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The New Normal

Stanford Law School Dean: We Aim to Teach Our Students Not Just to Spot Problems, But to Solve Them

Posted Mar 29, 2012 1:00 PM CDT
By Larry Kramer

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Larry Kramer

While failings of legal education have been much in the news these past few years, the need to change long predated the economic downturn—which mainly accelerated trends that have been unfolding for years. Stanford began revamping its curriculum in 2004 and already offers a program that does most of what thoughtful reformers say is necessary.

One thing we did not change was the first year, which inculcates core skills of legal problem-spotting and analysis: the essence of what it means to “think like a lawyer.” The problem was that law school consisted of almost nothing but this style of education, robotically repeated with steeply diminishing returns for two more years. Hence you hear perennial jokes about bored third-year students and calls to make law into a two-year program.

Two years would, indeed, be better than three … if we continued to offer nothing more or different. Better still, however, is to use the three years more effectively, by teaching additional skills that our students need and that can be learned better in school than on the job.

We thus re-envisioned our program—beginning with the insight that the first year is less about preparing someone to be a lawyer than it is about preparing them to be a law student. It lays the essential foundation, leaving two years to prepare students for the careers they will embark upon after graduation.

Traditional law classes obviously remain an important part of this upper level program: Students must still refine their analytical skills, and there are other fields of law they want and need to study. But rather than exhaust their time (and patience) this way, we made critical changes that enrich what they can do.

First, we now provide resources (and encouragement) to help students decide what kind of lawyers they want to be. Gone are the days when students could be told—as I was told—that it doesn’t matter what classes you take, that you can decide the practice you want later, after you begin working. Certainly no other professional school would dream of advising students thus, and it’s grossly irresponsible today, when firms no longer allow young lawyers to wander freely among practice groups, and clients are unwilling to subsidize their basic training. So we work to help students find a career path from the day they arrive, using a combination of technology (including online tools we developed named SLSConnect and SLSNavigator), formal professional advising, alumni networks, and more.

The second change is to get beyond just teaching students how to think like a lawyer by teaching them how to think like their clients as well. Lawyers say they are problem solvers, but traditional legal education teaches law students only how to spot problems; it does nothing to teach about solving them. Nor is problem-solving a generic skill that can be taught in a single course or in the interstices of analyzing cases in traditional Socratic classes. Problem solving must be a pervasive element in the curriculum, tailored to the kinds of problems new lawyers will actually face—a change we addressed through a series of overlapping reforms. We integrated the law school into the larger university, gaining our students access to Stanford University’s other superb professional schools, and encouraging students from these schools to take classes at the law school. Students interested in becoming business lawyers can learn how their future clients address problems by taking classes with them at the business school, aspiring IP lawyers can learn about technology from engineers, environmental lawyers can learn how those who specialize in earth sciences think about policy, and so on.

To make this a reality, we modified our calendar to match that of the university and created nearly 30 new joint degree programs (almost all of which can be completed in three years). We added an array of new classes that put students from different disciplines together in teams and give them simulated or actual problems to solve. Nor does our program end in the classroom. It encompasses our research centers, academic journals, and student organizations. It includes even where students live, and we constructed a residential complex in which law students live, eat, work, and socialize with graduate students from other disciplines. The environment is one in which different ways of thinking about problems suffuse the students’ experience.

A third change involves greatly expanded clinical training. Having diversified what students learn in the classroom environment, we teach them how to deploy that knowledge in context—with actual clients, in the messiness of real life representation. Clinics offer more than the nuts and bolts of practice, what forms to file or how to fill them out. They teach students to be reflective lawyers: how to understand the nature of the choices they make as lawyers, and how to learn from their experience. And while many or most law schools now offer clinics, ours are unique in a number of ways, the most important being the idea of a clinical rotation—based on the medical school model—in which students work full time in the clinic during the term, with no competing courses or exams to distract from the focused training.

We also enriched the international and global aspects of our program and enhanced incentives and opportunities for public service and public interest work. We are presently developing new models for student research, designed to get beyond the traditional seminar paper by having students instead work on important public policy problems for government and other organizations. We made many other changes as well, too many to discuss in a short column. But it’s the cumulative effect of all these reforms that really matters. Taken together, they create a comprehensive whole that makes for a qualitatively different law school education and experience.


Larry Kramer, who announced Wednesday he is leaving Stanford to head the the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is currently the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and dean of Stanford Law School. He is also a professor (by courtesy) of history and a professor (by courtesy) of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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