“What’s your major?”

Huh? This is law school. We don’t have “majors” here.

But, maybe we should. Maybe we should have majors or other specialized academic programming within the J.D. curricula.

Before going to law school myself, I was an admissions marketing consultant for colleges and universities. I did a lot of work helping law schools try to distinguish this almost-homogenous academic product. The three key factors in higher education marketing are location, price, and reputation of the program prospects want to study.

There’s not much law school administrators can do about their location, and there’s really not a lot administrators can do about the price of tuition. So, it was always my goal to help law schools identify “marquee” programs and use those areas of true leadership to attract students who will be successful and happy studying in those specialized areas of the curriculum.

My thought was that we could create an upward spiral of success by matching the right students with the right programs, leading the students to careers that align the graduate’s talents and interests with the needs of the firms the students join. The student would win because their specialized area of study would engage their interest leading to better grades and employment. The employer would win by hiring a well-prepared young lawyer with a passion for the specific work. The law school would win by building a reputation for great results in those marquee areas of education, thus attracting better students, the interest of employers, and hopefully a long-term relationship with alumni willing to make financial contributions.

Not so fast marketing guy.

As one of my seminar writing projects in law school, I did a research survey of current students, law school faculty, prospective students, NALP-member law firm hiring coordinators, and a few practicing attorneys. The goal was to get a better understanding of how the idea of specialized academic programming in the JD curricula was understood. I think of these programs as akin to “majors” in law school, but most are labeled “concentration,” “certificate,” or “track” programs.

Gain a Competitive Edge

You can distinguish yourself by building expertise in a specific area of the law with MSU-DCL’s concentrations and certificate programs. Choose from eight programs that offer specialized elective courses in a variety of areas. Not only will you start building proficiency in a law specialty, but prospective employers will take notice of your credentials, which will appear on your transcript.

–  Michigan State Web Site (2003)

The quote from Michigan State’s Web site captures the goal of creating specialized programs, but this quote is opposed by many in the academy.

“Specializations are bad news. Students think they actually make one a specialist which is totally wrong. Students CHOOSE schools based on a specialization which is wholly ludicrous. Students need an intensive, required broad-based liberal arts education in the lawand NOT a concentration in one area of the law. They can do that when they get out. Most of these “specialization” programs are a joke. They are just a bunch of courses put together to mislead students into thinking they have some special expertise. Law students need to hit the basics on a broad level and hit them hard. We require 2/3s of their ENTIRE three year curriculum. We work them very hard. That is what makes an excellent lawyer and then they can truly specialize when they get out. I truly believe this entire specialization “program” is a silly, misleading and functionally worthless and is simply a way for law schools to attempt to market themselves to unknowing and unsophisticated students. The ABA should forbid such advertising, only allow concentrations and severely restrict the number of credit hours that can be designated to them. We need to spend all of our time making these students lawyers and not having them use their “play time” in the last two years wandering around trying to believe they are becoming specialist [sic]. It is just so absolutely silly and counterproductive to effective teaching of professionals.”

-Survey Data: Faculty and Administration Verbatim Response 65

I still believe.

I’m still convinced that our the practice of law would benefit from more “specialized” programs within the J.D. curriculum—“majors”—and will explore this theme in my next few posts. Some of the key questions are obvious: “what would make those programs different and better?” coming to the top of my list.

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Would you have benefited from more specialized academic programming?

(Photo credit:http://www.flickr.com/photos/andercismo/2349098787)