New FYL program elicits mixed response

BY MEREDITH MCKEE

Halfway through the 2001-2002 academic year, HLS is well into its 1L experiment.

The school is currently test-driving changes to the first-year program that were recommended by last year’s Strategic Plan in an effort to reinvigorate Harvard’s approach to legal education.

The first installment of this series reported the almost uniformly positive response of students, faculty and staff to the 80-student 1L sections and law colleges concept. But this second article addresses some of the more controversial changes, as well as those that have garnered little public discussion:

  • the introduction of the First-Year Lawyering (FYL) program, with a new curriculum, new teaching approach and new grading scale;

  • a requirement for individualized written feedback in every first-year class; and

  • the increased number of spring electives open to 1L students.

While some of these changes are too recent to have garnered much response, others have been subject to extensive critique.

A popular target

Of all the changes made to the first-year program, the new FYL program, which replaced Legal Research and Argument (LRA), has elicited the most vocal response. A fall survey of 1Ls, conducted by representatives from the Law Student Council (LSC), revealed mixed reactions to the new program.

J.D. Dean Todd Rakoff says the changes introduced by the FYL program are particularly dramatic because “unlike other things, FYL was a new curriculum as well as new people.” As a result, he says, “FYL has to be seen as something that’s more in a shake-down phase than some of these other [changes].”

The change

FYL differs from LRA in two key ways, emphasizing a new curriculum and structural changes to increase personal feedback for every 1L.

The new curriculum was built around the concept of adding “skills and putting writing and research in challenging lawyering contexts,” says Visiting Prof. Michael Meltsner, who serves as FYL’s director.

“We wanted to have something more than just abstract reading and writing,” he says.

As part of meeting that goal, in its first year FYL experimented with several “modules,” inviting Harvard faculty to give instruction on topics such as negotiating, decision-making and the legal profession.

In the spring segment of the program, which focuses on the first-year Ames competition, students in each section now work on the same case so that they can discuss case law and strategy with teachers, Meltsner says. In LRA, students in each section worked on five or six different cases, inhibiting their ability to talk specifics.

FYL also expanded the time dedicated to research training, a move that was motivated by a desire to improve the competitiveness of HLS students, Meltsner says.

“Some people felt that Harvard students weren’t as prepared as other students to do research in the summer,” he says. “We were sending students out at a disadvantage.”

Structurally, each 80-person FYL lecture is now taught by a full-time Lecturer on Law with practical legal experience, instead of by an HLS professor devoted only part-time to the course, and next year FYL is planning to “improve student-faculty rapport” by having lecturers hold classes with 40 students at a time, Meltsner says.

In addition, the small workshops — which, in LRA, were taught by a 2L or 3L student from the Board of Student Advisors (BSA) — are now team-taught by both a 2L and 3L. All 2Ls take a mandatory spring class on teaching before taking primary responsibility for a workshop, Meltsner says.

This new structure allows students to get “more intensive feedback on legal writing from faculty than 560 1Ls ever received [before],” Meltsner said in a statement.

In addition, FYL is now graded, and students can receive a Fail, Low Pass, Pass or High Pass on their transcript.

Mixed response

Students have been almost unanimously enthusiastic about their small workshops.

“The overwhelming response on the survey was that the BSA sections are great,” says 1L David Altschuler, LSC representative for Section 3. “The small sections seem to accomplish exactly what they should — they give individual feedback and teach practical skills.”

From the student-teachers’ perspective, having two BSA instructors in most classrooms is a good thing, says former BSA president Erin Hoffman.

“Now you’ve got someone to bounce ideas off of and teach different parts of the lesson,” she says. “It works really well.”

Student response has been positive, Hoffman says.

“From what I’ve heard, students enjoyed their workshops, enjoyed the one-on-one contact and enjoyed the amount of feedback they got,” she says.

As in years past, student criticism has centered on FYL lectures.

“We’ve heard more about the large classes than the BSA classes — maybe they’re harder to teach,” Rakoff says.

Some students argue lecture-style teaching is inappropriate for the subject matter at hand.

“The problem is that a lot of this is hands-on procedure, learn-by-doing things,” says Maya Alperowicz, a 1L who serves as the LSC representative for Section 4. “No one can tell you in a lecture how to write a good brief — you have to do it to learn. There’s some inherent difficulty in using a lecture-format to teach what they’re trying to teach.”

Hoffman says there may have been some redundancy in what was taught between the lectures and the BSA workshops.

“I’m not sure we’ve determined what would be best taught in a lecture format and what should be taught in a workshop format,” she says. “That needs to be ironed out, and I think it will be ironed out over time.”

Altschuler and Alperowicz also said the program has not been using the new instructors as well as it could.

“While they’ve brought in lecturers with interesting backgrounds, the standardized FYL curriculum is causing their talent to go to waste,” Altschuler says. “Instead of having each lecturer teach the exact same lesson plan — a plan which often just repeats the assigned readings — professors should be given the flexibility to tailor their class to their particular strengths and should be encouraged to bring in their life experiences.

Alperowicz says lecturers need “more freedom to set their own curriculum and draw from their own experiences.”

Meltsner says those complaints have arisen in part because the FYL program in September and October was compressed to avoid conflicts with writing assignments in other classes.

“Because the curriculum was too compact, everyone felt they were on a forced march,” he says.

Next year, Meltsner says, FYL will run at a slower pace and free up more time for interactive exercises. The program will also benefit from reducing the amount of large-class time devoted to research training, he says.

The students’ suggestions that the instructors bring more of their outside experience into the classroom spotlights another tension, Meltsner says. One of the problems with LRA was that the programs in each section differed wildly. For FYL, Meltsner says he hopes to encourage each practitioner to bring his or her outside experience into the classroom while maintaining some sense of consistency.

