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.

(photo credit:http://www.flickr.com/photos/ontario_wanderer/3496185271/)