U.S. Markets closed

Ahead of the Curve: Penn Law Goes to War

Welcome back to Ahead of the Curve. I’m Karen Sloan, legal education editor at Law.com, and I’ll be your host for this weekly look at innovation and notable developments in legal education.

This week, I’m checking in on a unique partnership between the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the U.S. Army War College that’s giving law students some practice in high-stakes diplomacy and conflict resolution. Next up is a look at AccessLex Institute’s plans to develop a low-cost bar prep program in hopes of bringing down costs for law graduates. Finally, I’m checking in on the Fourth National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, which serves as a springboard for diverse candidates looking to enter the academy and diverse professors hoping to move up the ranks. 

Please share your thoughts and feedback with me at ksloan@alm.com or on Twitter:@KarenSloanNLJ



Penn Law Goes To War (Sort Of)

Seventy-five Penn law students spent the past weekend averting an international crisis in the South China Sea.

OK, they weren’t actually staving off military conflict in one the planet’s diciest regions. But they did get a crash course on geopolitics and negotiation tactics during a two-day simulation at the law school in conjunction with the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership. (The Carlisle, Penn.-based War College trains senior military leaders and civilians to respond to national security crises, among other things.)

It’s the first time the War College has conducted one of its exercises at a law school, although the event reminds me of Georgetown University Law Center’s annual National Security Crisis Law Invitational, where student teams work to mitigate a simulated major threat.

Here’s how it worked: The Penn law students were put into teams of eight, with each team representing different nations with an interest in the South China Sea, portions of which have been claimed by numerous countries including China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, among others. They negotiated with each other in the context of a simulated United Nations-mandated peace conference, taking into consideration the many diplomatic, military, economic and legal factors at play. Penn Law faculty coached, mentored and evaluated the students with the help of a retired U.S. ambassador and a member of the War College faculty. The simulation was put together and run by Penn law professor Michael Knoll and Paul McKenney, a law school lecturer who is also on the War College faculty. Here’s McKenney on the benefits of the exercise for the law students.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Penn Law students to experience high-stakes, global negotiations in real-time, and operate out of their comfort zones in an unfamiliar scenario.”

The event obviously gives the students a chance to practice working on a team, and negotiation skills are clearly something that translates into the legal profession. Simulating a high-stakes scenario offers practice in another area that law schools don’t necessarily teach: Keeping your cool in a high-stress situation and staying level-headed. Of course, a table-top exercise in your law school will never truly replicate the pressure-cooker that diplomats and military brass experience during an international flare-up, but it’s an interesting event nonetheless.

My thoughts: This is the kind of thing I think of “icing.” By that, I mean a simulated international crisis exercise isn’t core to the law school curriculum. Participation isn’t likely to help students pass the bar, earn top grades, or land a spot on law review. (Those things would be the cake, in my not-so-creative analogy.) But it’s the kind of experience that may actually help students become better lawyers, or at least get a needed break from the traditional classroom/study group grind. I can see how something like this would be refreshing for law students looking to put what they’ve learned thus far to use in an unusual and interesting way.


Bar Prep Without the Debt

First, the Law School Admission Counsel announced it was partnering with free online education giant Khan Academy to offer a free LSAT prep program. (About 40,000 a month are using the program, which has been up and running for just 10 months.)

Now, AccessLex Institute has unveiled plans to develop its own bar exam preparation program, with the goal of reducing costs for law graduates. So it seems we have a mini-trend of non-profit organizations connected to legal education taking on the test prep industry in a bid to improve access.

For those who are a little confused about AccessLex Institute, here’s a primer: Back when it was called Access Group it issued private students loans, many to law students. It got out of the loan business in 2010 when the federal government expanded the availability of federal loans for graduate students. Now, AccessLex basically operates from profits generated from its loan-issuer days and works to boost the affordability and access to legal education. It conducts research, makes policy recommendations, and has programs for law students on managing debt, among other issues.

We don’t know too many details about what AccessLex has up its sleeve for this new bar prep program. A spokeswoman said the project is still in the early phases but that it’s looking for partners to build the online bar prep platform. AccessLex president Chris Chapman told the ABA Journal that they are looking to knock at least $1,000 off the cost of traditional bar prep courses, which he estimated at $2,500.In-person prep classes could also become part of the initiative. AccessLex aims to break even on the cost of the program.

"It is an accident of history and a demonstration of the barriers to market entry that the bar exam preparation industry exists as it is today,” Chapman said last week in an announcement of the initiative. “Accessibility, affordability and bar passage should drive the market—not profits. And that's where we come in. The stakes are extremely high and the need for an entity with the mission, resources, and stamina to stand up and radically change the current dynamic is obvious. So I say, if not us, who? And, if not now, when?"


A Different Kind of Legal Scholarship Conference

A few months ago, I wrote this story highlighting the wave of new women law deans, particularly women of color. (More than a third of law schools are now helmed by women, by the way.) Among the factors people cited in this trend was the National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, which is about to hold its fourth iteration. (It happens about every eight years, with regional conferences occurring in between.)

About 500 law professors and scholars are expected at this year’s four-day event, which is being held later this week at American University Washington College of Law. That will make it the largest gathering of diverse legal scholars in history, according to organizers.

This is cool for a number of reasons. First, the Association of American Law School’s massive annual meeting perennially comes under—I think—fair criticism for featuring many of the same prominent voices each year, with many being white men. (Critics call them frequent fliers.) I think the AALS has done a better job in recent years of including women and minorities on panels, but an entire conference focused on diverse legal scholars clearly opens up far more opportunities for them to participate and share their views. (There are more than 80 panels and colloquia scheduled.)

And there’s a mentoring aspect to this, too. The conference creates more opportunities for scholars of color to network with each other and find mentors who can help them rise through the academy—hence all those impressive women law deans of color. The conference includes a pipeline program for those seeking to enter the legal academy, as well as programming specifically for junior faculty. “Pipeline” is one the phrases I hear a lot in reporting about diversity issues on law campuses, so it’s refreshing to see a conference take that issue head on and help develop the next generation of law faculty of color. I have no doubt that this week’s conference will help energize the faculty diversity movement.


Extra Credit Reading

Is law school admission up for sale? Probably not, according to admissions coach Anna Ivey.

Meet Haley Taylor Schlitz, the 16-year-old headed off to Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law next year.

Summer associate hiring held steady last year, marking the fourth-straight year of stability on the Big Law recruiting market.

The Florida Senate has cleared the path for Florida State University to remove the name of B.K. Roberts from its law school building.


Thanks for reading Ahead of the Curve. Sign up for the newsletter and check out past issues here.

I’ll be back next week with more news and updates on the future of legal education. Until then, keep in touch at ksloan@alm.com