Judging Part-Time Law Programs

U.S. News “academic reputation” ballots are apparently out. This year, as TaxProf Paul Caron and voter Austen Parrish at Prawfs report, the magazine is asking voters to nominate “top-quality part-time J.D. programs.” This is likely an effort to counter criticism that the magazine’s possible inclusion of part-time students’ credentials in the overall law rankings will devastate genuine part-time programs across the country.

U.S. News has not made clear the precise formula to be used to rate these part-time programs, but one of the factors is “part-time peer assessment.” I am struck that professors at schools with no part-time programs are being asked to rate the part-time programs of schools that do offer this option. It might have been better to ask only those schools with part-time programs to evaluate other part-time programs. It also seems like U.S. News could rank evening programs, rather than part-time programs, to avoid letting schools’ more controversial but often larger part-time day programs cloud the rankings. But I digress.

Are the things that make a full-time program strong equally relevant in evaluating part-time programs? Perhaps so, but other factors may bear special attention in evaluating part-time J.D. offerings. In my opinion (having taught evening classes at three law schools offering part-time J.D.s), students at outstanding part-time programs are well integrated in the intellectual, academic, and extracurricular life of the law school.

No one will be surprised when Georgetown, George Washington, and other big-city schools with part-time programs rich in highly credentialed working students end up at the top of the new U.S. News part-time rankings. But with respect to those and any other programs voters are thinking of suggesting, what to me makes a part-time program “great” is that it offers working professionals, parents, etc., the chance to earn a J.D. on a “flexible” schedule yet with all of the academic and intellectual opportunities that law school is supposed to provide. How can a potential voter tell how well integrated a part-time program is? I’d suggest a few factors and be interested in what others might think:

1. How often do full-time faculty teach at night?

While there certainly are many outstanding adjuncts who bring their talents into the law school at night, one factor that would seem to me to indicate a school’s commitment to a real part-time program would be how often full-time doctrinal faculty teach at night. If a school’s full-time teachers only rarely teach at night, leaving first-year and core “bar” subjects taught by adjuncts, then the school may not be affording the same diversity of instructional perspectives to night students it gives to day students.

2. How long has a part-time program been offered?

If a part-time program was added after U.S. News began ranking law schools, I think it’s safe to presume it was an effort to “game” the rankings rather than to provide meaningful educational opportunities. Some law schools that are now full-time started as part-time programs and part-time education remains a central aspect of their educational offerings. Schools with a long track record of preparing non-traditional students for success on the bar and in legal practice are likely to be more committed to providing part-time students a full educational experience.

3. What do part-time program alums do?

On a similar note, it would seem that the quality of part-time J.D.s’ post-law school experiences would say something about the programs. If a student is working as a legislative correspondent before starting the part-time J.D. program, and in the same job afterwards, then the school may not have provided a transformational law school experience. Schools with part-time programs that have produced leading lawyers, federal and state judges, and the like, should be recognized for the efforts that faculty expend in teaching those evening and summer courses.

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