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September 10, 2007

Should law schools move away from a semester system?

Among many interesting pieces in a focus on legal education in the latest issues of  The Complete Lawyer is this interview with Larry Kramer, Dean of the Stanford Law School.  And, among interesting tidbits in the interview is this discussion by Dean Kramer of a recent scheduling innovation at SLS:

Stanford is [moving to] a quarter rather than a semester system. The semester is a big, clunky unit and so it leaves students with only a limited number of course opportunities. By breaking the academic year into quarters, you increase the number of course opportunities by 50%.  The courses are a little shorter, of course, but that diminution is more than made up for by the increased opportunities. It allows students to go outside of the law school and study other disciplines without sacrificing the breadth of their legal education. It allows them to create a program for themselves that is broad or deep or a good mix of both.

I believe that at least one other top school does not follow the tradition semester format: the University of Chicago has its law school year divided into three trimesters.  Surely a few other schools also have some novel schedules (e.g., I still remember fondly a 4-week winter course at Harvard Law School), but my sense is that the vast majority of law school adhere to the tradition semester norm.

I would be very eager to hear from teachers (or students) with experiences in both types of systems as to whether Dean Kramer is on to something by moving Stanford Law School toward quarters.  Should the start of serious law school innovation begin with a move away from traditional semesters?

Posted by DAB

September 10, 2007 in Teaching -- curriculum | Permalink

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Comments

Just to be clear: I am not advocating a quarter system for everyone, though I think it has some inherent advantages. But inasmuch as the primary impetus is to enable students to take classes in other schools and departments that will enhance their legal education, it matters what calendar the rest of the University is on. Stanford University uses quarter system, as does the University of Chicago. Obviously, it would frustrate rather than facilitate interdisciplinary work to be on quarters in a University that is on semesters, as most are.

Posted by: Larry Kramer | Sep 10, 2007 2:58:58 PM

I had the quarter system at Chicago and loved it. I was used to it already as an undergrad at Stanford. There was a slight disadvantage for beginning and end of summer, but the primary advantage was that I could take more courses, but have fewer at any one time.

4 courses was a heavy load there, yet some of the students I teach have 6 courses in the semester. In the end, we both have 12, but fewer classes meant more time to focus on one class, and fewer classes to prep for at a time. Also, "year long" 1L courses didn't take up all of our time, because they were only 2 quarters, not 2 semesters. We were able to have a full required schedule plus an elective in the spring quarter. I think it also means that professors have fewer preps, for all the same reasons.

The 10 week schedule didn't add appreciably more work (that I could tell) to the schedule.

So, I'm a big fan. I haven't been teaching long enough to see the plus sides of the semester system, but none have been made clear so far, other than long winter breaks and early break for summer.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Sep 11, 2007 7:10:32 PM

Dean Kramer makes an important point: where the university is on a quarter system, but the law school is on a semester system, it makes it difficult (but not impossible) for students to cross-enroll, thus stifling the benefits of non-law students in law classes, and law students in non-law classes.

At UC Davis, the rest of campus is on a quarter system, and the law school alone is on a semester system (our sister UC law schools are also on semester systems). I only occasionally have students from other disciplines--a poli sci grad student took my seminar on "Jurisdiction in Cyberspace" last term, for example. Moving to a quarter system would facilitate more cross-enrollment.

Thanks very much to Dean Kramer for offering a significant law school innovation.

Posted by: Anupam Chander | Sep 13, 2007 8:28:06 AM

Speaking to Dean Kramer's point, it's just as important that the other schools also play ball. Having gone through the cross-registration process at Harvard to get into business school classes, I can say that it's not always under the law school's control, and that university-wide cooperation (which Stanford appears to be blessed with) is essential.

What's also vital that Stanford is doing is exploiting the unified calendar by creating cross-disciplinary courses rather than simply assuming that the flow of students back and forth will be sufficient.

Posted by: Gene Koo | Sep 13, 2007 11:14:18 AM

At Baylor Law, we have always been on a quarter system. The university is on a semester system, and this makes meaningful interdisciplinary work harder (as Dean Kramer predicted). The shorter period per class does help to focus the students on topics. It also allows more course offerings and a smaller faculty (about 22 for 400 students).

The downsides include more grading, and an awkward winter quarter that straddles the holidays. In addition, it can be a challenge to scholarship, at least with a small faculty, given that we teach all 2-4 classes all four quarters, with only one summer off every three years as a sabbatical.

Obviously, this last drawback would not be present in a school with a larger faculty, and I would imagine 10 weeks would even be a good length for a writing sabbatical if a school has the resources to give faculty 1 or 2 quarters off each year.

Posted by: Mark Osler | Sep 16, 2007 12:14:44 AM

I used the quarter system at UChicago and LOVED it. Fewer courses at a time meant I could think more deeply about the topics in my non-study time because my brain wasn't pulled in 6 different directions.

In law school (on a semester system) and teaching in semester systems, I've found that the typical student treats a semester like a quarter with an additional 5 weeks to get behind. You can't get behind in a quarter system: there's just no time.

Also, with 1Ls, the quarter system has the advantage of giving the administration 2 opportunities to identify and help at-risk students.

Finally, for students, the quarter system allows them to figure out what law professors are looking for on exams with only 3-4 courses (10-14% of total credits), whereas the typical semester system has at least 5 courses the first semester (~17% of total credits). As such, the impact of figuring out law school exams during the first round of exams is a lot less significant for quarter students than semester students.

Posted by: Hillary Burgess Leary | Sep 21, 2007 3:26:18 PM

Quarters V. Semesters at a Combined School

One person commented that using a quarter law school system at a semester university might be challenging for cross-enrolled students. I'd like to point out a few of the benefits:

1. For a university that keeps begin and end dates approximately the same (splitting winter quarter across the holidays), very little changes for the students' overall schedule.

2. Where students are cross-enrolled on a mixed system that does or doesn't keep consistent schedules, the students' exam schedules are likely to be very different in law school than in other courses. This difference could have a LOT of advantages for students in that exams are not likely to all be due at the same time.

3. For students whose quarter/semester systems are on different time frames, students have the advantage of not having the hustle and bustle of the first few weeks all reign upon them at the same time. Come back for the semester, a few weeks later when the semester course is second-nature, begin the quarter. Or vice verse.

I'm not arguing that drawbacks don't exist, but there are advantages...and the overall advantages of a quarter system (IMHO having studied under both) are worth considering.

Hillary

Posted by: Hillary Burgess Leary | Sep 21, 2007 3:33:20 PM

Quarters V. Semesters at a Combined School

One person commented that using a quarter law school system at a semester university might be challenging for cross-enrolled students. I'd like to point out a few of the benefits:

1. For a university that keeps begin and end dates approximately the same (splitting winter quarter across the holidays), very little changes for the students' overall schedule.

2. Where students are cross-enrolled on a mixed system that does or doesn't keep consistent schedules, the students' exam schedules are likely to be very different in law school than in other courses. This difference could have a LOT of advantages for students in that exams are not likely to all be due at the same time.

3. For students whose quarter/semester systems are on different time frames, students have the advantage of not having the hustle and bustle of the first few weeks all reign upon them at the same time. Come back for the semester, a few weeks later when the semester course is second-nature, begin the quarter. Or vice verse.

I'm not arguing that drawbacks don't exist, but there are advantages...and the overall advantages of a quarter system (IMHO having studied under both) are worth considering.

Hillary

Posted by: Hillary Burgess Leary | Sep 21, 2007 3:35:27 PM

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