When Shakespeare’s character Dick the Butcher suggests killing all the lawyers, the Bard is not offering a prescription to improve society but rather is warning that anarchy will reign if there is not a vibrant legal profession protecting cultural, economic and political standards as enumerated by law. This inherent conservatism in the law, its practitioners and its teachers is at once a virtue and a vice. While providing structure for social institutions and their inevitable evolution, the law and its practitioners and teachers concomitantly serve to head off rapid transformation. Innovation, then, may not slip easily off the collective tongue of the legal profession. Yet, once every century, innovation is warranted, and legal educators now are rallying to the cause.
During the past few decades, studies have endorsed the need for curriculum reform that integrates theory with practice-based learning. Giving students more than theory in the classroom made sense as opportunities to learn by doing began to proliferate. Clinics, externships, simulations and other hands-on courses and pedagogies became valuable tools to prepare law students to engage in the delivery of legal services. Now, legal educators from more than 30 law schools across the country have joined together to make experiential legal education the norm and not just an afterthought.
Northeastern University School of Law offers an interesting example because, almost 50 years ago, it pioneered a cooperative model of legal education that integrates theory and practice by requiring students to fulfill all the traditional classroom work while also spending a year immersed full-time in practice settings as diverse as law firms; judges’ chambers; and prosecutor, public defender and legal aid offices.
Schools such as City University of New York School of Law, Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law and Charlotte School of Law more recently have put experiential learning at the core of their programs. Others, such as American University Washington College of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Harvard Law School, New York University School of Law, Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law, Washington and Lee University School of Law and Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, are developing connections among their practice-based courses to provide a more experiential framework.
Still others, such as the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, the University of Colorado Law School, New York Law School and Vermont Law School, are organizing reforms across the curricula. And some as diverse as Hamline University School of Law, Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Southern Illinois University School of Law and University of Richmond School of Law are making new commitments to experiential learning.
Legal educators from these and other law schools have formed an alliance for experiential learning in law that is committed to developing a new approach to legal education by engaging all stakeholders to address the challenges of the 21st century. The group was formed to ensure that law graduates are ready to join the legal profession with a full complement of skills and ethical and social values necessary to serve clients and the public interest, now and in the future.
The group’s goals include developing a shared vision of “experiential education” that will include best practices for law schools across the country; creating a framework for integrating experience-based educational components into the larger law school curriculum; sharing perspectives and experiences; and establishing a new paradigm for legal education that will benefit students and educators and ultimately improve the legal profession itself.
The alliance has organized working groups to consider the fundamental bases for innovative approaches to legal education, which will help inform an inaugural symposium on experiential education in law scheduled for October at Northeastern in Boston. The symposium will bring together lawyers, judges, students, legal educators and others to begin to forge a new model for legal education and the profession.
The working groups will address issues such as establishing a vision and vocabulary for experiential learning in law; identifying and integrating curricular goals that combine experiential and other teaching styles; developing common approaches to curriculum and collaboration; providing opportunities for integration with the broader legal profession to ensure mutual understanding of needs and goals; and initiating outcome assessments and research agendas for data and analysis to better understand the effects of experiential learning.
There is growing recognition across the legal profession and in legal education that business as usual is not acceptable and the time is now to provide more and better educational opportunities for law students, who are the profession’s greatest assets. The alliance is adopting innovative curricula that combine theory and practice to help students puzzle through the challenges and ensure that the profession remains vibrant, dynamic and relevant. This group of legal educators is committed to educating students to hit the ground running, with experience helping clients, collaborating with colleagues, resolving disputes, facing adversaries, drafting documents and interacting with judges, so that these lawyers are ready to solve legal challenges right away.
We are not replicating yesterday’s law school. Rather, we’re building the modern law school, cognizant of legitimate critiques about cost and preparation but responsive, with innovative approaches, where theory and practice complement one another. We agree that it is time to transform legal education into a system of preparing students to be effective lawyers, and that is precisely what innovative legal educators are doing.
Luke Bierman is associate dean for experiential education at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, which serves as the convenor of the alliance for experiential learning in law. He can be reached at email@example.com.