Law School: Consistent Labels for Specialized JD Programing

Before going to law school myself, I was an admissions marketing consultant for colleges and universities. Almost by accident, I ended up working with a lot of law schools. My job was to help my client convince more and “better” prospective students to choose my client’s program over another law school’s program. I was pretty good at it, but the challenges were basically the same at each school—given an unchangeable location, relatively little control over tuition, and an accreditation program that tends to homogenize academic offerings, how can law schools create valid reasons for choosing one school over another?

The question didn’t go away when I went to law school, so when I had a chance to write a seminar paper on the topic, I jumped in and did a national research study of prospective students, current law students, professors, practicing attorneys, and NALP hiring partners.  The study was not the most scientific or sound from a research perspective, but it did give me some insight on the subject of specialization in the J.D. curricula.

A big area of interest was figuring out how to create, label, and compare different types of specialized programming.  Here is an excerpt from my paper:

51% of the respondents indicated no perceptual difference between the labels “concentration,” “certificate,” or “track.” Correspondingly, 59% indicated that there should be a difference in program relative to each label.  An overwhelming majority of 91% thought that if there actually is a difference between these programs, the labels should be used consistently from school to school, and 90% though that at least one level of specialized programming should be specifically accredited assuming a difference in rigor associated with the difference in program label.

In an effort to create some guidelines for labeling specialized programming, law schools might consider the following nomenclature for their specialized program offerings.

1.    Cluster

Group of classes packaged to appeal to a specialization interest without formal administration or documentation could be called “clusters.” These programs will probably draw constant accusations of being simple marketing gimmicks, because they offer no substantive enhancement of the educational experience beyond the choice of elective.  These programs only highlight a set of course electives available to students and the faculty teaching in that area. “Cluster” programs are the functional equivalent of a course-advising meeting – without the human interaction.  In the future, as prospective students become savvy in evaluating specialization options, programs such as these will probably loose their effectiveness even as marketing devises and should probably be avoided as a long-term strategy.

2.    Concentration

Group of classes packaged to appeal to specialization interest with formal administration and some acknowledgement of completion on the student’s transcript and/or diploma could be called “Concentrations.”  These programs require and reward students for completing a specific mix of courses that the school feels will be beneficial to the student who wants to practice in the specialized program’s area of emphasis. However, these classes will not be specially formulated or ordered relative to the concentration program.

3.    Certification

“Certification” programs would also require completion of a specific set of courses, but could require a higher grade point average within the specialization and a specific writing or drafting requirement within the specialization. These programs might even set higher or additional admissions standards. However, classes within the specialization need not be specifically formulated or ordered.

4.    Track

“Track” programs could require students to take a specific set of classes, and write within the area of specialization.  A minimum grade point within the specialization and higher or additional admissions standards could also be required.  Additionally, students would take classes in a specific order allowing classes to be specially planned to give students within the specialization a more in-depth study of the subject matter, potentially studying how there area of interest applies to other substantive areas of law that are not commonly part of the particular specialized area of study.

5.    Designation

Designation programs would be the equivalent of “track” programs that have been accredited by either the ABA or some other outside accrediting body.

Specialization Nomenclature Summary

Table 3: Specialized Program Nomenclature Suggestion

Program Label Courses Identified Courses Required Minimum GPA Writing or Drafting Requirement Courses offered in Order Structured Course Content Program Accredited
Cluster X
Concentration X X
Certification X X X X
Track X X X X X X
Designation X X X X X X X

I sincerely wish law schools would start working some of these options into their specialized program offerings, I think everyone would benefit.

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  • If you’re going to choose your law school based on the course offerings, keep in mind that you might get screwed in the lottery.

    Some classes are offered only once every 2 years. If it’s offered your 2L year and 3L students get priority, sorry, but you’re out of luck. Even if it is offered your 3L year, if it’s very popular or has a very small size (seminars), you still might not get in. And of course, there’s scheduling conflicts that can also keep you out of the classes you want.

    This is less of an issue with larger specializations. If you go to NYU, you might not get the specific international law or tax class that you wanted, but odds are you can get something. But, if what really appeals to you is the chance to take a philosophy class from Thomas Nagel, get a written promise from the school before you send them your deposit.

    Really though, you’re only there for three years. Your 1L classes are chosen for you, and then sometime in the next two years you’ll need to take Con Law and Professional Responsibility. There’s very little room to gain a specialization. Leave that to the LLMs.

  • Good points. Especially when dealing with programs that are basically self-directed. My thought is that the “higher value” specialization programs would have the following trade-offs:

    The law school would require the following for admission into the program:
    1. Higher GPA
    2. Higher LSAT
    3. Work Experience in the area of specialization
    4. Higher expectation of commitment to working in that area of law after graduation – as evidenced by past work experience, letters of recommendation, interview process, etc.
    5. Higher minimum GPA to STAY in the program.
    6. Additional writing requirements – all within the area of specialization

    This way the school gets the benefit of academic rigor and good entry numbers for their reputation. Hopefully, the program would graduate lawyers who would continually increase the reputations of their law schools throughout their careers.

    In exchange for these things, the law school would do things for these exceptional student such as:

    1. Guaranteed seats in core classes and classes relating to the specialization – probably even special sections that focus on the needs of the students in the program.
    2. Seminar topics specifically designed for students in the specialized programs.
    3. Writing (expert-brand-building) opportunities for students in the specialized programs.
    4. Priority or even exclusive interviewing/recruiting opportunities for students in the specialized programs.

    I think there is plenty of room to get ones “bar” classes worked in, and pick up valuable specialized education in your area of interest in the 3 years of law school – IF the schools take an interest in the students (which, although many law schools don’t act this way, is really an interest in themselves).

    Which brings up the bar exam expectations, which are a completely different discussion. I think the current mile-wide inch-deep approach to licensing is a relic that needs to be changed as well. Again, the subject for a whole different discussion.

    • What you’re describing sounds a lot like an LLM, but with the program replacing most of your JD electives, and without the extra degree.

      From a practical standpoint, it would make more sense for schools to offer a 4 year JD/LLM joint degree program. Let’s face it, law schools aren’t going to completely overhaul how they do things, at least not without a No-Action Letter from USNews.

  • Very insightful post! As a “0L” who will begin law school in August, I found this to be a useful “buyer’s guide” of sorts in trying to discern between the various marketing gimmicks employed by law schools who hope to target applicants with certain interests. The LSAC referral service allows applicants (as I’m sure you already know) to select several areas of interest. I have received so many mailings from various schools about certificate programs, tracks, concentrations, etc. It makes my head spin!

    • If you’re choosing law school for a certain career interest (as opposed to a purely academic interest), the classes offered in that field might be less important than the overall reputation of the school.

      For instance, say you were really interested in becoming a prosecutor. The top ranked school for trial advocacy is Stetson (ranked #110 overall). On the other hand, Yale is not ranked in the top 14 trial ad programs and doesn’t even offer a crim pro class. But, if what you want is to be a prosecutor, Yale is a much better choice. (Only 52% of Stetson’s graduates are employed as lawyers or clerks 9 months after graduation.)

      Also take into consideration the chance that you might lose interest in that area. If you go to a lower ranked school for their highly ranked specialized program, you’re going to be in a bad situation. If you worked as a billing admin in a hospital for 10 years before law school, and really want to get into health care law, odds are you won’t change your mind. But, straight out of college and are really interested in “international law” (even though you really have no idea what it is) … yeah, better pick your school based on its overall performance.

    • Please note that my article is what I wish law schools actually did – use consistent labels. They don’t. So be careful not to assume that “concentration” at one school means the same thing as “concentration” at another. Therein lies the problem…