GW Law School Fall 2003
A Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Graphic header "A Way with Words, A Life of Action"

By Laura Ewald

As Law School faculty and staff made final preparations for the 2004-05 academic year, Peter Raven-Hansen could be found walking up and down hallways, stopping into classrooms, taping copies of the new 55-minute class schedule to instructors’ podiums. After so many years of starting classes at the top of the hour, the senior associate dean for academic affairs wanted to make sure everyone got used to starting classes at irregular times.

When the faculty voted to adopt a 13-week schedule of extended classes for a trial period of two years (after long adhering to a 14-week, 50-minute class period schedule), it anticipated benefits—an “interview week” for 2Ls and 3Ls before fall classes began, a mid-semester break for day 1Ls during the fall, a mid-semester hour exam for 1Ls, and two extra weeks for student summer employment. It also anticipated costs, namely a “lost” week of classes each semester, which some faculty members felt could not be recaptured by adding five minutes to each class meeting. Now that the first trial year has passed and the summer months offer time for reflection, the Law School community ponders the question: Has the new schedule improved academics and operations, or hindered them? Like so many aspects of the legal world, Raven-Hansen says, “It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Interim Dean Roger Trangsrud spearheaded the change in his former role as senior associate dean for academic affairs. “All academic calendars require that tradeoffs be made between competing interests and priorities. The 13-week calendar with 55-minute class sessions is no exception,” he says. “There are several obvious advantages to the calendar, including a longer time for summer employment for our cash-strapped students and a longer class period for more extended discussion of individual complicated topics. But there are disadvantages as well. The shorter semester is somewhat problematic in certain kinds of courses, such as research seminars and clinics.”

In advancing the 13-week proposal, Trangsrud was responding to recent revisions to the American Bar Association’s accreditation guidelines. The ABA, which sets the base time requirements for all accredited law schools, hoped the change from requiring 14-week semesters to allowing for 13-week semesters would give law schools more flexibility to explore scheduling options. While shorter academic calendars are possible under the revised requirements, students are still required to spend the same number of total minutes inside the classroom each semester for each credit hour. The requirements set forth by the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar Standard 304, which took effect in the fall of 2004, state that the academic year must be no fewer than 130 days of scheduled class times extending into no fewer than eight calendar months. Law schools also must provide adequate time for reading periods, examinations, and breaks, but that time does not count toward the 130-day requirement.

Will the new scheduling options appeal to a large number of law schools? ABA communications specialist Karl Camillucci says because the revision was so recently installed, it’s too soon to tell—GW Law and a modest number of other law schools are testing out the 13-week semester. The ABA anticipated several benefits to the new standards but did not revise them lightly—a February 2002 memorandum outlined nine potential disadvantages of a 13-week schedule, among them less time for students to master course materials and adverse effects on evening students with full-time jobs. The ABA will monitor the costs and benefits of the new standards and will make further revisions as needed, as part of the ABA’s ongoing revision of all standards, Camillucci says.

Among the reasons the proposal was put forth and eventually adopted at the Law School was to stagger the first week of the academic calendar—1Ls would begin classes while 2Ls and some 3Ls interviewed with law firms. The 1Ls would benefit from having the full attention of their instructors in the introductory week; the interviewees would be able to focus on meeting their potential employers instead of also worrying about getting to class. Another anticipated advantage was that the day 1Ls then would have a fall mid-semester break, during which they would take midterm examinations and have the opportunity to catch their breath during their first, historically trying, year.

Trangsrud gathered input and concerns from students, the faculty, the staff, and administrators while designing a formal proposal, which was put before the faculty twice, passing under the proviso that there would be a two-year trial period. While many faculty members thought the proposal was worth a two-year trial, some had concerns they felt were not addressed under the revised proposal. For professor Art Wilmarth, the second proposal contained “merely Band-Aid solutions that did not remedy an inherently flawed first proposal.”

While there were a few growing pains during the first trial year, many feel this year’s successes warrant an optimistic approach to the coming semesters.

“The 13-week schedule has been well received by many faculty members and students, but many others remain skeptical of its merit. It has helped our students find employment through the fall interviewing program, extended their work period, and allowed the Law School to graduate on the same weekend as the rest of the University,” Trangsrud says.

“I think the new schedule has worked out rather well. The faculty and administration really listened to the Evening Law Student Association’s concerns last year when they voted on the change,” says rising 4L evening student Gaylin Vogel.

Carole Montgomery, director of the Career Development Office, says the new schedule directly contributed to the success of this year’s interview process.

“The 13-week schedule exponentially increased relaxation and preparedness for the students who interviewed. It’s a tough week for them; they have multiple interviews on the same day, which are all done at a hotel off-campus. This year, they didn’t have to go all the way back to campus and worry about class during an already stressful time,” she says. “And the employers with whom I spoke said that our students seemed very prepared and polished. They had done their homework. I think this schedule gives our students an advantage over those from other law schools who are in classes at that time.”

Faculty members on both sides of the fence feel strongly about the new schedule—which was adopted, in part, to give them an extra week for preparation, writing, and scholarship during the summer.

Chip Lupu, associate dean for faculty development, says the change has been beneficial to faculty scholarship and preparedness.

“At the end of every summer, there are people still finishing up research and writing projects, and many faculty members used the extra week to be better prepared from a variety of standpoints to re-enter the classroom in the fall,” Lupu says. “In the second semester, we can finish with grading and get started on outside projects a bit sooner—I feel we are more likely to be a more productive faculty overall under the new schedule.”

But for Wilmarth—who, along with colleagues Mary Cheh, Karen Brown, and Roger Schechter, drafted memos calling for rejection of the new schedule to the faculty before both of the votes—the negative aspects of the new schedule heavily outweigh the benefits. The memos identified concerns with the original proposal and further questioned the revised proposal, which they felt was more a presentation of stop-gap measures than a solid justification for how the new schedule would improve the Law School. “In my view, supporters of the 13-week schedule failed to present a truly compelling rationale for their view that a 13-week schedule would be pedagogically superior (or even equivalent) to the 14-week schedule we successfully followed for many years,” Wilmarth says.

As an administrator charged with considering the needs of all these groups, Raven-Hansen said that, pros and cons aside, the trial period itself has been challenging.

“During the first week of the fall, we are allowing the 1Ls and upperclass students to get settled in, catering to their needs, and that is good. But to do so, we are also asking some members of the faculty—those teaching 1L classes, to come back a week earlier in August than the faculty members who only teach the 2Ls and 3Ls,” Raven-Hansen says. “The new schedule also affects how we staff new student orientations, schedule our classrooms for non-class events, and other ‘extracurricular’ aspects of education.

“There’s a general question of ‘are the students getting less teaching for their money?’ Does an extra five minutes per class truly translate into an entire week of instruction? Are we paying a price for the benefits this new schedule affords?”

As he considers that and other questions, Trangsrud says it will be beneficial to have the perspective of the second trial year. “The jury is still out on the merits of this change. When the faculty, students, and staff are fully consulted and surveyed next year, we will be in a much more informed position than we are now to decide whether to continue this experiment or return to our old academic schedule,” he says.

Numerous questions will be put before the faculty next year when they vote to permanently adopt or reject the 13-week schedule. Whether the scales tip to innovative options or time-tested tradition, the goal is the same: to provide GW Law students with the best of both worlds.

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