For about three hours on Sunday, Jordan Spieth was the Next Big Thing in golf. At 20 years old, not only would he be the youngest ever winner of The Masters, but, as the second coming of Tiger, he would single handedly save golf and return it to its Tiger-fueled days of glory. (In case you’re wondering, Tiger Woods is the Original “Big Thing”).
Well, as you know Jordan Spieth didn’t win the Masters. He got outclassed by a former Next Big Thing, Bubba Watson.
Yet even yesterday, after Jordan Spieth came in second at the Masters, golfers and sportswriters alike still courted him as the Next Big Thing. Bloomberg titled its article, “Spieth at 20 Poised to Reap Riches as Golf’s Next Big Thing.” NPR wrote: “In Jordan Spieth, Golf World Looks for Its Next Tiger – Again.” Even Golf Magazine got in on the action: “Now on deck, The Jordan Spieth Era.”
The Downside Of Being “The Next Big Thing”
Jordan Spieth might become the greatest golfer to ever play the sport. However, the problem with anointing him the Next Big Thing is that anointment is accompanied by the hope that Jordan Spieth will return golf to its place as one of the most popular sports in America, i.e., when Tiger Woods was on top of his game. Regardless of its problems – high costs, lack of interest, dearth of young and diverse talent – all golf needs is that Next Big Thing and its problems will magically go away.
Sound familiar? Several years ago, law schools started their own Next Big Thing, what I’ll call TYP (Third Year Practice). Different schools have done it differently but essentially it involves replacing the traditional third year with a more experiential learning curriculum that includes actual practice experience.
Washington and Lee University School of Law was an early leader in this trend. In fall 2009, the school radically changed its third year of law school to a mix of elective courses and experiential learning. The transformation received a great deal of positive media coverage, in a time when positive law-related coverage was difficult to find.
W&L of course isn’t the only school with a transformed third year. Here in Chicago, Kent and DePaul both rolled out TYP-type programs earlier this year. But W&L is one of the few to have an entire class take the program from start to finish.
Internally, they appear great. Law student applicants and enrollees both seem to like the program. In January 2013, Indiana University Law Professor William Henderson called Washington & Lee “the Best Legal Education Story of 2013.” He noted that since 2008, W&L application numbers were up 33% while overall law school applications were down 19%. Moreover, using data from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, a voluntary confidential survey, Professor Henderson explained that by almost every measure, after starting its TYP program, W&L was doing better than many of its peer schools. Professor Henderson concluded that W&L’s applicants have increased, its curriculum has improved, and it now offers a better educational experience. “The example of the Washington & Lee 3L experiential year ought to be a watershed for legal education.”
Externally, however, it’s a different story. Last summer, OSU Law Professor Deborah Jones Merritt wrote about the “troubling” employment results for W&L. Using two different employment measures, Professor Merritt concluded that, for all the accolades, W&L’s employment outcomes for 2011 were “decidedly mediocre” with 55% of its graduates obtaining full-time, long-term jobs that required bar passage. In 2012, the numbers decreased to 49.2%, putting W&L at 119th compared to other accredited schools. Professor Merritt, who is an advocate of experiential learning, arrived at four possibilities for the outcome. Chief among them was this: no law grad, no matter how well-trained, can create a job where one doesn’t exist:
[Hiring decisions] involve choosing among applicants, not creating new positions. A few employers might hire a practice-ready graduate when they wouldn’t have otherwise hired any lawyer, but those job-market gains are likely to be small … The number of legal jobs depends much more on client demand and employer entrepreneurship than on the experience that new graduates possess.
W&L Professor James Moliterno responded to this criticism, arguing that it was much too early to use the 2012 employment figures, and at the same time, encouraging employers to “buy” what they have long implored law schools produce – practice ready lawyers:
Ours is a slow-to-change profession. Employers as a group do not change their settled practices on a dime. Nothing in the employment numbers that we see for the next 3 to five years should be seen as reflecting on the reception given to the curriculum reform. No curricular reform I know of, including Langdell’s, changed settled practices of others overnight.
Yet last month, when the 2015 US News rankings came out, W&L dropped 17 spots, from #26 to #43. As such, legal commentators didn’t take long to declare the demise of the W&L TYP program, with Above the Law summarizing it thus: “Washington & Lee’s Experiential Learning Seems To Be A Flop.”
So what now? Should we throw in the towel? Four years and two full graduating classes later, the country’s most lauded TYP doesn’t seem to be working. Is it time to go on to the Next Next Big Thing? Rory McIlroy paging Jordan Spieth!
Not just yet. See, it’s easy in this age of instant celebrity, instant access, instant news to want instant success. TYP isn’t giving us instant success so let’s call it an instant failure. But when we hammer law schools to change, we need to be prepared to wait out the change. Law schools are doing precisely what the legal profession said they needed to do. As Professor Moliterno said, now the legal profession needs to buy into it. And it won’t happen overnight. To use a golf phrase, law schools and the legal profession are in the long game. The very long game. And it takes a long time to create sustainable change, especially in this profession.
So let’s stop thinking of TYP as The Next Big Thing That Has Failed. Instead, think of it as one small, halting step in the very long journey of law school reform. What’s the next step? Two year law school? Early bar exam? Articling? Whatever it is, let’s not call it the Next Big Thing. Let’s call it what it is – reform, progress, and slow and steady change.