July 10, 2005

Cathy Gellis: The ABA on maximum courseloads

by Guest Contributor

The ABA has recently promulgated a new requirement that law students may not "be enrolled at any time in coursework that, if successfully completed, would exceed 20 percent of the total coursework required by that school for graduation (or proportionate number for schools on other academic schedules, such as a quarter system)." (See August 2004 revisions to Standard 204(e) available here.) At my law school that means that even though the university at large lets students take up to 18 units per semester with their tuition, law students will now be limited to 17.

Perhaps advocates for the rule change might argue a 17 unit maximum is not a substantive change from a pre-existing school rule permitting 18. But not so.

- Given that there are only two years when students can choose their own schedules,
- Given that courses are not offered every semester,
- Given that not all faculty teach every semester,
- Given that it's sometimes hard to make the unit math work out (if most classes are 3 or 4 units it's hard to hit 17 precisely),
- Given that students don't necessarily know before the second year begins whether they will be accepted to externships, clinics, or study abroad programs,
- Given that students don't always know before the second year begins what kinds of externships, clinics, study abroad programs or classes they would like to do,
- Given that there is so much to learn in the universe of law, and
- Given that even the most directed students may change their minds along the way,

the lower unit count can have a significant negative effect on the breadth of curriculum students can experience by considerably limiting their flexibility.

I'm not necessarily objecting to unit maximums in general. The school, naturally, will have some motivations to limit the student's schedule. The quality of the student's overall education may diminish if the student becomes spread too thin. Also, the school wants to make sure class spots are available to all who need them – if one student takes up too many seats, there won't be enough left for the rest of the class. But each school, understanding its own offerings and resources and relationship with its student body, is in the best position to set that unit maximum. And to make exceptions to its policies when appropriate. And students, if they are unhappy with the school's policies, are free to take their business elsewhere. But when the rules come from the ABA, students are instead forced to concede discretion over their own intellectual enrichment to this distant institution that they often have little, if any, direct contact with and who has absolutely no accountability to them.

Furthermore, the rationale behind the ABA's rule pales given the practical impact it has on students' education:

"To assure that students spread their studies out over the course of the program, Standard 304(e) would not allow a school to permit a student to be enrolled at any one time in coursework that would exceed more than 20 percent of the school’s requirements for graduation."

Even presuming that every semester the school offers identical opportunities – which certainly isn't true at my school and I doubt its true at most others – it is not at all apparent what is to be gained by making sure that students "spread their studies out." What is the harm in not spreading them out? There may be very good reasons why a student would want to overload one semester in order to have a lighter one another. (For me, it was because I'd only get 12 units if I did a study abroad program and I needed to make sure I'd be able to pick up the extra one at some point, and ideally one that would ensure I could complete my concentration if I wanted.) Or to even overload both semesters just because there's so much to learn, and that's what many of us came to law school to do.

Additionally, it's also not apparent why the ABA needs to be able to regulate when students take their classes. I can see legitimacy in ABA standardization of law school curricula when it comes to ensuring that law students graduate properly equipped for their new professions. But it's hard to see how micromanaging students' schedules has any significant benefit on the practice. And these regulations constrain even those law students who have no intention of practicing after graduation, which makes the ABA's imposition over their educational autonomy even more unjustified.

Given that it's not the ABA that we write our tuition checks to, it doesn't seem like the ABA has any business in regulating our personal intellectual development so specifically. Particularly because we had no voice in making this rule. Now, students in general were surely able to comment, as were the law schools (I've heard that mine protested the change), but the students who might have known about the proposed change in time to comment were not the students who were going to be affected by it. In fact, I'm not even a student who will be too affected by it either because I was lucky (and proactive) enough to be able to do my 18 unit semester before the change kicked in. But any student coming up behind me who has any similar needs will not have the flexibility required to get the full benefit of their education. If I'd had to face the 17 unit ceiling last year, I would not have been able to take one of the 5 classes I got to learn so much from. I wonder which piece of knowledge the ABA would prefer I not have?

Surely this can't be the result the ABA wants. Surely it can't think that there's some benefit to lawyering if students are limited in their learning. And surely it has no business imposing this arbitrary and pointless rule on thousands and thousands of students, effectively restricting each one's intellectual development.

This rule should therefore be revoked.

July 10, 2005 12:00 PM | TrackBack
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