How law schools can best serve the modern-day student

by Thomas F. Guernsey, President and Dean of Thomas Jefferson School of Law

We all share a stake in seeing law schools succeed. Success, however, cannot be built upon a career-specific degree. It is my firm belief that our profession must do more than create lawyers — we must develop entrepreneurs, activists, leaders and free thinkers.

The legal profession continues to evolve, even as the number of law firms in the country declines. Many corporations are increasing their in-house legal departments to cut costs. The result has been an increase in the demand for lawyers in industries such as real estate, consulting, healthcare, human resources, finance and insurance. At Thomas Jefferson School of Law, we find our career service professionals now spend significantly more time with students seeking non-practicing opportunities.

We also continue to feel the impacts of the 2008 recession, as well as the subsequent demand for legal services agile enough to keep pace with the rapidly globalizing world. Law school applications have declined, particularly among women and people of color. Meanwhile, those students who are graduating are having an increasingly difficult time landing jobs as practicing attorneys.

The challenge we all share is to reimagine how we can deliver educational services to meet the needs of the modern-day student and get back to the original reason for which law schools exist. There are many people who require training in the legal profession, but don’t necessarily desire to become lawyers. As a case in point: many of our alumni have established highly successful careers in sports, startups and nonprofits.

This is a job we can accomplish, and one for which I have pledged that our school will serve as an example in a variety of ways. I recommend other educators follow suit and consider implementing the following ideas:

Develop and diversify programs
At a minimum, a law school should offer a variety of degrees and certificates featuring specialties that create individualized opportunities for students to “choose your own adventure.” Such programs create a draw for prospective students. Consider how, in certain situations, it may be more applicable—not to mention much more affordable—for someone who works in the intellectual property field and needs to understand copyrights, patents and trademarks to pursue a graduate certificate from a program like ours rather than spend three years in law school. Or perhaps a master’s degree program may appeal more to a candidate working in the corporate world who requires a legal background, but doesn’t want a Juris Doctor.

Think globally
The world is becoming smaller and more inter-connected, providing exciting opportunities for students to study abroad through exchange programs. At Thomas Jefferson, we have created a platform for learning beyond the laws in California. Since many of our students come from another country and/or go on to work internationally, it is imperative for us to scale programs accordingly.

Focus on technology
Offering online programs is no longer a competitive advantage. It is now a fundamental requirement to remain relevant in education. There is much research focused on education and how our brains are changing due to the Google age. Students no longer need to go out to find an answer anymore, it’s literally in the palm of their hand. Law schools challenge students to think critically from both sides, analyze issues and actions objectively, and articulately debate topics in public. Such skills transcend several industries and can make law schools stand out when someone is debating whether to pursue an MBA or a legal degree. Law schools represent a shining example of what is possible through the marriage of the online and offline worlds.

Community equals social consciousness
Many of today’s students are driven not just by the idea of making money, but by philanthropic interests. They thrive on making connections through deeper, more personal engagement within the communities where they live. They want to know their neighbor and be known by them. That’s why one of the most powerful initiatives law schools like ours can embark upon is to foster a socially conscious atmosphere by providing real-life experiences through clinical programs. At Thomas Jefferson, we provide such opportunities through programs such as the Veterans Legal Clinic, Small Business Law Center, and mediation/conflict resolution services.

As dean, I have witnessed how an independent law school can, and has, made these changes rapidly. Looking forward, I can’t help but dream about the myriad opportunities available to students empowered by such a versatile and relevant legal education.

Thomas F. Guernsey is the President and Dean of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, one of the more diverse law schools in the country recently named among the Top 25 for financial aid and networking. He can be reached at guernsey@tjsl.edu.

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