“Uniformity isn’t about having the programs be identical,” he says. “Uniformity means everyone should learn certain basic competencies; not that everyone of these talented teachers should be doing exactly the same thing in the same way.”

Meltsner says he hopes to strike a balance between making the best use of the instructors’ diversity of experience and maintaining consistency in the skills taught across sections.

Other complaints have centered around the amount of time set aside for FYL — two hours a week for the lecture and two hours a week for the BSA workshops.

“From the student perspective, FYL [lectures] were taking too much time and were too repetitive,” Altschuler says. “The general theme was tha
t there was not enough material to fill two hours.”

In response to student concerns, this spring the time devoted to FYL has been cut to a total of three hours, split evenly between lecture and workshop.

That mid-year change won points with students.

“They were very responsive in cutting things that were unnecessary, which was very encouraging, and this [spring] semester has already been different in terms of the material covered,” says Alperowicz.

Rakoff and Meltsner say they remain open to student comment.

“I think a lot of what we’ve heard this year will teach us how to do it better next year,” Rakoff says. “That said, I think we’ve done it better this year than before.

“And, whatever else you say, we now have students getting feedback in their first year from people who have been in practice and have come back to share what they’ve learned with [students],” he says.

As for the new grading system, which added “Low Pass” and “High Pass” grades to the traditional Pass-Fail system, many students are withholding comment.

“I think it’s probably fair to say that [adding grades] was a faculty decision as a way of simply saying, ‘We’re doing a more serious program,'” Rakoff says.

Former BSA president Erin Hoffman says she is unsure about what the grades will mean.

“[T]he grades are good in that they help students take [FYL] a little more seriously, but I’m not sure that was worth it in terms of the stress that was added,” she says. “So we’ll have to see how it works out and how students’ attitudes change after the grades come out.”

Alperowicz says the stress over grades “came and went.”

Although the “Low Pass” grade might encourage students to do more than the bare minimum, Altschuler says, the “High Pass” grade may not be worth it.

“It just breeds unnecessary tension and competition,” he says.

Meltsner emphasizes that FYL in is its early stages and that it probably will be substantially evolving for the next three to five years. But FYL, Meltsner said in a statement, may not ever “win popularity contests.”

“It takes experience in practice to realize the crucial importance of the skills we teach,” Meltsner says. “The heart of the matter is that FYL asks students to be accountable for, and receive feedback on, their work long before other courses. It can easily become the object of typical 1L frustrations.

“And finally, even though nationally courses with lawyering components are fast replacing traditional writing courses, there are large differences in status between FYL Lecturers and other HLS professors,” he says.

Alperowicz and Altschuler say that while FYL is still a work in progress, it may always be something that students like to complain about.

“I have a lot of friends at other law schools, and their programs aren’t any better,” says Alperowicz. “I don’t think this is necessarily a flaw in Harvard’s program.”

Less ‘wigging out’

In response to years of complaints about insufficient feedback, professors who teach first-year classes now are required to give students some kind of individualized written feedback before fall exams.

“The major benefits were psychological,” Altschuler says. “Inevitably, people are going to be stressed about grades, but this made students more comfortable.”

Rakoff says he has heard similar reports that 1Ls are more relaxed than previous classes.

“The dean of students tells me that there was a lot less stress at exam time, in terms of people seriously wigging out,” he says. “I think that’s partly a result of the smaller sections, but it may also be because they had the chance to try it with their professors and get some feedback.”

Professors were allowed to choose the format of the written assignment they gave, Rakoff says. While some gave sample exam questions, others assigned memos or papers.

“As far as I had anything to do with it, I encouraged professors in each section to do things a little bit differently,” he says.

Altschuler says that sample exam questions were by far the most useful.

“Having people write something that is like a memo, just a paper, isn’t that useful,” he says.

The additional feedback was made possible in part by reducing section sizes from 140 to 80 students, Rakoff says.

Elective options

First-year students also were tentatively positive about being allowed to choose from a greatly expanded list of electives instead of the six or seven traditionally open to 1Ls, a change in effect for only a few weeks.

“It’s an opportunity have a little autonomy in the scheduling, to get a core requirement out of the way and manage your workload a little better,” Alperowicz says.

One-Ls were allowed to select an elective from the list of 2L and 3L classes. More than 80 percent of 1Ls were enrolled in their first selection, while more than 90 percent received either their first or second choice. For that, Rakoff says, “The Registrar deserves kudos.”

Although the initial feedback has been positive, Rakoff says he is waiting to draw a final conclusion about the success of the change.

“What we don’t know on the teacher or student side is whether we’ve created a better or worse situation,” he says. “To take the worse side, we could be, without realizing it, putting people in classes where there’s assumed knowledge that they don’t have.

“The advantage is that 1Ls are energetic, and, this being their first and so far only elective, you’ve got a whole bunch of people in courses who said, this is the one course I really want to take,” Rakoff says.

Bang for the buck

In the end, Rakoff says, “You get more for your dollar as a 1L at Harvard Law School.”

When asked about the increased workload these changes put on faculty members, Rakoff says: “I do think a lot of this represented a commitment by the faculty to reinvigorate what we’re doing. If that takes a little more time, then it takes a little more time.”

Although they say additional adjustments need to be made, Altschuler and Alperowicz are enthusiastic about the changes overall.

“There’s really not that much to complain about at Harvard,” Alperowicz says. “I think that’s why FYL got picked on so much.”

But Altschuler says: “The complaints about FYL are legitimate, in the context of this overwhelming success.”

Rakoff says he welcomes additional comments by students.

“I would really encourage students to write letters to the RECORD, or write to me, or come and see me,” he says. “None of the things we’ve done this year are so old that they can’t be changed. If there are good ideas out there I’d like to know about them.”

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