Study: Lower debt, stronger diversity & improved outcomes at Elon Law

A new report by RTI International measured access, affordability, and value in Elon Law’s 2.5-year Juris Doctor program, which prioritizes learning by doing through sequencing doctrinal courses with a first-of-its-kind legal residency-in-practice for academic credit.

Elon Law’s accelerated curriculum is a key feature for prospective students and the law school looks to have uniquely positioned itself with a distinctive approach to legal education characterized by lower debt, improved bar result outcomes, and increased diversity and inclusivity, according to a new research study by RTI International.

Commissioned by Elon Law through a $259,000 grant from AccessLex Institute, the report assessed the impact of the law school’s move to a 2.5-year curriculum that addresses what Dean Luke Bierman has described as common criticisms of legal education: cost, length, and relevance to the profession.

The outcomes of an Elon Law education are trending in positive directions, according to data presented in the report. Top findings include:

  • Most Elon Law students were aware of the law school’s accelerated curriculum and focus on experiential learning prior to submitting an application
  • Compared with peers at other schools, Elon Law students agree the school encourages contact among diverse students, and the percentage of degrees earned at Elon Law by students of color has almost tripled since 2015
  • A combination of lower tuition rates and an investment in scholarship availability has led to a decline of nearly 33% in student loan debt at graduation
  • Investments in the Office of Academic Success, plus a move to the Uniform Bar Exam by the North Carolina State Bar, has led to higher bar passage rates

“Over the last decade, legal education has had its value and purpose called into question, due to increasingly negative perceptions around its outsize cost and concerns about whether it is truly preparing students for professional success,” said Christopher P. Chapman, president and chief executive officer of AccessLex Institute. “And in many cases, the questions are valid, but the good news for aspiring lawyers and society as a whole is that many law schools are taking these concerns seriously and have taken the initiative to evolve their curriculum and how they offer it to their students. Elon’s accelerated program is a prime example.”

Elon Law’s 2019 Moot Court Board

Elon Law fielded a record 1,019 applications in the 2018-19 academic year – nearly double the number from 2014-15 when the new curriculum was first adopted. The school’s current enrollment of 375 students is the largest ever with incoming academic credentials steadily strengthening and more than 90% of students receive merit aid.

“In addition to addressing access and value, measurement and evaluation are essential components of our grant-making activities,” Chapman said. “As part of its efforts, Elon Law has committed to utilizing metrics to show growth. Subsequently, their success is not only undeniable but also scalable, which is critical in our view.”

Far more students in 2019 believed they were being prepared well to pass the bar exam compared to attitudes in 2017 before the new curriculum was fully implemented, the proportion increasing from 33 percent to 77 percent, and results on the bar exam have borne out their optimism. Elon Law’s first-time bar-passage rate in North Carolina jumped more than 20 percentage points from 2017 to 2019 when the new curriculum applied to all students at Elon Law.

Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman, assisted by Professor Catherine Ross Dunham, hoods Kendell Williams L’18 during Commencement ceremonies on December 15, 2018.

“I have long said that the ‘dirty little secrets’ of legal education – it’s too long, too expensive, and too disconnected from the profession – are issues that law schools ignore at their peril,” Bierman said. “This report from RTI demonstrates that law schools indeed can be successful in adapting their programs to meet the demands of a legal profession undergoing profound disruption and change.

“I’m proud of what Elon Law’s faculty and staff have accomplished through a combination of ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and steadfast commitment to student success. And because we’ve accomplished these changes with our students’ best interests in mind, we’re graduating lawyers who won’t be saddled with the type of debt that too often limits the potential of our nation’s youngest professionals.”

Kenneth Logan DeHart L’19 completed a residency-in-practice during Elon Law’s 2019 winter trimester with Chief Judge Frank D. Whitney of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

National interest in law school was approaching an all-time high when Elon Law enrolled its charter class in fall 2006. An ensuing global recession contributed to a steep drop in both applications and applicants to American law schools, leading to intense competition among law schools, and Elon Law responded to the changing market demands with a close examination of its offerings.

Shortly after Bierman’s arrival in 2014, the Elon Law faculty voted to adopt its 2.5-year course of study for all students beginning the next academic year. The curriculum trims tuition and cost-of-living expenses in a logical sequence of learning that integrates traditional classroom instruction with full-time work placements for academic credit in law firms, judges’ chambers, corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies during students’ winter or spring trimesters. Elon Law’s signature Residency-in-Practice Program remains the only program of its kind among American law schools.

The curriculum costs students nearly 20 percent less than the average total they would otherwise pay at other private American law schools, even before substantial merit-based aid that Elon Law has invested in the recruitment process.

Tai Chisholm Hensley L’20 now serves as treasurer of the Elon Law Student Bar Association.

Additional characteristics of Elon Law’s 2.5-year curriculum:

  • An August course, “Introduction to Legal Studies,” for all new students that introduces them to legal concepts and study skills prior to enrollment in fall trimester doctrinal courses
  • Required bar foundations courses during students’ final trimester in preparation for the rigors of studying for the bar exam
  • “Lawyering, Leadership & Professionalism” academic courses throughout their first year to educate students on the expectations and culture of the legal profession

The report uses both quantitative and qualitative data, including responses to the national Law School Survey of Student Engagement, as well as internal data related to admissions, bar exam success, and diversity. Several student cohorts have been surveyed during the three-year research project to provide comparative data to the final class that enrolled under Elon Law’s previous three-year curriculum.

The report cited questions that researchers deemed worthy of additional research: how prospective and current students prioritized Elon Law’s program features during the application process, to what extent the Residency-in-Practice Program has influenced bar exam success, based on the Uniform Bar Exam’s focus on practical legal training and knowledge, and the impact of additional staff and financial resources invested by the university in Elon Law’s Office of Academic Success and the Office of Career & Student Development.

Further exploration is warranted into the forces that have contributed to diversity improvement and the factors affecting divergent views of faculty and students on the efficacy of curriculum.

“RTI was pleased to have the opportunity to undertake this evaluation assessing the innovative curriculum enhancements undertaken by Elon Law, and we are appreciative of the funding and support provided by AccessLex to make this possible,” said Jamie Isaac, a researcher in education and workforce development at RTI International. “The results of the assessment show great promise for the value of the curricular changes made and the Elon Law program is demonstrably improving access, affordability, and value to its law students.”

About AccessLex

AccessLex Institute is a nonprofit organization committed to helping talented, purpose-driven students find their path from aspiring lawyer to fulfilled professional. In partnership with its nearly 200 member law schools, improving access and positively influencing legal education have been at the heart of the company’s mission since 1983. AccessLex Institute has offices in West Chester, Pa., and Washington, D.C., with a team of accredited financial education counselors based throughout the United States. Learn more at

About Elon Law

Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina, is the preeminent school for engaged and experiential learning in law. It integrates traditional classroom instruction with highly experiential full-time residencies-in-practice in a logically sequenced program of transformational professional preparation. Elon Law’s groundbreaking approach is accomplished in 2.5 years, which provides distinctive value by lowering tuition and permitting graduates early entry into their professional careers.