Rethinking the Curriculum: A Balanced Curriculum

Publication Date


Document Type

Book Chapter

Organizational Units

Sturm College of Law


Law school curriculum, Experiential learning, Practice-oriented learning, Experiential legal education


BEST PRACTICES FOR LEGAL EDUCATION encouraged law schools to engage in more systematic institutional planning of the curriculum in order to achieve greater coherence. The goal was to integrate the teaching of theory, doctrine, and practice to help prepare students for practice. In the face of demands to provide greater value in legal education, many law schools are beginning to re-consider design and organization of the curriculum.

Traditionally law school was about teaching “the law” — legal doctrine — at least to a level that allowed graduates to successfully spot and analyze legal issues. Despite the past decades’ expansion of experiential education, proliferation of specialized courses, demand from the legal profession that law schools teach additional practice-related skills, and the trend toward multidisciplinary perspectives, the typical law school continues to devote the lion’s share of resources to doctrinally-focused teaching and learning. Commentators increasingly suggest that the explosion of statutory and case law in the past century, the increasing pace of change in existing law, changes in the legal profession, and the availability of instantaneous access to information make that traditional approach untenable. Instead, some suggest, after students learn basic analytical skills, legal concepts, and research and writing skills, law schools should focus significantly on teaching a broader range of skills, such as interviewing and fact gathering, risk assessment, problem solving, negotiation, drafting, managing, organizing and filtering information, and advocacy, rather than de-contextualized doctrine. This poses a series of fundamental questions: How much legal doctrine should law schools teach, and in what areas? How much of that law should students learn in traditional classroom settings, as contrasted with more contextualized or experiential settings? What is the appropriate balance among doctrinally-focused and applied or practice skills education; large and small classes and one-on-one interactions; and in-the-building and field experiences? Often, stakeholders will articulate concerns about these fundamental questions in ways that appear binary. For example, they might suggest that a move toward a more applied or practice-skills oriented curriculum will give short-shrift to doctrinally-focused teaching, or that a greater focus on teaching would undercut the scholarly mission of the school. However, in almost all cases, the competing ideals are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the challenge is about striking a balance among ostensibly competing values or educational approaches. Accordingly, in discussing curriculum reform, it is almost always helpful to reframe binary conversations as conversations about balance and comprehensiveness.