How to design an experience-based future for legal education

We live in a golden age of design.

Since Apple’s iPod brilliantly married form and function more than a decade ago, design thinking increasingly has influenced everything from home products and technology start-ups to social movements. As The New York Times put it last year, “Design has fundamentally changed the way we experience the world, from the way we interact with objects to our expectations about how organizations are structured.”

But there’s at least one enterprise in which the overall design is actually more outdated than Henry Ford’s Model T: legal education. Since Harvard Law dean Christopher Columbus Langdell first introduced the Socratic method into the classroom in the late 1800s, the fundamentals of the school learning experience have remained static.

In the typical law school design, you load up on the required basics in your first year — courses like torts, contracts, property and civil procedure, with some additional — and too often minimal instruction on writing, research and communication. There’s little time for anything but the study of legal theory. We give students whiplash in the second year, when, suddenly, there are almost no required courses, but there’s not a recommended list of electives either. Students cast about on their own, with some choosing courses with an eye toward the bar exam and others taking classes that seem interesting or are not at 8am. Students might also get involved in law journals, moot court or other activities. By year three, students are able to take whatever classes they want, freeing up time for their biggest mission of all — finding a job.

And while that third year might sound liberating, it’s not. Students’ chances of landing a job — or ultimately being successful in it — are seriously limited by everything they haven’t learned. Classrooms simply do not provide enough opportunity for students to do what lawyers do. In the traditional law school model, here’s what students really have paid for: three weakly connected years of scattershot courses that are long on theory and way too short on experiential learning, leadership skills development, mentoring and career guidance.

There have been some important innovations in American legal education, like increasingly robust clinical offerings, but these efforts have been add-on approaches, not the result of comprehensive rethinking leading to full redesigns — and so they’ve created problems. Clinics help a handful of students at law schools, but their restricted enrollments leave many law students out of experience-based learning opportunities, especially of an immersive full time type that is most valuable.

There’s a better way to do this, and it starts with a redesigned curriculum grounded in the realities of being a modern lawyer. In addition to foundational courses, first-year law students need to experience how legal theory is applied in practice. Lab courses taught by practicing attorneys can achieve this, providing students with early introductions to using the knowledge gained in classrooms so they can begin to develop highly valued lawyering skills.

In their second year, students need to hone their newly acquired knowledge and skills in immersive, full time residencies with law firms, judges, nonprofits and government agencies. By doing what lawyers do, students gain essential experience and judgment that provide critical professional understanding. By their last year, students benefit greatly from bridge-to-practice courses that culminate the transition from theory to real-life legal practice.

From students’ very first day in law school until their very last, experiential components must be seamlessly integrated and strategically sequenced with academic courses. Throughout this process, students should be mentored by attorneys who practice in their areas of interest and counseled by a team of professional advisors. Providing students with expert guidance while they take on increasing levels of responsibility at each stage of their development prepares them for long-term success and lifelong learning — and it’s only possible through a radically enhanced redesign.

At Elon Law we undertook a comprehensive review and analysis of our whole educational program, which led to an ambitious redesign of our curriculum for the 21st century student. Experiential education is now part of the foundation and fabric of Elon Law, providing every student with first-year labs, attorney mentors, team-based legal problem solving for real-world organizations, bridge-to-practice courses, leadership training, four-member advising teams and full-time residencies in practice.

Our belief is that practical training enables students to develop mature judgment and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances that will emerge in the decades ahead. We need to develop lawyers capable of navigating a changing profession, an evolving economy and new cultural norms. To do that, the modern law student must experience the intersections of law, business and society, sensing the pressures for adaptation and learning ways to solve complex and evolving modern problems.

Law schools, after more than a century of isolation from the legal profession on academic campuses, must embark boldly on a journey toward new models of legal education that weave together thinking and doing, empowering students to learn beyond the classroom and throughout their lives.

Luke Bierman is dean and professor of law at Elon University Law School in Greensboro, North Carolina.