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The Most Innovative Law School Programs

Dec. 3, 2012
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Most Innovative Law School Programs
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There’s no way around it: law school isn’t what it used to be. Once a reliable path to a lucrative, stable career, law school is becoming increasingly less attractive to recent college graduates. And for good reason. Would-be lawyers face lackluster employment figures and are likely to incur a level of debt that’s tough to overcome. On top of that, the legal profession is changing. Big firms like Orrick, for instance, have begun cutting expenses by creating “career associate” positions: jobs for lawyers who work and travel less than junior associates but have no chance to become partners and earn much less than the average top law school salaries.

Law school programs are beginning to change, too. In 2007, the Carnegie Foundation issued a comprehensive report on the status of American legal education. It suggested that law schools are great at teaching students how to think like lawyers, but not at preparing them for the day-to-day experience of actually being lawyers. According to  preLaw Magazine, some schools have begun revamping their programs to better prepare students for life after graduation. If you’re considering law school or choosing where to apply, consider these innovative programs as you make your decisions.

Best Use of Technology

Technology is helping law schools improve the quality of the student experience, as well as the flexibility of their degree programs. Thomas Jefferson School of Law, for instance, has technology-enabled classrooms that permit video conferencing and distance learning, and the school’s new cloud-based computing network allows students, faculty, and staff to access and share files from any device.

Other schools, meanwhile, are using mobile devices to revolutionize coursework and instruction. For students in select certificate programs at Hamline University School of Law, tuition includes an iPad that comes with class readings and proprietary apps for coursework.

Best Innovation in Curriculum

The core curriculum for legal education is well-established: all students have to take classes in constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, torts, and so on. But law schools are transforming that curriculum by integrating with other university departments and programs.

Stanford Law School encourages students to enroll in courses outside the law school, and many of its law courses are taught by a team of faculty from the law school and other departments in the university. By supplementing legal training with field-specific knowledge, this approach prepares students to tackle real legal challenges like filing for patents, protecting intellectual property, and drafting business plans.

Similarly, The University of Illinois College of Law offers one- or two-week short courses on specific practice areas. The Dickinson School of Law at The Pennsylvania State University even merged with the School of International Affairs and now offers a joint J.D./Masters in International Affairs.

Best Practical Training for a Legal Career

The main charge against law schools has been that they fail to equip students with the practical skills they need to succeed as lawyers: conducting depositions, filing patents, making oral arguments, negotiating, interacting with clients.

But schools like the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and New York Law School are trying to change that. Their programs require students to participate in clinics and offer externships in which students can experience the profession firsthand. Legal skills courses emphasize the fundamentals of practicing law and even incorporate actors who pose as clients seeking legal aid.

Of course, preparing students for legal careers should involve more than courses and clinics. So Tulane University Law School has introduced a one-week boot camp that simulates the experience of practicing law. Enrolled students interact with a client at the beginning of the course and spend the rest of the week solving legal issues, including a last-minute crisis.

Loyola Law School, Los Angeles has gone even further than a week-long boot camp. It created a semester-in-practice program that gives students the chance to shadow a practicing attorney and experience life as a lawyer for an extended period. Such programs expose students to the realities of the legal profession and create opportunities for them to forge personal relationships and gain valuable mentors.