Elon cuts law school to 2.5 years, adds residency program

At Elon University School of Law, students will soon undergo an academic experience that administrators say will be cheaper, faster and — most importantly — better.

The Greensboro, N.C. school is moving from the traditional six-semester model by creating a seven-trimester one, allowing students to graduate six months earlier. In doing so, educational value will not be diminished, but enhanced, said Dean Luke Bierman.

The school has created a curriculum that will offer “a highly sequenced, logical progression of learning,” he said. It wants to get the student out as early as possible and as prepared as possible.

“We don't want to waste a minute while we have them,” he said.

Students will graduate in December — rather than May — and be eligible to take the February bar, helping them get into the job market earlier and before the pool of new lawyers expands when the July bar is held. The new model, which begins with the Fall 2015 Class, will be $14,000 cheaper because it's shorter. And students will also save money on living expenses. 

The new curriculum will focus heavily on experiential learning and include a faculty-directed residency program that all students will be required to take during their second trimesters. The student will work a full-time legal job as well as take a course related to that practice area.

Further experiential training will be incorporated into the curriculum so it amounts to 20 percent of the program.

“Considering the gap that exists between traditional law schools and the skill sets demanded in modern legal practice, this is not a time for incremental change in legal education," Bierman said.

Students will get considerable personal assistance, as well. Each will have a four-person professional advising team: a faculty adviser, a working attorney mentor, an executive coach and a career consultant. 

The school had to change the academic calendar in order to make the new curriculum work, Bierman said. Summer breaks will be shorter, but the school will be flexible if a student wants to take part in a study abroad program on some other type of legal work that may go beyond the scheduled time off, he said.

Bierman said change is necessary. Summer work at law firms is not as plentiful as in the past. Since that kind of key training is waning, schools need to step up and offer alternatives to provide students with practical training. The residency program is such an example, he said. 

That program and other experiential offerings will strengthen the ties the school has with the legal community and help graduates with employment opportunities, Bierman said. The school wants to improve its current employment rate. Only 33 percent of Elon University's 2103 graduates had long-term, full-time legal jobs, according to Law School Transparency.

“Law schools have been criticized for not changing quickly enough to adapt to the new normal in the legal industry," said Ellen Gregg, a member of Elon’s Law School Advisory Board in a statement from the school. "Elon Law embraces the opportunity to lead the way, supplementing its rigorous academic program with meaningful legal practice experiences, and emphasizing strong communication and business skills that align with client needs. Elon's new approach is a uniquely complete program of legal training. The fact that Elon can lower the overall cost to students and finish the job in less than three years is just icing on the cake.”