semesterized curriculum.

With respect to the Legal Methods Intensive, Professor Chapman noted that it “did not appear to make a huge difference in my class” but that it may have been successful in priming students to take a final exam in December. While increased readiness for exams is a positive thing, Professor Chapman cautioned that “preparing students for the exam cannot generally be the point of teaching” and that “it would be an unfortunate side effect in the first year courses if ‘priming’ the students in this way meant that we were spending more time ‘teaching to the exam’ and less on substantive content.” Professor Chapman also wondered if the increased focus on exams was simply a result of the fact that “the finals are not then so far away as they are for a full year course.”

So what did we learn?

Admittedly, not much. Opinions are decidedly mixed amongst both students and faculty, and the Legal Methods Intensive seems to evoke more passionate views (both for and against) than did semesterization. Without empirical data, it’s impossible to draw any firmer conclusions (we’re looking at you, Alarie…). For now, love them or hate them, the changes to the curriculum aren’t going anywhere. 1Ls may as well make the most of them.