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Redesigning the Law School Experience

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Taylor Tisdell, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

In a recent class, we were asked to think about our law school experience and any changes we would make if given the opportunity. Instead of asking us to approach the problem from an analytical angle, we practiced empathetic thinking and completed our first ever design sprint. For the design sprint, we were partnered with another law student and asked to design a better law school experience for them. We intently listened, taking in not only their words but also observing their body language and facial expressions. From these observations, we created a human-centered design prototype for our subjects. While every law student’s experience and proposed changes were unique, their answers carried an overarching theme: the law school experience could be better. This post focuses on the results of the design sprint and addresses ways that the law school experience could be improved throughout every stage of the journey.

Prospective Students

Increase Need-Based Scholarships. Lack of representativeness is a huge criticism of the legal profession, and it is apparent in both the people providing legal services as well as in those receiving the bulk of them. In order to increase the diversity in the legal practice and facilitate access to justice for underserved populations, law schools should offer more scholarships based on financial need instead of focusing solely on merit.

While it is great to reward students for their achievements, there is an argument to be made that getting in to a good law school is evidence enough of merit. Awarding need-based scholarships would enhance both the law school experience as well as the profession. Students would benefit from being introduced to different perspectives. The entire profession would benefit because this practice would create a more diverse workforce. Finally, need-based scholarships would increase access to justice as the students receiving need-based scholarships would be more likely to invest their time and legal knowledge in underserved communities.

Conduct Realistic Law School Visits. A large focus of law school tours is essentially selling the school. While it is nice to know about school social events and facility amenities, shifting the focus of some of the tour to the realities of law school would be helpful to incoming students. Many students, especially first-generation law students, are hit with surprises during their first year unintuitive to those who have no lawyers in their family. Foreshadowing certain expectations would help level the playing field for first-generation law students, which would increase their overall confidence and happiness.

Current Students

Increase the Opportunity to Gain Practical Experience in Law School. Most of the focus of law school curriculum is geared toward teaching students how to “think like a lawyer.” While this is no doubt an important skill, the way law schools currently teach is heavily focused on theory instead rather than practice. In order to better prepare students for careers, schools should either increase the availability of clinics and externships or offer more skill-oriented classes that require students to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios. Not only would this make the law school curriculum more applicable to students’ future careers, but this way of teaching may also resonate better with students who dislike the traditional Socratic teaching method.

Make the Third Year a Mandatory Apprenticeship. This suggestion goes hand-in-hand with making law school curriculum more applicable to real practice. As previously mentioned, law schools are great at teaching students to think like a lawyer but the current curriculum does not exactly translate to the actual practice of law. Since some schools may be unable to add additional clinics or skills courses due to budgetary limitations or lack of qualified faculty, all law schools should forgo the current classroom-oriented third year and replace it with a mandatory apprenticeship. This would ensure that students learn what they need to pass the bar while also preparing them for practice.

A mandatory apprenticeship would have many benefits. For example, it would likely provide students with clarity as to where and what they would eventually want to practice. It would also help students to foster connections through networking and increase their professional reputation and expertise. Further, it would ensure that students graduate with at least one year of experience, which nearly all legal positions outside the realm of summer employment require.

Although mandating an apprenticeship in leu of classroom teaching would cost law schools millions of dollars in tuition, it would ultimately make law school more affordable, i.e. attainable for less affluent students. Cutting the cost of law school by one-third may persuade students who were previously priced out of the market to attend law school, effectively diversifying the legal market and maybe even increasing underserved populations’ access to legal services.

Job-seeking/Graduating Students

Broaden the Career Timeline. This suggestion is likely more applicable to employers than schools, but if enough schools were on board, they could impact hiring practices. Law school is three years, yet many firms hire entry-level attorneys based off the first year alone. There are multiple reasons why this type of hiring practice is ridiculous. First, firms cannot predict the future (see the multiple rescinded offers following the great recession). Why would you want to hire a bunch of incoming associates at $180k when you don’t even know if you’ll need them? That just seems like a bad way to run a business. Next, what if someone is great their first year, but completely drops the ball later down the line? Since most firms offer permanent employment to the students in their summer classes this practice not only prevents students who do better their second and third year from some of the best opportunities but may prevent firms from hiring the best legal minds. The incentive to work hard comes from landing a great job, which may be diminished if obtained too early or if students think there is no point.

In conclusion, there are many things that law schools can change, and every law student’s answer on what should change will be different. It is important for all involved in the realm of legal education to work together if the goal of creating a practical and enjoyable law school experience is to be achieved.