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December 18, 2007

Current law school trends and innovation

Last month, I briefly pondered the connection between development and  innovation.  Jim Chen's meaty reply over at Moneylaw has me thinking more broadly about the subject.  In that earlier post, I proposed that in some circumstances development may be a brake on innovation, since top givers often are alums who want to preserve and reward the status quo.  The importance of development, however, is only one of many law school macro-trends which can either encourage or stifle innovation.  Today, I would like to look more broadly at these trends, and invite further commentary.  Of course, I am speaking in very general terms, and know that in specific instances (especially where attention is paid to innovation), all these trends can favor innovation.

Trends which favor innovation:

1)  Increased emphasis on scholarship

      Undeniably, scholarship is taken more seriously at a greater number of schools than in the past.    This trend does drive us toward innovation, as scholars have to try new angles in crafting meaningful work.  It also brings us together in meaningful ways through collaboration, conferences, and broad national debates-- all of which are fertile ground for innovation.

2)  Technological advancements

   The current trend towards high-tech teaching and scholarship (use of powerpoint, on-line journals, blogs, etc.) has been very positive in promoting further innovation.  It enables collaboration between schools, speeds up the time frame for discussions, and connects us to the rest of the world in real and positive ways.

3)   The tension between Ph.D.'s as professors and an emphasis on practical training

    Two trends are often (and I think, wrongly) described as being in opposition:  the hiring of Ph.D.'s as law professors, and an increased focus on practical training.  Both these trends, and the debate over both, are good for innovation.  Ph.D.'s often are key innovators, as they bring in ideas from other fields.  Stan Wheeler, profiled below, is a good example of this.  Similarly, practical training (through clinicals, simulations, and other methods) has been a key area of innovation.  Finally, the tension between the two has created innovation itself, as the Ph.D.'s try to make their work more relevant, and those teaching practical skills look for theory on which to ground their practices, driving each into new territory.

Trends which disfavor innovation:

1)    Tougher tenure requirements

      Because it is basically a process by which the experienced judge the new, tenure can be a brake on innovation by those best suited to use new ideas.  Older faculty sometimes see innovation as a threat or outside the proper character of the school, and this discourages new faculty from innovating.  At any rate, untenured professors tend to be risk-adverse because of the tenure process, and risk is a condition precedent for innovation.  This, of course, can be reversed if innovation is directly rewarded in the tenure process.

2)    Development concerns

     As I already discussed, if alumni are given great influence due to development concerns, and want the school to remain as they remember it, development concerns can discourage innovation. 

3)   Focus on rankings

    The trend towards giving U.S. News rankings a high value may discourage innovation, because, other than scholarship, it does not measure either innovation or its direct effects (ie, more satisfied and engaged students).  Indirect effects, of course, may occur.  Sadly, some institutions focus resources on those aspects of law school which most directly influence the rankings.

What other trends influence innovation?

-- Mark Osler

December 18, 2007 | Permalink


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