Most innovative law schools

Chicago-Kent, Gonzaga and the University of Detroit Mercy are just a sampling of schools reinventing the law school model

By Karen Dybis

Staid. Boring. Predictable. These adjectives describe what some people think about law school.

Their opinions would change radically if they could see what a select group of legal institutions are doing these days.

These law schools are shunning tradition and trying new, extraordinary methods to help their students jet to the top of their profession.

At the request of preLaw magazine, the nation’s law school deans nominated the schools, faculty and programs they felt were among the most innovative. Whether it is upgraded student services, creative clinics or radical coursework, these educators are taking law school to the
next level.

“We want to train our students for the jobs of the 21st Century, the jobs that exist today,” said Mark Gordon, dean of the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law, one of the 10 law schools on preLaw’s list. “And the traditional model of legal education is not geared toward training students to be 21st Century lawyers as they could or should be.”

Plus, the people running these ground-breaking programs say they are just plain cool — an adjective they would prefer to have associated with legal education.

“I think when you’re having fun, it is the best way to learn,” said Mike Panter, a veteran trial lawyer and adjunct professor at DePaul University College of Law.

In no particular order, find out what cool things these law schools are doing — from innovative curricula to student services.

Seattle University School of Law

Self-reflection rarely receives the time it deserves during law school. But that is exactly what the educators at Seattle University School of Law want their students to do.

To that end, the law school is introducing a “professional formation portfolio,” said Vice Dean Annette Clark. The idea is to give students a framework to inform their choices of courses, volunteer activities, externships and other opportunities — and to assist faculty advisors in providing meaningful guidance.

The portfolio will outline the range of skills and proficiencies that represent the diverse experiences students will face as lawyers, such as writing, interviewing, negotiation and empirical reasoning. During their second and third years, as students pursue specific interests — such as immigration law or family law — they can also evaluate which courses or other activities will enable them to round out their portfolios.

“It’s a tremendous tool for students,” Clark said. “It makes our goals for our students transparent, and it highlights the notion of students being intentional about their own education.”

Having an outline of their law school achievements also will be a benefit when they are ready to apply for jobs, Clark said. Students will have a laundry list of sorts to show what they learned and how that improved their skills set, and, more importantly, affects their character as a
practicing attorney.

The portfolios also will show the law school areas for improvement, allowing the faculty to alter or update their curriculum, Clark said.

“We’re all about aspiration,” Clark said.

Syracuse University College of Law

If he had his way, Tomas Gonzalez would give each student at Syracuse University College of Law their own personal chef.

That is how important the Senior Assistant Dean for Student Life believes good health, exercise and nutrition is to the law-school experience.

So while he cannot hire Emeril Lagasse, Gonzalez offers students time with area chefs during what he has dubbed “Wellness Wednesdays.” Along with a quick lunch, the cooks show students how to prepare fast meals and set up menus that will give them the energy they need.

Gonzalez feels his job as head of student services is to make law school a more personable experience. He also makes sure the law school offers students leadership development, knowledge about diversity issues and information about disabilities — all things they are going to need when they begin to practice their profession.

His efforts begin even before students come on campus. His staff works with incoming 1Ls to help them define their learning style and adapt it to the rigors of law school. Gonzalez also personally meets with every student and introduces them to the office, its mentors and services.

“Our staff actively engages the students from the beginning to make sure they’re comfortable and find the support they need on and off campus,” said Gonzalez, who even brings in masseuses to help students relax during high-stress times.

“The traditional law establishment may question our holistic approach, but that’s an attitude rooted in the old style. That’s not what we’re about,” Gonzalez said.

Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center

Some law students go through three years of schooling barely stepping foot into a real courtroom. Not so at Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center.

Thanks to two entirely original programs, Touro students are immersed in the courtroom and public advocacy from the moment they arrive, said Dean
Lawrence Raful.

Its Public Advocacy Center is the first in the nation. Touro had some space within its new facility, so the law school decided to mix public interest legal service as well as pro bono legal assistance together.

Now in its second year, the Public Advocacy Center is 16 offices that house agencies in areas such as housing, immigration, domestic violence and civil rights. Each tenant receives a rent-free office in exchange for one thing: a promise to use Touro students in advocacy services, research work and client relations.

“Students are able to work at various hours for the agencies because it’s all in one building, and students who are working there are telling other students of the significant progress they are making,” Raful said.

Additionally, Touro has the benefit of being the only U.S. law school with two courthouses on campus. To take advantage of this situation, Touro launched its unique Court Observation Program and made it the cornerstone of its new curriculum.

“Our students … watch trials, meet judges and lawyers, go through various types of courts and watch trials from arraignment to the penalty phase,” Raful said. “Students see good lawyers and maybe less than competent lawyers, and there is education in that experience, too.”

University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law

Just call him Flash — UDM’s new dean Mark Gordon swung into action from the moment he arrived on campus. He has turned a sleepy little law school into one making headlines across the globe.

He’s doing it by creating unique learning and job opportunities for the law school’s students. For example, UDM is the only law school in the continental United States in which students can take up to one-third of their credits toward the JD degree in Spanish.

And while many law schools have environmental clinics, how many actually handle U.S. Department of Justice environmental enforcement actions? The clinic’s professor is a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, and the students have to undergo federal background checks before starting the clinic.

Then there is the much-lauded Law Firm program. Developed with lawyers from around the nation, the Program requires upper-level students to work on simulated complex transactions like large national firms handle. Each course is essentially a different department of the law firm, and the Program now has 15 different departments up and running.

“Students in the Law Firm Program that become summer associates tell us they cannot believe how far ahead they are,” Gordon said.

UDM also has gotten plenty of attention for its Mobile Law Offices – recreational vehicles that are firms on wheels. Recently, UDM sent students around the country to help veterans seeking federal disability benefits. So far, students and faculty have been to more than 35 cities in nine states, with many more to come.

Washington & Lee University School of Law

For those students who think the third year of law school is redundant, take a look at the new curriculum at Washington & Lee University School of Law.

These fresh 3L courses are pushing out of the classroom and into the real world. The new focus is experiential, explained Dean Rodney Smolla, giving students a blend of simulated and actual practice experiences. The courses are in a pilot program this year with hopes of including all of the law school’s students by 2010.

While the courses have the traditional names (Corporate Law or Bankruptcy), they will focus on fictitious clients, cases and files that students will need to work through as young attorneys, Smolla said. He said an advisory board of working lawyers and alumni helped construct the new curriculum based on what they are seeing in today’s law firms and courtrooms.

Students also will have a year-long Professionalism Program that examines what makes modern-day lawyers tick, touching on everything from the profession’s traditions to firm economics to leadership issues.

“The rationale is that most law students become good by the end of their second year at legal doctrine and theory. What they need is practice at problem solving, counseling clients, advocacy on behalf of clients and all of the other aspects of practicing that make it so stimulating,” Smolla said.

“The practice of law is not an essay or multiple-choice exam. The practice of law is dealing with people, businesses and organizations to solve problems,” he added. “We’re helping them to be lawyers and not just think like lawyers.”